In a Wary Arctic, Norway Starts to See Russian Spies Everywhere

TROMSØ, Norway — In hindsight, some things don’t make sense about Jose Giammaria.

First, the visiting researcher at the University of Tromsø, in the Arctic Circle of Norway, is ostensibly Brazilian. But he can’t speak Portuguese. Then there’s the fact that he’s already self-funded his visit, an oddity in academia, and even plans to extend it – but he’s never talked about the research. mine. But he always helps, even offering to redesign the homepage for the Center for Peace Studies, where he works.

That was until October 24, 2022, when Norway’s security police, PST, arrived with a warrant to search his office. A few days later, they announced his arrest as a Russian spy, named Mikhail Mikushin.

Marcela Douglas, head of the Center for Peace Studies, which studies security and conflict, said the revelation sent chills to the campus. “I started seeing spies everywhere.”

So is Norway and much of the rest of Europe.

As the war in Ukraine bogs down and Moscow’s isolation grows, European nations have become wary that a desperate Kremlin is taking advantage of their open societies to ramp up espionage efforts. sabotage and intrusion — perhaps to send a message or to probe how far it could go if needed in a broader conflict with the West.

Mr. Mikushin is one of three Russians recently arrested in Europe on suspicion of “illegal” — espionage infiltrating local society for long-term espionage or recruitment. In June, an intern at the International Criminal Court, also holding a Brazilian passport, was arrested in The Hague and charged with spying for Russia. In late November, a Swedish raid captured a Russian couple accused of espionage.

Other suspicious incidents have surfaced across Europe: In Germany, drones spotted flying over military sites where Ukrainian forces are being trained are strongly suspected by German officials by Russian intelligence. The cutting of the undersea cable in France, although not by malicious intent, has raised suspicion among security analysts. And an attack on fuel distribution networks in Belgium and Germany days before the Russian invasion also raised alarm bells.

Not all incidents can be reliably traced to the Kremlin, and in many places high vigilance and genuine concern have become difficult to separate from the growing paranoia. . Russia has called a recent series of arrests by Norway, most of them Russian nationals, for operating a drone, a form of “hysteria”.

However, Norway may have more reason to worry than most.

Now that Western sanctions have cut off Russia’s supply of fossil fuels to Europe, Norway is the continent’s largest supplier of oil and gas. Off its arctic coast there are underwater cables crucial for providing internet service to London’s financial center and for transmitting satellite images from the high north, where Norway borders Russia for a few days. 123 miles, across the Atlantic to the United States.

That important role has become even more vulnerable since September, when The explosion destroyed the Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany, for which Moscow and Washington have blamed each other.

“It was a wake-up call. The war is not only in Ukraine. Tom Røseth, a professor at the Norwegian National Defense University, says it can affect us too, even if it’s hard to pinpoint.

A number of conventional Russian spies have been rounded up and deported in recent years, which could make Russia more dependent on spies, especially as the war in Ukraine erupts.

The recent increase in cases reflects Russia’s need for its inactive spies, Mr. Roseth said.

“At this point in Europe, with the pressure of the situation that Moscow is in, they want their network to be on the move,” he said. “Although these activities have happened before, I think they are more risky now.”

In the case of Norway, insecurity began to grow after a military-grade drone was spotted in September over an oil rig in the North Sea. Soon, more drones were seen over oil and gas facilities and a power plant. In October, Bergen airport, located near the country’s largest naval base, was closed for two hours after drones were observed in the area.

The Norwegians are beginning to question other incidents that have occurred earlier in the year: An underwater cable broke in January, which transmits satellite imagery to Western space agencies. A damaged water reserve near several military sites, not far from Tromsø. What if this was not an accident or a troublemaker, but Russian sabotage?

“Such attacks can be useful – like monitoring oil rigs,” said Ole Johan Skogmo, a regional police inspector. PST is still investigating the damaged water reserves. “We don’t know exactly who did it. But now, they know that we know someone who can do it.”

Norwegian citizens have taken to seriously responding to warnings to be on the lookout, police are inundated with calls of drone sightings or foreigners allegedly acting suspiciously.

But now, some fear that heightened vigilance has gone too far, especially in murky terrain such as suspected espionage.

On a recent afternoon, on the pitch black night of the Arctic winter, Tromsø’s tiny district court was hearing two cases against Russian citizens accused of flying drones.

Neither of them have been charged with espionage, which is difficult to prove. Instead, they are accused of violating European sanctions that ban Russians from flying the aircraft, which Norway is now interpreting as including Russian individuals operating hobbyist drones.

Seven Russians were arrested in mid-October for operating a drone, and four have been put on trial. Two were convicted and sentenced to 90 or 120 days in prison.

Among those arrested was Andrey Yakunin, son of Vladimir Yakunin, a longtime ally of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, in a closely watched trial across the country.

The younger Yakunin, a businessman who lives in the United Kingdom and holds British citizenship, has stayed away from the Russian invasion.

He was arrested after his yacht, the Firebird, was stopped by Norwegian authorities, who asked him if he had a drone. He showed them a drone used to photograph him and his team skiing and fishing amid the icy landscapes of the Norwegian Arctic.

Prosecutors are pursuing a 120-day sentence.

“I am certainly not a spy — although I do own a complete collection of James Bond films,” Mr. Yakunin joked in an interview after his trial began on 3 May. twelfth.

Speaking to the Times, Mr Yakunin declined to comment on whether his arrest was political in nature, but argued that it was odd that he and three other men were all arrested for a while. short in October: “As a statistics student, this is not consistent with a normal distribution.

Across the hall, in a small courtroom away from the cameras, a gray-skinned man in jeans, Aleksey Reznichenko, a Russian engineer, tearfully defended his own case during a session court is much less serious. He was arrested after taking pictures of the fence and parking lot outside the control tower at Tromsø airport.

“It was a hunch,” said Ivar Helsing Schrøen, the air control manager, who became suspicious and called the police. “Something very strange.”

In court, Mr. Reznichenko broke down in tears as he told through a Russian interpreter that he feared for his family, for whom he was the sole breadwinner.

He was found with photographs of a military helicopter and the nearby Kirkenes airfield. He said that taking pictures of planes and airports has been a hobby for a long time. But in any case, no photo is illegal. Instead, Mr. Reznichenko was accused of flying a drone.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers both say that in prosecuting such cases, Norway has entered a legal gray area that challenges its democratic values.

The Mikushin case has sparked controversy among security analysts and academics over how to strictly monitor and restrict foreign researchers or international cooperation, which could have serious implications for the public. important studies.

In the drone lawsuits, Mr. Yakunin and several other defense lawyers have argued that punishing Russians based on nationality is discriminatory and potentially a violation of human rights.

“There is a question of whether this is a law — but if the wording of the law includes this, then the law is a problem,” said John Christian Elden, Yakunin’s lead attorney.

The country itself seems to be at odds over how to handle the situation. The judges in both Mr. Yakunin and Mr. Reznichenko’s cases have now decided to acquit them. But prosecutors are appealing both cases. Mr. Yakunin will return to Tromsø’s court in January.

“I haven’t come out of the woods yet,” he told journalists after his release.

Ola Larsen, Mr. Reznichenko’s lawyer, said the Norwegian PST had been unusually aggressive to make a point.

“Politics is playing a role,” she said. “They want to make a statement to the Russians.”

Norway’s Arctic security anxiety was high before the invasion of Ukraine. The northern border has friendly relations between locals, who trade with each other, but there have been several cases of suspected espionage, dating back to the Cold War.

Some cases of espionage have bordered on humor. In 2019, a beluga whale found by Norwegian fishermen in the Arctic waters was widely speculated to be a “spy whale” that escaped from the Russian military. Norwegian media called him “Hvaldimir” – a combination of the Norwegian word for whale and the name Vladimir.

However, people like Mr. Schrøen, the airport control manager, insist caution is always needed. Checking the news from his tower, just a few miles from the courthouse, he didn’t feel guilty about putting a person on trial.

The spies certainly care about the North Pole, he said: “You must be naive to think it’s different.”


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