Residents of Norway’s far northern city of Kirkenes say it’s not unusual to find themselves as targets of recruiters for spying. Civilians who often travel over the nearby border to Russia seem to be most attractive to the recruiters.
The plight of fellow Kirkenes resident, Frode Berg, has suddenly highlighted the recruiting issue. Berg, a retired border inspector, remains jailed in Moscow after being arrested by Russian security police and charged with espionage. Berg has denied any spying, but recently admitted he probably was used as a courier for Norway’s intelligence agency Etterretningstjeneste.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Sunday that it had been in contact with several Norwegians living and working in Kirkenes who suggest Berg’s situation is not unique. Kirkenes is a city, they claim, where both Russian and Norwegian intelligence operatives are active.
They also tend to target civilians who travel often over the border at Storskog, just east of Kirkenes. Permanent residents of the area within 30 kilometers of the border are allowed to pass freely, for shopping or other business. NRK was told that the secretive Norwegian intelligence services are highly interested in establishing contact with those traveling frequently to Russia, mostly to serve as couriers of information or cash used to compensate spies on either side.
Some prospective recruits have told NRK that the Norwegian intelligence agents are known for being persistent. They commonly contact Norwegians with ordinary civilian jobs, avoiding those working for the military or police. The most attractive courier candidates work within private business or represent Norway in some capacity, with work that regularly takes them to Murmansk or other areas of Russia.
They thus have legitimate reasons to travel to Russian. One Norwegian told NRK that there’s probably not a single business person living in Eastern Finnmark who has not been contacted by officials from the intelligence agencies Etterretningstjeneste (E-tjenesten for short) or PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste).
None of those who have personally been targets of recruiters will go public with their identities, for fear of reaction among both Norwegian and Russian business associates. One called some of the recruiting efforts “amateurish,” because the one to which he was subjected occurred openly at a café in a Russian city.
Another told NRK that E-tjenesten tried to get him to help carry documents about Russia’s northern fleet out of Russian, not unlike the assignment linked to Frode Berg. The potential recruit expressed surprise, however, that Berg claims he wasn’t aware that he was part of at least a courier mission. “I personally reacted that he allegedly wasn’t aware of the consequences of such an assignment,” the potential recruit told NRK. “I wasn’t offered any risk analysis, but the person who came to me argued that ‘you need to do this for Norway as a nation.'”
Others say they’re regularly called in for “conversations” with PST. One man who’s active in the ongoing “people to people” cooperation that’s important in the border area says he doesn’t like the meetings with PST, because he fears Russian intelligence will find out about them and suspect him of being a spy. The man said he’d been asked to “keep track” of specific people during his trips to Russia, and report back to PST.
“I’ll go so far as to say that PST and E-tjenesten can damage the good cooperation we have with Russia in the Barents region,” he told NRK. “Those of us working on civilian cooperation with Russia totally rely on our Russian partners being able to rely on us.” He worries that revelations of Frode Berg’s ties to E-tjenesten have already damaged cooperation.
Local Mayor Rune Rafaelsen is also upset, telling newspaper Aftenposten that he criticized PST’s work methods in the region as early as eight- to nine years ago. That’s when he was leader of the Barents Secretariat, which serves as the Norwegian Foreign Ministry’s agency for civilian cooperation with Russia.
“I’d received two complaints from two Norwegians who had jobs in Murmansk,” Rafaelsen told Aftenposten. “They said PST had asked them to supply information on Norwegian-Russian relations.”
Another critic in Kirkenes said he could understand that Norway needs to gather intelligence of its own, “but then they need to take responsibility for those they’re recruiting. I faced the risk of losing my visa to Russia if I cooperated with Norwegian intelligence. Who would be responsible for subsequent losses on investments in Russia?”
Frode Berg, so frustrated that he has openly cried in court in Moscow, clearly feels that E-tjenesten is now leaving him out in the cold as he risks spending the next 20 years in a Russian prison. No Norwegian government officials have been willing to comment on his case or assume responsibility.
A spokesman for PST, Martin Bernsen, told NRK that the very nature of the agency demands that “we be allowed to talk with people.” He stressed that PST’s job is to prevent “illegal espionage in Norway, and make sure that the country has the most updated threat evaluation within our area of responsibility.” In order to do that, “we need to talk with people who can hold various positions and roles. That’s how we gather information. That’s what we’ve always done, it’s what we do today and it’s what we’ll continue to do.”
He declined comment on specific cases, but claimed that PST does not believe it puts the people PST officials speak with in any difficult situation.
Lars Rowe, a researcher specializing in Russian affairs who works for the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, said it should come as no surprise that Norway gathers intelligence just like other countries do. He’s not in favour of the alleged attempts to recruit people, though, who are not trained in intelligence gathering or in tackling difficult situations. Then the intelligence agencies are asking them to carry out assignments they should do themselves.
“It’s one thing to collect information from people who work in interesting areas,” Rowe told NRK. “But if these people are asked to carry out assignments, like courier tasks and carry documents or money over the border, that’s highly questionable, and unfortunate in my eyes.” No one is now more likely to agree than Frode Berg.