UPDATED: Norway’s foreign ministry decided on Monday to expel a Russian diplomat who reportedly was an intelligence officer based at Russia’s Embassy in Oslo. The expulsion is mainly, however, a show of solidarity with the British government and part of an international reaction to Russia’s alleged use of nerve gas in Britain against one of its own former agents now living there in exile.
“On the basis of a broad evaluation that included reaction from allies and partners, we have decided to ask one diplomat at the Russian Embassy in Oslo to leave the country,” Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide wrote in a press release Monday evening.
Søreide added that the request had been sent to Russia’s ambassador in Oslo, after more than 100 Russian diplomats have been expelled worldwide as part of punitive action following the nerve gas attack.
Russia’s embassy responded Monday night by calling the expulsion request “absurd,” and threatened it would have “consequences for which Norway must be responsible.”
Other countries expelling Russian diplomats include the US, Ukraine and 15 member nations in the European Union. Great Britain itself, where the nerve gas attack took place, has expelled 23 Russian diplomats.
“It’s unacceptable to use chemical weapons,” Søreide told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), “and it must have consequences.”
Asked whether Norway had any proof that Russia was behind the nerve gas attack in Salisbury, England on its former agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter, Søreide claimed that Norway had received a “comprehensive account” of information and evidence. “Much of this is confidential information,” Søreide said, adding that the Norwegian government based its decision on Britain’s account of the attack in Salisbury earlier this month.
“We have taken into account that Russia has not answered questions that could clarify the situation,” Søreide said.
She wouldn’t reveal more details about the diplomat now expelled, or whether the diplomat has been a suspected intelligence officer for Russia.
Cutting into intelligence gathering operations
NRK later reported that the diplomat singled out for the expulsion was believed to be an intelligence officer. Between a third and half of all Russians officially in Norway as diplomats are actually believed to be working for the Russian intelligence service, according to NRK.
Frode Overland Andersen, spokesman for Norway’s foreign ministry, confirmed that the expulsions of Russian diplomats now taking place all over Europe are aimed at weakening Russia’s capacity to gather intelligence in Europe. He told NRK that had been “a central premise” in the expulsion, “both for us and our allies and partners.”
Jakub Godzimirski, a researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, said he doesn’t think Norway’s expulsion of just one diplomat will have much effect on bilateral relations between Norway and Russia. He noted that Norway has always been restrained in doing anything that could raise tensions between Norway and Russia.
Nor is Søreide concerned about whether the expulsion will make matters worse for the retired Norwegian border inspector Frode Berg who was arrested in Moscow in December on espionage charges.
“There is no reason to believe that this case will influence (Berg’s case), because this isn’t about bilateral relations between Norway and Russia, but a collective international response against chemical weapons in Europe,” Søreide told NRK.
Russia denies any involvement in nerve gas attack
Russian authorities have flatly denied having anything to do with the nerve gas attack on their former agent. They call the international expulsions of their diplomats a “provocation” that will make relations between Russia and other nations even worse than they are now. Russia’s foreign ministry claimed it would respond in kind to every country that has expelled its diplomats.
Søreide said Norway had “complete confidence” in the results of British investigations to which it had been made privvy, adding that they “clearly point towards Russian authorities.”
The US has expelled 60 Russian diplomats, Ukraine has expelled 13 and Canada, France, Germany and Poland have expelled four each. Sweden has, like Norway, also expelled one Russian diplomat, Denmark two while most other EU nations expelled in proportion to their population.