The Norwegian defense department’s brand new surveillance vessel, dubbed in local media as the country’s “spy ship,” is taking over intelligence-gathering duties this year at a time of renewed tensions with Russia. Some experts on Russian relations warn the ship may provoke Russian officials, just when cooperation is needed on a wide range of issues including refugee returns, but most agree it’s needed to gain more information on Russia’s military build-up in the far north.
It was just last week that Norway’s new defense chief claimed that Russia poses a “considerable risk’ regarding long-term security in the Arctic. Both Russia and China have come to be viewed as being most active among countries spying on Norway, but now Norway, backed by the US and other NATO allies, has better equipped itself to spy on Russia as well.
The latest version of Norway’s surveillance vessel called Marjata has been called a “milestone” for the military intelligence agency E-tjenesten’s surveillance at sea. It’s also been called a “Norwegian-American cooperation project,” with US military intelligence officials closely involved in its outfitting of equipment for surveillance of submarines, other vessels and flights at the US Naval Weapons Station Yorktown – Cheatham Annex in Virginia. The US connection to the vessel has made the Russians “pay special attention” to the project, contends Professor Pavel K Baev at the Oslo peace research institute PRIO.
“I think perhaps the Russian side is quite upset, since Russian military activity in the (Arctic) area is rising every year,” Baev told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “They would certainly prefer that their military activity is kept hidden. Russia also wants control to conduct its propaganda.”
Risk of jeopardizing refugee returns
Baev thinks Norway needs to tolerate any extra tensions tied to its new “spy ship,” though, since the need for monitoring Russian military movements is high. Norwegian politicians who approved funding for and construction of the vessel also must take the heat, even when they need Russian cooperation in following through on an agreement to return hundreds of asylum seekers who crossed the northern border between the two countries into Norway last year. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported on Monday that of the 200 to 300 that Russia agreed to take back after negotiations with the Norwegians, only eight asylum seekers have actually been sent to either Moscow of St Petersburg.
Russia’s decision to allow an estimated 5,500 asylum seekers to head for the otherwise restricted area around the border area, and cross into Norway, added to tensions last year that already were high because of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. After months of chaos, restrictions were finally reestablished round the border and then followed negotiations over Norway’s demand that those already holding residence permission in Russia be sent back. Russia only agreed to take back the 200-300 and now even those returns are proceeding slowly.
“We have ongoing contact with the Russian authorities,” Hanne Iversen, state secretary for the justice ministry, told Dagsavisen. “We must carry out the processing of these cases in a thorough manner. Of course we’d like quicker returns, but we have ongoing contact with the Russian authorities to ensure a common understanding.”
The launch of Norway’s new surveillance vessel is primarily aimed at monitoring the Russian military, including the testing of intercontinental missiles. Baev, who specializes in Russian issues, said the timing of the launch of the new Marjata is therefore perfect, if provocative.
“Given the current levels of potential danger and threats against Norway, along with the general rising tension between the East and NATO, it’s of critical interest to have better knowledge of what’s happening on the other side,” Baev told NRK.
Tor Bukkvoll of the Norwegian defense establishment’s own research institute (Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt) said he expected official protests over the new surveillance vessel from the Russians, but doesn’t think it will prompt any changes in Norway’s and NATO’s own surveillance activity.
“It’s clear that Russia is worried about NATO’s presence in areas not far from its own bases on the Kola peninsula,” Bukkvoll told NRK. “But at the same time, they’ve been used to that for a long time.”