Russian officials reacted angrily once again on Thursday after a court in Oslo agreed to hold a Russian man charged with spying in custody for at least two more weeks. A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman called the charges “pure extortion” aimed at freeing a Norwegian held for spying in Moscow.
“We demand that all false charges against (Russian defendant Mikhail) Botsjkarjov be dropped and that he be released as quickly as possible,” Maria Zakharova of the Russian foreign ministry said at a press conference in Moscow on Thursday.
According to Russian news bureau Tass, Botsjkarjov was arrested and jailed in Oslo on a false basis, so that Norwegian authorities could “pressure Russia to exchange him and (Norwegian) Frode Berg, who was caught in the act and is under investigation.”
Berg, a former border inspector from Kirkenes in Northern Norway, was arrested in Moscow last December and has been held in a Moscow prison ever since. He’s charged with espionage and has testified that he fears he was duped into being a courier for Norwegian intelligence officers.
Botsjkarjov, a 51-year-old security expert at the Russian Parliament, was arrested at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen last month as he was leaving Norway after attending an EU-sponsored seminar on digitalization at the Norwegian Parliament. Officials at the Parliament in Oslo have said they called police after Botsjkarjov allegedly “behaved strangely” and raised suspicions that he may be installing some kind of surveillance equipment in the building.
Botsjkarjov himself denies any spying attempts, and has claimed his arrest is based on a “misunderstanding.” He immediately appealed his latest custody order handed down on Thursday and faced reporters in Oslo for the first time. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that he was asked whether he views his arrest as any act of revenge by Norwegian authorities in response to the Russians’ arrest and incarceration of Berg.
“I have little information regarding that theme and can’t comment on it,” he said through a Russian interpreter. He claimed he behaved at the Norwegian seminar just as he has at other parliamentary seminars: “As I see it, I didn’t do anything that was suspicious.” He said he had no right to talk about what he has told Norwegian police. As far as any exchange with Berg, Botsjkarjov responded, according to NRK, that “theoretically, anything is possible.”
Zakharova of the Russian foreign ministry said the Russian diplomats in Oslo “have been in contact with Botsjkarjov. Both they and lawyers for Botsjkarjov are giving him all possible assistance so that he can protect his rights and interests.”
The spy drama comes at a time when tensions between Norway and Russia are already high. Russia has protested economic sanctions for years, since they were imposed in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. Russian officials are also unhappy about both US military presence in Norway and the large NATO exercise getting underway in Norway. NRK recently reported that the US Marines now want to stay in Norway for another five years.