Retired Norwegian border inspector Frode Berg was finally getting his day in a Moscow court on Tuesday, while claims of a major military intelligence scandal that landed him there were flying back home. The Norwegian government’s deafening silence over the arrest and espionage charges against Berg has sparked suspicion and criticism, while speculation swirled that back-room diplomatic deal-making may lead to his release.
The 63-year-old Berg has already been languishing in one of Russia’s highest-security prisons for the past 16 months, and admitted himself that he feared he’d been duped into being a courier for Norway’s military intelligence agency known as E-tjenesten. Few believe the long-time resident of Kirkenes near Norway’s northern is a “real spy,” not least his Russian defense attorney Ilja Novikov.
“Frode seemed so confused right after his arrest, and he admitted to a whole bunch of details during the first rounds of questioning,” Novikov told Norwegian author and journalist Trine Hamran, who has written a book entitled En god nordmann (A Good Norwegian) about Berg’s odyssey so far. “No one trained to be a spy would have done that.” He’s accused of being a courier for Norwegian military intelligence, in an operation aimed at gathering information about Russian military positions and operations in the Arctic.
Novikov, one of Russia’s leading defense attorneys, is convinced that Berg never went through any form of training after a local man in the Kirkenes area asked him to carry some cash and documents into and out of Moscow. “He was sent unprepared to Russia, uninformed and unprepared, and that’s a shame.”
Several other Norwegian commentators have concluded the same. Harald Stanghelle, former editor of newspaper Aftenposten, wrote last fall that the arrest of Frode Berg can well be “the result of a scandal that the military’s E-tjenesten has signed.” John Arne Markussen wrote in newspaper Dagbladet last spring, not long after Berg broke down in tears during one of his many custody hearings in a Moscow courtroom, that “the Frode Berg case is an amateurish Norwegian intelligence operation in which everything went wrong.” Others believe Berg has been “cast to the wolves.”
That in turn has led to fears among residents of Kirkenes that their neighbouring Russians may lose confidence in them, while Norwegians may lose confidence in Norway’s own intelligence service. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported recently that if Norway’s intelligence agency really did recruit Berg, who was active in local efforts to retain good ties to Russians over the border, it could damage the so-called “people to people” cooperation that’s existed in the Norwegian-Russian border region for many years.
‘Risky, sloppy, cynical…’
Øystein Bogen, a journalist for Norway’s national commercial television channel TV2, has also written a book about the case entitled En uvanlig spion (An unusual spy), in which he likens the alleged plan to send “a Norwegian pensionist into an enemy country with no diplomatic cover” to a joke from the Cold War.
“It was risky, almost sloppy and cynical, bordering on desperate,” Bogen wrote. He stressed that the actual situation may well have been more nuanced, but Norwegian officials’ silence ever since has meant that the best available information about Berg’s predicament comes only from Berg himself, his lawyers and Russia’s police intelligence agency FSB.
“All this makes it all but unavoidable to reach the conclusion that Norway’s E-tjenesten, and Norway itself, have made a huge blunder,” Bogen wrote.
Officials at E-tjenesten have refused all comment since Berg was seized in Moscow in early December 2017, either on his arrest and custody or on all the criticism directed at the intelligence agency. “This is a consular case,” spokeswoman Ann-Kristin Bjergene told news bureau NTB, the same response given to other media outlets clamouring for information as a fellow Norwegian remains stuck in difficult conditions in the Moscow prison that also houses some of Russia’s most hard-core criminals and terrorists. “We have to refer to the Foreign Ministry.”
Prime Minister Erna Solberg and all other government ministries have also referred to the foreign ministry, which hasn’t answered questions either, beyond saying that Berg is receiving some regular assistance from the consular section of Norway’s embassy in Moscow.
Kristin Enstad, acting communications chief at UD, also told NTB that someone from the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow would be present in the courtroom as an “observer” when Berg’s trial begins this week, if granted permission by the court. That wasn’t clear, especially since Berg’s trial is being held behind closed doors because of the classified information that’s likely to be presented. No reporters are allowed to cover the trial, and it’s all very hush-hush.
Asked what Norway is doing to get Berg home when a verdict is reached, Enstad replied: “We don’t want to speculate on the outcome of the case.”
Prisoner exchange possible
Most commentators and journalists following the case, including his lawyers, expect the trial to last for a few weeks and that Berg will be convicted. Then there’s a chance that diplomatic deal-making could lead to a prisoner exchange. Since Norway has no convicted Russian spies in custody, however, that would likely have to involve a third country willing to turn over one of its convicted spies in order for Norway to bring Berg home. That would make Norway beholden to the third country, but it would likely be a NATO ally. Aftenposten reported this week on likely spy-swap candidates, including a father and son convicted of spying on Estonia for Russia, a Russian woman charged in the US, and convicted Russian spies jailed in Ukraine and Georgia.
There’s also a chance the Russian court would allow Berg to serve his sentence in a Norwegian prison. Berg’s family and supporters back home hope Prime Minister Solberg will take up his case when she’s likely to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin while attending a Russian-Arctic conference in St Petersburg next week. So far she’s stayed as mum as her government and military colleagues.
“I won’t talk about what issues we take up with Russia before we have a meeting,” Solberg told NTB last week. “That’s a general principle we have.”
Deal-making ‘highly probable’
Brynulf Risnes, Berg’s Norwegian defense attorney, is convinced that high-level deal-making has been underway between the Russians holding Berg and Norwegian officials who’ve been caught in what’s clearly an embarrassing situation. Risnes thinks that’s another reason for Norway’s official silence on Berg’s case.
“I think they have good reasons for behaving as they do,” Risnes told NTB and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) just before Berg’s trial began. “They (Norwegian officials) have been viewed, also by us, as being very careful.”
He added that he thinks it’s “highly probable that something is going on in the back rooms, and I have full understanding for them not wanting it to go public.”
As his trial got underway in Moscow Tuesday, Risnes told NRK that Berg admits to some of the charges against him, and that he did indeed carry money in an envelope into Russia on what he claimed was a holiday trip in December 2017. He firmly denies, Risnes said, that he was aware of any espionage behind it. Berg is the first Norwegian in modern times to be arrested and charged with spying in Russia. The Moscow city court ordered he be held in custody for another six months pending the outcome of his trial.