Frode Berg, the Norwegian charged with espionage in Russia, was ordered held in a Moscow jail for another two months on Friday. His wife back home in Kirkenes, meanwhile, claims Berg has been “cast to the wolves” by Norwegian officials who allegedly recruited him as a courier, only to refuse to acknowledge any connection to him or help his family when things went wrong.
They went very wrong indeed. Next week marks one year since Berg, a retired border inspector, was arrested outside his hotel while on a weekend trip to Moscow. Berg, who worked for years to build good relations between Norwegians and Russians in his hometown near Norway’s border crossing to Russia, initially said he’d only been in Moscow for a pre-Christmas holiday visit.
As the shock of his arrest wore off and reality of life in a tough and overcrowded Russian jail set it, Berg admitted he’d been asked to travel to Russia on several occasions, and send cash and various packets to people from mailboxes within Russia. He has cried in court, with TV cameras rolling, claiming he’d been “misused” and duped into spying for Norway. He’s been shown wearing what appears to be the same blue shirt in every public appearance that the Russian authorities have allowed, while friends and family in Kirkenes have rallied to bring him home and an artist mounted a protest exhibit in support of Frode Berg right outside the office of Norway’s foreign ministry in Oslo.
No contact from the intelligence service
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) recently aired a short documentary on Frode Berg’s case and past year in prison. NRK’s Moscow correspondent Morten Jentoft, now back in Norway, also interviewed Berg’s wife Anita, who believes he’s been “cast to the wolves” by his alleged handlers at Norway’s military intelligence service known as E-tjenesten. Asked whether she had heard from anyone at E-tjenesten, she only laughed and uttered an emphatic “no!”
Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Friday that Berg has now been moved to a nicer cell at the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, and he was allowed another telephone call to family, reportedly his first since last April. He didn’t make it home for Christmas last year and it doesn’t look like he’ll be allowed home this year either. His trial is expected to come up in late January or early February.
Now the case is raising serious questions about Norway’s espionage activity, and how and why Berg could have been placed in such a dangerous, even heartbreaking, situation. NRK aired a segment in its documentary showing how Berg identified an E-tjenesten officer as the person who sent him on the assignment to Moscow. NRK’s attempts to contact the officer have been firmly rejected by defense department officials in Oslo.
Strategy of silence
Commentator Harald Stanghelle wrote in Aftenposten earlier this week, though, that there’s “no doubt” that Norway sends spies of its own “deep into Russia,” or that it helps its allies do the same. Even the Labour Party mayor of the Berg’s home region of Sør-Varanger acknowledged to NRK that espionage is a “legitimate” activity that most countries at least dabble in. All nations are keen to learn military secrets about each other, and do what it takes to learn all they can.
Instead of flat out denying Berg’s claims that he was duped into spying, though, Norwegian officials have remained resolutely silent. Prime Minister Erna Solberg has referred all questions to the foreign ministry, where officials including Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, respond only with statements that Frode Berg is receiving consular assistance from the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow like any other Norwegian would if he or she gets in trouble abroad.
The official Norwegian silence regarding the spying charges against Frode Berg means that “they at least avoid lying,” Stanghelle noted. Spying, moreover, isn’t something anyone talks about. What’s remarkable about the Frode Berg case is that his spying has been revealed. He was caught red-handed, either because he hadn’t been well-enough trained by the mysterious officer at E-tjenesten, because his mission was flawed or because of what Stanghelle calls “the most terrible question of all: Do the Russians have a source within Norwegian intelligence who revealed this otherwise secret operation?
Stanghelle suggests the arrest of Frode Berg is the result of nothing less than a “scandal” within E-tjenesten. Berg has emerged over the past several months as a reluctant courier who was uncomfortable with his assignments. He’d apparently been led to believe it was his civic duty to do what he was asked to do, only to get caught while his handlers evaporate and leave him to suffer all consequences.
The most important questions now, writes Stanghelle, involve what’s happening within E-tjenestens offices at Lutvann on Oslo’s east side. Do those responsible for this “scandalous operation” still hold positions of trust? Has Berg’s arrest had any consequences for anyone else working at E-tjenesten? Was this a pure Norwegian operation, or was Norway assisting allies like the US or Britain? What information has been passed on to Prime Minister Solberg and her government’s security staff?
“We may not get answers for decades, when the Berg case will only be of historic interest,” Stanghelle wrote. Norway’s Parliament has no intelligence committee that’s able to review secret operations to see where things went wrong, only a commission (the EOS-utvalg) that can monitor later whether Norwegian laws and regulations were followed.
Setback for spy recruiters
E-tjenesten itself probably has many questions of its own, as to whether Berg gave himself away, whether Berg’s contacts in Russia revealed the operation or whether Russian intelligence operations were just more clever than Norway’s and uncovered his activity. And then there’s the possibility of a Russian mole or double-agent inside the Norwegian service.
Meanwhile Berg has only his occasional visitor from the embassy in Moscow and his Russian defense attorney Ilja Novokov, who has indicated that the case against Berg is serious. E-tjenesten is likely regretting its alleged decision to send Berg to Moscow in early December 2017, alone, without any form of support and in “enemy” territory.
At least one lesson has likely been learned by Norwegians in Kirkenes and elsewhere in Northern Norway, which has been viewed as popular recruiting grounds by the intelligence agencies: Turn down any offers of trips to Russia, and ignore claims that any type of courier activity is their civic duty.