Prime Minister Erna Solberg admits the diplomatic situation has worsened after Norway and several other countries expelled Russian diplomats this week. Solberg, who didn’t take off on Easter holiday like many of her fellow Norwegians, indicated Norway had no choice following Russia’s alleged use of nerve gas against one of its former agents who was living in Great Britain.
“That was really a serious attack, like something out of a crime or spy novel,” Solberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) while attending an international forum of the Oganisation for Economic Coopertion and Development (OECD) in Paris. Britain believes the Russian government was behind the attack, a charge Russian officials deny. For Norway, it was most important to back Britain.
Norway, NATO and around 20 countries responded to the attack on Monday by expelling Russian diplomats. Solberg’s foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide announced the expulsion on Monday of a diplomat stationed at the Russian Embassy in Oslo, who’s also believed to have been an intelligence officer.
Norway making its standpoint clear
Solberg said Norway had received “good enough documentation” from British allies about where the attack originated. She said she still wants dialogue with Russian officials, “but we had to be clear about where we stand. We are in solidarity with Great Britain, while still bilaterally working with Russian authorities.”
Concerns remain, she conceded. “It (the nerve gas attack and diplomatic expulsions) freezes the situation very much between Russia, NATO and western countries but I hope that we don’t go back to a Cold War,” added Solberg . “We’re not there yet.”
Others aren’t so sure, as relations chill with Russia. Julie Wilhelmsen, a senior researcher at the Oslo-based foreign policy institute NUPI, told NRK that the mass expulsion of diplomats is the latest in a series of events that have made relations between Russia and western nations increasingly difficult.
“We see steadily more cases that are pulling down the relation between Russia and the West,” Wilhelmsen said. “These are individual issues that have great consequences.”
She added that there’s been little contact between Russian and western leaders since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, “and now we’re in a state of conflict, where diplomacy should play an important role.”
In that sense, the expulsions of diplomats (to which Russia is responding in kind) come at a bad time. “We’re seeing mechanisms that we also saw during the start of the (last) Cold War,” Wilhelmsen said. “There’s a fundamental lack of confidence that leaves anything that happens being interpreted as negative by the other side.”
Another Norwegian expert on Russian relations, Iver Neumann, suggests Russia may just be craving attention and using the emerging conflicts and its aggressiveness to position itself. “The Russians view the Cold War nostalgically, as a time when they were one of the two most powerful countries in the world,” Neumann said. “Now Russia is smaller (than the Soviet Union was) and weaker, and has had problems demanding attention.”
Solberg, meanwhile, said Norway needs to be prepared for conflicts and even more cyber attacks. She still favours “good diplomatic dialogue with Russia” despite the diplomatic expulsions, and hopes Norwegian authorities can continue to speak with their Russian counterparts regarding a solution for Frode Berg, a retired Norwegian border inspector who was arrested in Moscow in December on espionage charges. He has been held in a high-security Russian prison ever since.
Berg’s lawyers and family are worried that Norway’s expulsion of the Russian diplomat can worsen his situation. Solberg hopes that won’t happen, “but we can’t change Norweigan policy of solidarity with allies who’ve been attacked.”