A longtime politician for Norway’s Liberal Party (Venstre) has gone public with his experiences as a double agent, spying for both the former Soviet Union and Norway during the Cold War with the full knowledge and support of Norwegian officials. Knut Ringstad went on to work in diplomacy and humanitarian work, and now offers aid to countries in eastern Europe through the business development agency Innovation Norway.
In 1970, though, Ringstad was among the leaders of the Liberal Party’s youth group, Unge Venstre, when he was first approached by Soviet diplomats based in Oslo. He told newspaper Aftenposten this week that the Soviets treated him to lunches and dinners and invited him to receptions at what’s now the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Oslo, ostensibly to form ties with young Norwegian political leaders.
Among the Soviet “diplomats,” though, were KGB officers charged with recruiting spies, including one man named Vitali Erofeev. “Many of us were naive back then,” Ringstad told Aftenposten on Tuesday, just as another former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, was announcing Russia’s highly disputed annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Ringstad soon realized he was of interest to the KGB because of his ties to Johan Kleppe, his party’s defense minister at the time. Kleppe would later become politically responsible when military forces hunted for a Soviet submarine in the Sognefjord in 1972, with the international media in tow.
Wined and dined
Ringstad told Aftenposten how he was invited by the Soviet diplomats to fine restaurants at a time when that was by no means common in Oslo, since the country’s oil wealth hadn’t yet started trickling into the hands of the people. Finally, on a memorable autumn day in 1972, Ringstad said that Erofeev asked him for a favour: “‘Knut, you must help me…'” Ringstad recalled, and the “help” needed was a list of American citizens living in Oslo.
Ringstad, thinking that was an unusual request, told Aftenposten that he then went straight to a party colleague, Helge Seip, who was chairman of the parliament’s foreign relations committee, who in turn referred him to Norway’s police unit in charge of intelligence (Overvåkingspolitiet). And that’s when he effectively became a double agent.
“I gave them all my notes of all my contacts with the Russian diplomats,” Ringstad recalled. “I was asked to continue meeting the Russians.” The Norwegian police even supplied him with documents he could pass on to the Russians, to keep them happy. “One time Erofeev followed me into the men’s room at Jeppes Kro (a local pub in Oslo),” Ringstad said. “I got an envelope with 500 kroner. He got an envelope with documents.”
Soviet contact expelled
The exchanges continued for about a year, also after Ringstad was allegedly “checked out” by the KGB’s chief for Nordic operations after a meeting at a peace conference in Brussels. Ringstad said he experienced some “uncomfortable” moments, such as when other political colleagues hinted there were rumours of his involvement with both the Soviets and the Norwegian police, but mostly he found his double-agent work rather exciting. One day, Erofeev failed to turn up at an agreed meeting, which by that point involved highly complicated means of transport and odd locations, to throw off anyone trailing either of them.
Ringstad, now age 63, learned later that Erofeev had been expelled from Norway on charges of spying, while Kleppe, the defense minister, told Ringstad he’d done “a good job.” Ringstad later became a trade attaché at three different Norwegian embassies, worked for Redd Barna (Save the Children) and currently works for Innovation Norway in a position funded by the foreign ministry that involves development aid to 12 new EU members as part of Norway’s financial obligations that ensure access to EU markets.
Ringstad’s experience as a double agent more than 40 years ago emerged in newly released court records from the trial of Arne Treholt, another Norwegian who was convicted of spying, jailed but later pardoned. “I felt I was doing something useful for the country,” Ringstad said, adding that he didn’t think communism was a good system. “Folks there just wanted to live like us, but they had these fools at the top of their system.” They have since been replaced Putin’s government, which this week set off an international uproar over its takeover of territory that’s been part of Ukraine for decades.