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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Northern Norway called a ‘test lab’ for Russian threats

The police chief in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark thinks Russia has been using the area for years as a “test laboratory” for threats that can be used in hybrid warfare. Another five Russians have been arrested in Northern Norway, meanwhile, and drama involving drones continues.

The northern Norwegian city of Kirkenes is located just west of the Russian border. It has long experienced both Russian cooperation and, more recently, provocations that the local police chief thinks are part of a pattern to test various attempts at hybrid warfare. PHOTO: Barents Observer/Atle Staalesen

It was another busy weekend for both police and military officials both in the north and south, after national security concerns have risen considerably:

***On Saturday a second Russian man was arrested at the airport in Tromsø and quickly ordered held in custody, while police investigate his illegal use of drones in Norway. Police seized a drone, several memory chips, a mobile phone and other electonic storage devices in his possession, after airport employees alerted them that the 51-year-old Russian was taking photos of airport operations. Police later found photos in his possession of the airport in Kirkenes and of one the military’s Bell helicopters. The man’s arrest followed that of another Russian man as he was crossing Norway’s border to Russia just east of Kirkenes, also carrying drones and extensive photographic material, much of it encrypted.

Norway’s police intelligence agency PST has been called in on both cases. “We want to know whether this involves any illegal intelligence gathering activity in Norway,” Trond Hugubakken of PST told Norwegian Broadasting (NRK). He added that PST is also investigating several other “suspicious incidents” that PST has received tips about.

It is, at any rate, illegal for Russians to fly drones in Norway in accordance with sanctions against Russia after it invaded Ukraine. It’s also illegal to fly drones within five kilometers of all Norwegian airports. Local media including Dronemagasinet have reported that seven Russians were on the Norwegian aviation authority’s list of drone operators in Norway. One of them has the same mailing address as that of the Russian Embassy in Oslo.

***On Sunday the airspace was closed over Norwegian airports in Stavanger and Haugesund after more drone observations at unusual altitudes as high as 15,000-20,000 feet. “The drone was observed by a flight crew,” the operations leader for the Vest Police District told NRK. State airports agency Avinor confirmed that some flights that had just taken off returned to land, while others circled until the drone situation was clarified. Several other departures were canceled or delayed: “It’s unfortunate, but safety always comes first when we don’t know where the drone is,” Harald Kvam of Avinor told NRK.

***On Monday came news that four more Russian citizens have been arrested and jailed in Nordland County after police stopped their Russian-registered car near the northern city of Mosjøen. Occupants of the car, three men and one woman, had been observed illegally photographing objects that are subject to photo prohibitions. Such objects usually involve military facilities or equipment. Their car was ransacked and police found what they described as ” a lot of photo equipment and photos.” PST was also brought in on the case, while the four Russians claimed they were merely tourists visiting Norway.

Other unusual incidents now ‘form a pattern of threats’
The cases follow what the police chief in Finnmark, Ellen Katrine Hætta, calls years of unusual incidents that, when viewed collectively, “form a pattern of threats” that can be tested for use in hybrid warfare.

“Northern Norway and Finnmark are a laboratory, where Russia experiments with various types of methods,” Hætta told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Monday. She hastened to add that “we must be very careful in the phase we’re in now. It’s not certain that all (the methods) are coordinated by the Russian state. There are others that want to promote themselves and their issues.”

Finnmark Police Chief Ellen Katrine Hætta is getting tired of all the Russian provocations in Northern Norway. PHOTO: The Barents Observer/Thomas Nilsen

In addition to all the recent drone incidents and arrests, residents of the area in and around Kirkenes have long been subjected to so-called “jamming” of electronic signals, allegedly from the Russian side of the nearby border. Airline pilots have lost their GPS systems on approach for landing at the Kirkenes airport, while local residents have lost alarm- and mapping systems.

“It’s become quite common now, and it lasts from around one to two hours,” Hætta told DN. “It can also last for one to two weeks. You don’t know when it will happen, or how long it will last.” The jamming that began in 2017 has become what she calls “the new normal.” There also have been signs that Russian training forces have made it appear that they’re aiming for major radar installations in Vardø, only to veer off just before entering Norwegian air space.

New meaning behind memorials
Hætta also refers to Russia’s penchant for holding war memorial ceremonies at monuments set up around Norway, especially in the far north. The ceremonies are meant to honour the Soviet forces that crossed the border east of Kirkenes in the fall of 1944 to push out occupying Nazi German forces during World War II. The Germans then burned everything in their wake, but Northern Norwegians have long been grateful for the liberation of Finnmark.

Former Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide posed in Kirkenes three years ago with border posts and her Russian counterpart, Sergej Lavrov, in connection with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Finnmark by Soviet soldiers in 1944. Now Norway and Russia are no longer on speaking terms. PHOTO: Forsvaret/UD/Preben Aursand

Such memorials have long been held in Kirkenes, site of one of the biggest monuments that’s had regular visits from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before he lost popularity following his president’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Just last fall, a new monument was unveiled on the island of Sørøya in Hasvik (external link to The Barents Observer) to commemorate six Soviet pilots killed during liberation efforts. Several government representatives, the local county governor and local mayor all took part.

“The mayor later stood forth and said she wouldn’t have allowed construction of the memorial today,” Hætta said, given Russia’s own war on Ukraine. Hætta thinks monuments and “memorial diplomacy” are concrete examples of how Russia has used “psychological influence operations” in combination with other measures.

The Finnmark police chief also pointed to an unusual incident in Kirkenes first reported by the Barents Observer news service (external link) last spring, in connection with Russia’s own Liberation Day ceremonies on May 9. The crew of a Russian fishing vessel tore down a German banner flying at the Port of Kirkenes and stomped on it, while lowering a US banner to half-mast. It was just two days after Norway closed its harbours to all Russian vessels except those tied to fishing and research, and occurred shortly after Russia’s general counsul in Kirkenes had held a speech at the local war and liberation memorial, and warned against the growth of Naziism in Europe.

Local police questioned the fishermen, who claimed they wanted to celebrate their own national day and raise the Russian flag. They were fined, but not jailed.

In addition have come incidents involving underwater cables that have been cut, including the main fiber-optic cable to Svalbard and an underwater surveillance cable system off Bø i Vesterålen. The Russian fishing trawler Melkart-5 was in the vicinity of both incidents but police ended up dropping their investigations.

Both the vessel’s owner and officials at the Russian Embassy in Oslo have denied having anything to do with the cut cables, with the embassy criticizing “groundless” accusations against Russia, also in the signal-jamming incidents. Russian fishing authorities, meanwhile, have told newspaper VG that no equipment has ever been found by Norwegian authorities during routine inspections of Russian fishing vessels that isn’t directly tied to maritime- or fishing activity.

Crew members on board the same Russian fishing boat suspected of cutting underwater cables violated shore leave regulations in Kirkenes last summer by lowering a small boat into the water and sailing towards this bridge, located near a restricted military area. They were fined and the vessel, the Melkart-5, left Kirkenes the next day. PHOTO: The Barents Observer/Thomas Nilsen

The Barents Observer reported in August, however, that the same Melkart-5 vessel had been back in Kirkenes last summer and some crew members violated shore leave regulations. They were also fined by police after lowering a boat into the water, leaving the harbor and sailing towards a key bridge leading in and out Kirkenes to the west.

Hætta thinks all Norwegian harbours should be closed to Russian fishing vessels, but the government still exempts Kirkenes, Tromsø and Båtsfjord. “I can’t see the need for the exemptions,” Hætta told DN. She said she understands that local shipyards want the business Russian vessels can bring, but she fears Russian fishing vessels are used for other things than just fishing. Civilian Russian vessels can now be used for military use, she notes.

She told DN she was able to halt one recent attempt by a delegation of priests from the Russian Orthodox church to learn more about Kirkenes’ drinking water system. They’d made an unusual request to examine the city’s water system during a visit to Kirkenes to sign a friendship pack between Kirkenes and Severomorsk, two years after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

“I didn’t think that was wise, and the mayor agreed with me,” Hætta told DN. “The visit was cancelled.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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