A stand-off over alleged spying on each other continued between Russia and Norway this week. A court in Moscow ordered a former Norwegian border inspector charged with espionage to be held for at least two more months, just days after a Norwegian court ordered that a Russian charged with spying in Oslo be kept in custody as well.
Speculation keeps rising, meanwhile, about the prospects for an eventual spy exchange, but now it’s not likely to occur until Christmas at the earliest. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Tuesday that Russia had no precendence to exchange anyone held on spying charges until a verdict is reached.
“It seems the (Russian security service) FSB has taken a break in its investigation now,” Ilja Novikov, defense attorney for Norwegian Frode Berg, told Aftenposten on Monday. “They’re summing up where the case lies. My impression is that the earliest there can be a trial is in December, and it can take longer than that.”
Novikov claimed that Berg, meanwhile, is being subjected to “psychological torture” at the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, where he’s been held mostly in isolation since his arrest in Moscow last December. He has since admitted that he’d agreed to being a courier for Norwegian intelligence agents.
Berg’s attorney said that Berg had heard about the arrest last month of a Russian man in Oslo who’s been charged with espionage as well. “Berge thinks this is positive for his case,” Novikov told Aftenposten. “Until now Berg has been in a completely empty room where nothing happens. Now something is happening.”
Potentially valuable seizures
The arrest of 51-year-old Mikhail Botsjkarjov after he’d attended a seminar at the Norwegian Parliament in Oslo also involved the seizure of electronic equipment that one data expert claims can be “worth their weight in gold” for Norway and its allies. Aftenposten reported that court documents tied to Botsjkarjov’s custody reveal that he allegedly “gathered information from other data networks and/or other wireless signals.” Examination of Botsjkarjov’s equipment can in turn reveal more about Russia’s capacity and methods used for gathering information.
“It can say something about what types of programming language and services they (the Russian) choose to use,” Mahmoud Farahmand, a former Norwegian intelligence officer who now works as a security expert for consulting firm BDO, told Aftenposten.
Farahmand thinks Norway’s own police intelligence agency PST, which arrested Botsjkarjov at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen as he was leaving Norway after the seminar, can have a good case. He noted that PST doesn’t normally make such open arrests of suspects: “Counterespionage is laborious work, everything has to be charged and proven. Given the political situation with Russia, it’s improbable that PST doesn’t have a good case.”
Botsjkarjov, a senior adviser in the department for information technology at the Russian Parliament (Duma), has been described as person belonging to the higher levels of Russia’s power structure. Aftenposten reported that his father-in-law is a former deputy ministry of industry and his brother-in-law has held various director titles at Russian state space agency. He and his family own several apartments in Moscow.
His Norwegian defense attorney has said his arrest is based on a “misunderstanding.” Russian officials have called the arrest “absurd,” have demanded Botsjkarjov’s release and likened his arrest to “a kidnapping.”