Russian diplomats tied to spy agency

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Three diplomats at the Russian Embassy in Oslo were identified by newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday as having ties to Russia’s military intelligence agency known as GRU. It’s been accused of murder and poisonings in addition to spying, while Norway’s own police intelligence agency PST claims the “real number” of intelligence agents operating in Norway “is much higher.”

Some of the diplomats at the Russian Embassy in Oslo reportedly are also intelligence agents for GRU. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“We can confirm that Russia’s intelligence service and those of various other countries use their embassy as a cover for their intelligence officers,” Hanne Blomberg, chief of counter espionage at PST, told Aftenposten. “We are aware that several of the Russian intelligence-gathering agencies have a presence in Norway and use diplomatic cover through the embassy.”

She added that “Aftenposten has found its way to three. The real number of intelligence agents who operate in Norway is much higher.”

Aftenposten reported that it used residential address databases described as normally closed to the public but possible to access in Moscow because various private and public entities need to use them every day. The newspaper also claimed it used some of the same methods used to identify two alleged Russian tourists in England who were revealed as Russian GRU agents sought in a poisoning attack on a former KGB defector and his daughter in Salisbury. The suspects’ registered addresses were the same as those of the diplomats in Norway.

Aftenposten also noted how the identities of 305 GRU employees in Moscow were revealed in 2018 following various leaks from Russian address lists made possible by poor data security.

‘Credible sources’
Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College London who has written several books on Russian intelligence gathering, said he could “with a high degree of certainty” claim that the three diplomats identified in Oslo are GRU agents. Another intelligence expert, Professor Thomas Wegener Friis at Syddansk University in Denmark, called the databases used by Aftenposten “credible sources.”

Russian intelligence expert Andrej Soldatov, who’s also written several books about the intelligence services in Russia, agreed: “Based on my experience, there’s reason to rely on these databases. I can’t imagine that a career diplomat would be registered with a residence adress at GRU’s headquarters.”

Asked whether there could be any other explanation as to why the GRU address is registered as the three diplomats’ home address, such as a job change, Galeotti said it was improbable. He claimed that working for GRU has “higher status” than that of “normal diplomats.” GRU, he told Aftenposten, uses large resources on its agents, who receive a long, costly and thorough education. He called them “top-trained and professional people.”

None of the three men was willing to comment on Aftenposten’s information from the Russian databases, where they were registered by name, birthdate, address and ID number.

See Aftenposten’s full coverage, including the identities of the men, here (external link, in Norwegian).

The Russian Embassy itself claimed in a lengthy written response to the newspaper that the questions posed by Aftenposten “have nothing to do with diplomatic relations between Russia and Norway.” In the embassy’s statement sent to the newspaper, it suggested that there are laws to protect “personal information” deemed “unsuitable” for being made public.

The embassy also wrote that Aftenposten referred to databases of public agencies that “are often unreliable or obtained by hackers” and accused Aftenposten of “contributing to the spread of unreliable, false or illegally obtained information.”

The embassy went on to describe all three diplomats identified by Aftenposten as “among the best at the embassy,” claiming all of them “have worked or are working actively for good neighbourly relations between our countries.”

Security warnings issued for years
PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste), meanwhile, has been warning for years that Russia, along with China, represents a major security threat to Norway. So do spies posing as diplomats as they travel around Norway, nurture contacts and gain access to politicians in Parliament, government ministries and companies.

“What they want is contact with individuals, sources, to gain information they otherwise wouldn’t get,” PST’s Blomberg told Aftenposten. “They want information on technology, research, sensitive company information and political decision-makers. Sometimes they want to influence decision-making processes.”

One of the biggest problems they pose for Norwegian officials is their diplomatic immunity, that allows them to avoid prosecution under Norwegan law. “With diplomatic immunity they can operate relatively freely in Norway as intelligence officers,” Blomberg said. “The only thing they risk is being found out and sent home.”

Norwegians ‘don’t realize’ the risks
PST’s counter-espionage chief is also concerned that Norwegians cultivated as sources of information “don’t realize” that the diplomats are also basically spies. “Sometimes they (the agent-diplomats) combine their intelligence gathering with completely legal, normal diplomatic activity,” Blomberg said. “That gives them access to interesting people and operations. Individual Norwegians don’t understand that until it’s way too late.”

Asked why those suspected or confirmed as being tied to their homeland’s intelligence agency aren’t sent out of the country, Blomberg said that there can be cases where they were declared unwanted in Norway and sent home quietly. Trude Måseide, communications chief for Norway’s foreign ministry, told Aftenposten that diplomats are expected to follow the laws and rules of the country where they’re serving, and that information should also be gathered legally.

“It’s nonetheless a fact that these principles aren’t always followed, either in Norway or in other countries, Måseide said. “Openness about that is important, to raise awareness. At the same time, diplomatic relations are entirely necessary and in Norway’s best interests, and we want to have good cooperation with other countries.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund