Norwegian spy heads into the cold

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UPDATED: Frode Berg, the former Norwegian border inspector in Kirkenes who ended up being convicted of spying for Norway in Russia, was pardoned as expected on Friday. It remains unclear what kind of reception he’ll get back home in Norway, as he heads into a new winter after two years in a Moscow jail.

Frode Berg, the retired border inspector jailed for spying in Russia, was released in a spy swap on Friday. This photo of him adorned an artistic demonstration against his jailing in Moscow that was set up outside Norway’s foreign ministry last winter. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Emotions are likely to range from relief to sympathy to feelings of betrayal, both among the locals in his hometown of Kirkenes and his likely embarrassed former minders at Norway’s military intelligence agency E-tjenesten. “I think he’ll come home to both warmth and coldness,” one of his acquaintances in Kirkenes told newspaper Dagsavisen last weekend.

Berg, sentenced to 14 years in a Russian jail just last spring, was formally pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. His release from prison in Moscow came after a complicated spy exchange was worked out among Norway, Russia and Lithuania, with the latter agreeing to pardon two Russian prisoners in exchange for two Lithuanians convicted of spying in Russia plus Frode Berg. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg had consistently refused to comment on Berg’s case but was in Lithuania just last week, a trip that several Norwegian commentators viewed as no coincidence since reports of the pending spy exchange had circulated for weeks.

At a press conference in Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius on Friday, reporters were told that Berg and the two Lithuanians were initially brought to Vilnius, where Berg was turned over to Norwegian officials at 11am local time and taken to the Norwegian Embassy. Norway’s foreign ministry confirmed that Berg, who was brought over Russia’s border to Lithuania at Kaliningrad, would be sent on to Norway “and reunited with his family.”

Solberg also issued a statement on Friday: “We are glad that Frode Berg will now come home to Norway as a free man.” She thanked Lithuanian authorities for their “cooperation and the contributions they have made to get Berg freed.” Details of Norway’s deal with Lithuania, or what Norway may have promised Lithuania in exchange for its assistance in freeing Berg, were not revealed.

At a press conference Friday evening she said she had spoken with Berg, who remained in Vilnius, and that “he must be allowed to own his own story.” In response to widespread opinion in Norway that E-tjenesten botched its recruitment of Berg, Solberg said that neither she nor E-tjenesten would confirm or deny that Berg actually was working for E-tjenesten, but that they had all “learned from the experience.

News bureau NTB reported that Berg’s wife and daughter, Anita and Christina Berg, were in Oslo on Friday but they declined detailed comment.  Since they live in Kirkenes, it was expected that Berg would initially be arriving in Oslo as well. “We’re beyond happiness,” Christina Berg told newspaper VG.

Mixed feelings in Kirkenes
When Berg eventually gets back to Kirkenes, family and old friends who claimed that Berg had “been thrown to the wolves” are likely to embrace him. Others who actively demanded his release just after his arrest in December 2017, however, may well have mixed feelings now. Berg had worked for years to champion good cross-border relations and friendly ties between Norwegians and Russians, only to allow himself to be recruited as a spy against Russia. Other proponents of maintaining good cross-border relations now have reason to question Berg’s sincerity, and be frustrated over the damage his spying may have done to their own efforts to remain friendly with their Russian neighbours.

Kirkenes Mayor Rune Rafaelsen told NRK that he knows how important it was for Berg’s family to get him freed. “I’m impressed over the work the government has done (to get him released),” Rafaelsen said. “It’s been a long time to sit in prison, but it’s also been a complicated case.” He insisted that local cooperation with Russia is as good as it always has been: “The daily dealings with Russia have not been affected by this case.”

There’s a lingering discomfort, however, over how active Norway’s E-tjenesten can be in recruiting Norwegians for spying service, and just how wrong things can go. Newspaper Aftenposten recently published an extensive report about how both E-tjenesten and Berg ended up being caught in a classic spy trap set up by the Russians. E-tjenesten has been branded as “incredibly amateurish” by a former intelligence chief, Ola Kaldager. He told Dagsavisen that he has no doubt that Russia’s entrapment of Berg and E-tjenesten’s entire bungled operation “has shaken the organization.”

‘Joy’ but perhaps irritation in Oslo
Morten Haga Lunde, the Army general who heads E-tjeneste, commented for the first time on the imprisonment of Frode Berg, telling state broadcaster NRK on Friday that he was “extremely glad” that Frode Berg and his family could now be reunited. NRK also reported, however, that it’s been told E-tjenesten won’t confirm of deny Frode Berg’s role as a spy.

While the Norwegian spy chief’s lips otherwise remain sealed, and have been since the day Berg was arrested as a courier carrying lots of cash in Moscow, the intelligence service also has reason to be irritated. Berg cried in court, admitted to his contributions to espionage in Russia, and complained openly that he believed he was tricked into spying for his Norwegian recruiters. As commentator Lars West Johnsen, political editor for Dagsavisen, put it, Berg’s reaction to his arrest and imprisonment was “understandable, but in principle disloyal. He also confirmed the identity of his Norwegian officer. Berg is not a popular man in those circles.”

Harald Stanghelle, the former political editor for newspaper Aftenposten, claimed in a commentary earlier this week that Berg should nontheless be considered “a national hero” for taking on one of the nation’s riskiest assignments: being a courier on the opponent’s territory. Stanghelle claims that E-tjenesten itself must take responsibility for Berg, and for failing to uncover the trap that was set up.

Berg’s Russian defense attorney Ilja Novikov has also claimed in Norwegian author Trine Hamran’s book about Berg’s ordeal that Berg was sent “unprepared to Russia, uninformed and without instructions,” and that E-tjenesten should be ashamed.

Not so intelligent intelligence
Calls are already going out that the Norwegian government must take political responsibility for a thorough evaluation of Norway’s intelligence service. “If Norway is conducting espionage in Russian territory, we must be better at it than the Berg case indicates we are,” Stanghelle wrote.

He conceded that Berg himself violated the confidentiality of the secret operation in which he was involved. He had confided in author Hamran, and felt he was under pressure to make yet another trip to Russia as a secret courier. That’s unacceptable in the spying world. Many within the military and its intelligence agency may try to place responsibility on others but themselves, Stanghelle added.

But “Frode Berg must not become a scapegoat for an operation that was totally unsuccessfull,” Stanghelle wrote. He claimed that Berg should be met with “understanding, generosity and wisdom” when he returns, both in Oslo and in Kirkenes.

It’s expected Berg can and will demand compensation from Norwegian authorities for his two years in prison. His lawyers have already suggested they’ll be filing claims quickly. Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide acknowledged that Berg’s time in prison “has been a heavy burden for Frode Berg and those closest to him.” She added that her ministry “has worked systematically” to free Berg since he was arrested.

“It was the Norwegian authorities who recruited him as a soldier in the secret intelligence war,” Stanghelle noted, “and the same authorities who are responsible for it going as badly as it did.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund