Amidst all the Norwegian media hype over Russia’s release of convicted spy Frode Berg, Norway’s government has stressed what it called the “crucial” assistance it received from Lithuanian officials. Lithuania facilitated the spy swap needed to bring Berg home, and that points up strong ties between the two countries ever since Lithuania’s own release from the grips of the former Soviet Union.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg highlighted Lithuania’s help at her own press conference after Berg’s release. The solution to Norway’s lengthy predicament over Berg “was finally found in close cooperation with the authorities in Lithuania,” Solberg said.
Neither Solberg nor any other Norwegian government officials will confirm or deny that Berg was working for Norway’s highly secretive miltary and foreign intelligence agency E-tjenesten. She noted, however, that while Berg was in prison, Norwegian authorities did “what they could to make his situation easier” and immediately began working “actively” to get Berg home.
“The fact that he was arrested and subsequently convicted in Russia made our work particularly challenging,” Solberg said. She said her government “worked along several different tracks and at different levels,” but it took “some time to find a solution.”
Berg’s trial had to run its course, with a conviction in place, before attempts could be made to seek a pardon and subsequent spy swap. An exchange of convicted spies was always an option, and two Russian spies convicted in Lithuania emerged as the best.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend how Sergey Moisejenko, an allegedly retired Russian colonel, had been arrested by Lithuanian police in December 2014. He was still working for the Russian intelligence agency GRU and pried information out of a Lithuanian officer who had viewed Moisejenko as a family friend and hunting partner. Both were sentenced in February 2017, with Moisejenko handed a prison term of 10 years and six months.
Also sitting in a Lithuanian prison was Nikolai Filipsjenko, the first officer in Russia’s security service FSB to have ever been arrested for spying. Lithuanian authorities reportedly had caught him red-handed as he tried to recruit other Lithuanians to install hidden microphones at the presidential palace in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. He was sentenced in July 2017 to 10 years in prison.
Aftenposten reported that Filipsjenko topped the list of spies Russia wanted to bring home. Norwegian officials thus tried to arrange a swap of the two Russian spies in Lithuania in return for two Lithuanians jailed in Russia plus Berg, and needed to convince Lithuania it was a good deal for them, too. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported in August that Norwegian authorities were negotiating with the Russians to release Berg and in October, Russia and Lithuania agreed to exchange two Russians for two Lithuanians plus an unidentified Norwegian convicted in Russia. Later that month, Russian news bureau Interfax reported that a Russian commission had recommended that Russian President Vladimir Putin pardon Berg.
Both Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide claimed at and after their press conference in Oslo Friday evening that Norway made no major concessions or offers to enlist the Lithuanians’ assistance. One government source told Aftenposten that it likely helped that Norway has supported Lithuania since its liberation from the Soviet Union, has contributed Norwegian troops to NATO operations in Lithuania and that Lithuania has had NATO troops on the ground to aid their own defense against Russia. Søreide noted after Friday’s press conference that many Lithuanians live and work in Norway. Several Norwegian businesses are also active in Lithuania.
“We have been in contact with the Lithuanian authorities for a long time,” Søreide said, “and it gradually became clear that this exchange was a solution that all the parties could accept.”
Solberg thanked Lithuania authorities in her opening remarks on Friday “for their hard work and for the diffcult political decisions they have had to take in order to secure the release of Frode Berg.” That included passing a law earlier this month that made a spy swap with Russia possible, and pardoning the two Russians Filipsjenko and Moisejenko just last week.
“This is an example of successful cooperation between two close allies (Norway and Lithuania),” Solberg said. “I would especially like to thank (Lithuanian) President Gitanas Nauseda for all that he has done in this case.”
Foreign Minister Søreide also made a special point of thanking the Lithuanian authorities as well. “Our embassy in Lithuania has maintained close contact with the Lithuanian authorities,” Søreide said. “Lithuania’s assitance has been crucial and I would like to join the prime minister in thanking President Nauseda and the country’s intelligence service.”