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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Latest war news round-up: Military tracks Russian ships

NOTE TO READERS: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has had enormous consequences for the rest of Europe, also for Norway. The following rundown offers various reports about how Norway, which shares a border with Russia in the far north, is directly affected and how it’s responding to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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MILITARY OFFICIALS AND POLICE ARE ASKING THE PUBLIC’S HELP in tracking Russian ships, including fishing vessels, that sail into Norwegian waters. They’ve boosted trackings themselves, part of Norwegian anti-sabotage efforts, and suspect some ships have manipulated their signals to disguise their actual locations.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week that police have tried to inspect several Russian vessels but couldn’t find them. The vessels either weren’t in the GPS locations logged by their senders, or sailing patterns were misleading.

The Russian fishing vessel Matritsa was “visited” by crew on board the Norwegian frigate KNM Otto Sverdrup earlier this month, after it sought shelter in the Fensfjord northwest of Bergen. It was later moved to the Bjørnafjord. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Russian research vessels have been known to sail close to the Norwegian coast, setting off concerns over possible surveillance or mapping of the sea floor and underwater infrastructure. Other Norwegian vessels are also being asked to report any sightings of vessels sailing in zig-zag patterns.

A crew from the Norwegian frigate KNM Otto Sverdrup carried out a so-called “visitation” (inspection) of the Russian fishing vessel Matritsa earlier this month during routine training operations in the Bergen area. No infractions were found on board the Russian vessel that had sought shelter during bad weather at Fonnesflaket in the Fensfjord, and the Navy reported that the Russian crew was “nice” and “receptive” to the official visit. The Matritsa was later moved to another anchorage spot in the Bjørnafjord, however, when Fonnesflaket was also closed because of bad weather.

The incident was part of higher alertness over all shipping activity along the Norwegian coast as tensions with Russia rise over its war on Ukraine.

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A NORWEGIAN-UKRAINIAN SUPPORT ORGANIZATION WAS RELIEVED that Norway has decided to join a coalition of countries sending tanks to Ukraine. “The Norwegian Leopard tanks will be an important contribution to Ukraine’s battle for freedom,” claimed the leader of Norsk-Ukrainsk Venneforening, Arnfinn Nordbø.

Nordbø said the heavy tanks are necessary for Ukraine to win the war launched by Russia nearly a year ago, and liberate territory currently occupied by the Russians. The organization is also grateful for the Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) that Norway has donated as well. It helps block and shoot down kamikaze drones that Russia has launched to bomb buildings including civilian housing, schools and hospitals.

“We have high expectations for the support package from the Norwegian government,” Nordbø stated in a press release on Wednesday. “When the story of the war is written, we want to be proud over what Norway did for the Ukrainians, for freedom, peace, democracy and a rules-based world.”

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AN ELDERLY COUPLE LIVING NEAR NORWAY’S BORDER TO RUSSIA says they’re going to start locking the doors to their home after an alleged Russian mercenary fled over the border to Norway late last week to seek asylum. They want more information from Norwegian officials about what they should do if and when it happens again.

Norwegian military is always on patrol along Norway’s border to Russia in the northeast, as is the Russian military. Norwegian residents in the area are now jittery nonetheless. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Edvin Wiggen Dahl

“Those of us living along the border should in fact get some information about how we should react if someone comes over the border,” Anna Derås told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

Both she and her husband Svein were among those witnessing an unusual amount of lights on the Russian side of the Pasvik River that separates Norway and Russia in the middle of the night last Friday (January 13). The lights were also moving around and Anna heard the sound of snowmobiles. She’s unsure, however, whether that was from the Russians or Norwegian border- and military patrols.

The Russian asylum seeker, identified as Andrei Medvedev, has claimed he was chased by the Russian military’s dogs and shot at as he fled to Norway. The Derås couple found his footprints on their property the next morning before he ultimately rang the bell of another home where lights were on, and asked for help. Police arrived, took him into custody and he was quickly flown to Oslo, where he’s being questioned and processed.

“He came up through the birch forest (that extends from the Derås’ home down to the river) and was in our barn before he continued up the road,” Svein Derås told NRK. “We’ve started locking our doors now.”

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NORWAY’S NATIONAL CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION SERVICE (KRIPOS) will be among those questioning Russian citizen Andrei Medvedev, who’s been charged with illegally crossing the border into Norway on January 13. As a former member of the mercenary group known as Wagner, he also claims to have witnessed war crimes and is willing to testify to such, while a Ukrainian organization in Norway believes he’s a war criminal himself.

The drama around Medvedev and his daring escape on foot from Russia to Norway late last week continues to expand. KRIPOS, which has national responsibility for investigating war crimes, stated in a press release that “he has said himself that he has been part of the Wagner group, and it’s interesting for Kripos to get more information about that period.” KRIPOS is also taking part in the international investigation of war crimes in Ukraine, in cooperation with the International Criminal Court.

Medvedev has said he has witnessed mass executions in Ukraine but claims he has only taken part in “ordinary warfare.” His Norwegian defense attorney Brynjulf Risnes told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he has no indications that Medvedev is dangerous or has abused Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Leaders of a Ukrainian organization in Norway (Den ukrainske forening i Norge) aren’t convinced. “Those who report for duty for the Wagner group (which Medvedev has admitted he did when given the option while in a Russian prison) know what they’re doing,” Natalia Ravn-Christensen of the Ukrainian organization told NRK. “He must of course be punished. A Wagner soldier must be punished.”

Medvedev was allegedly spending time for theft in a Russian prison, which is where Wagner often recruits soldiers for hire for its mercenary group. Risnes said he understands why Ukrainians in Norway have reacted negatively towards Medvedev. He stresses that many Russians get incorrect information from Russian authorities about the war in Ukraine, and claims Medvedev now wants to help Ukrainians, also in their fight for justice against war crimes in their homeland.

Norway’s chapter of Amnesty International notes that Russians don’t automatically receive asylum in Norway, and Norwegian authorities now must try to confirm Medvedev’s claims. Amnesty leader John Peder Egenæs told NRK, however, that Norwegian authorities can’t send him back to Russia, however, because “the treatment of military deserters from the war in Ukraine, and especially from the Wagner group, is extremely brutal there” and he’d likely be killed.

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NORWAY’S NEW AND MOST PUBLICIZED REFUGEE, the former Russian mercenary Andrei Medvedev, has shared his story with the Russian human rights project Gulagu.net, which claims it won’t defend his background or choice to join the mercenary Wagner group, but believes he has a right to live. The organization has checked into his background itself and verified some of it already.

Medvedev fled to Norway late last week and is now at an undisclosed location in Oslo. He’s being questioned by police, the police intelligence agency PST and now Norway’s National Crime Investigation Service KRIPOS, which is taking part in war crime investigations in Ukraine. Norwegian media including The Barents Observer (external link) in Kirkenes, located near the Russian border, has reported how Gulagu.net carries information on Medvedev and has published videos of Medvedev telling his own story in Russian.

He reportedly contacted Gulagu.no last month, saying he wanted to get out of Russia and asking for help. Medvedev has claimed, also on video, that he commanded one of Wagner’s troops in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, where battles have been fierce. He’d allegedly grown disillusioned with what Wagner had promised when he was recruited while serving time in a Russian prison, and the brutal reality he encountered on the battlefield and within Wagner itself. Wagner soldiers are known for beating and even killing former colleagues who refuse to torture or kill Ukrainian prisoners of war, or desert themselves.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Gulagu leader Vladimir Osechkin continues to speak with Medvedev and his lawyers, also after he was taken into custody in Oslo. In a video released Monday Osechkin said Medvedev’s story is especially directed at revealing criminal acts carried out by the Wagner group and in which its leader was involved.

NRK reported that Osechkin, who’s also leader of the New Dissidents Foundation, says his group’s research has revealed that Medvedev was an orphan who grew up in a care home and served in the Russian military when he was old enough, also in the Donbas region as early as 2014. He was convicted of theft after leaving the military and sent to prison, only to sign up with Wagner last summer.

“Medvedev contacted us to save his life,” Osechkin said. “We’re not trying to defend him, clear him or justify his participation in the Wagner group.” Several Norwegian officials have since called Medvedev “interesting” asylum seeker as their own investigation into his background begins.

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LOCAL POLICE ON NORWAY’S SIDE OF THE BORDER to Russia fear that life and health are at risk if more people try to illegally cross the border, reports The Barents Observer. They want a police helicopter to be permanently based in Kirkenes, in order to improve border patrol and respond to emergency situations.

One of Norway’s police helicopters flew up to the border area last autumn and Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl was flown along the 198-kilometer length of it to get a better overview of the area. The police helicopters carry equipment that can make it much easier to find people in the darkness of an Arctic winter.

Finnmark Police Chief Ellen Katrine Hætta told The Barents Observer that if Russians continue to illegally flee to Norway, it will risk lives and compound an already tense security situation.

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A NEW BOOK CONTAINING THE MOST POWERFUL SPEECHES by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since Russia invaded his homeland last year is now available in Norwegian. Entitled Stemmen fra Ukraina (literally, The Voice from Ukraine), the book is meant to tell the history of the Ukrainian people and help explain how they’ve reacted to the invasion that’s led to full-scale war in Europe.

The book compiling 16 of Zelensky’s most moving and powerful speeches is now available in Norwegian. ILLUSTRATION: Cappelen Damm

Zelenskyy has delivered more than 1,000 speeches since the invasion on February 24, 2022. He selected 16 of them for the book (entitled A Message from Ukraine in its English edition) that together also describe Ukraine’s development since he was elected president in 2019.

The former comedian who’s become an inspiration for much of the world also wrote a heartfelt introduction to the book in which he reflects on what he has learned about himself and Ukraine since Russia’s invasion united and hurled the country into action to defend itself. The invasion also quickly united western democracies in efforts to support Ukraine’s defense.

The book, published in Norway by Cappelen Damm (external link its website), features a foreword by Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian- and East European editor of The Economist, to put Zelenskyy’s speeches into context. Proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to United24 (external link), Zelenskyy’s initiative that’s run by his government to raise funds for Ukraine’s defense, humanitarian and medical aid and reconstruction.

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NORWEGIAN PRIME MINISTER JONAS GAHR STØRE was back on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy just after New Year, and once again expressed his support for Ukraine. Støre said Zelenskyy had initiated the contact to talk about Russia’s incessant attacks on cities and civilian targets all over the country.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, shown here in a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on January 3. PHOTO: SMK

“This is terror against a civilian population,” Støre said, “and a serious violation of the rule of law.” He said Zelenskyy believes the attacks mark “a critical phase in the war,” and that Ukraine was dependent on ongoing support (from other countries like Norway) to stop the attacks.

“I told him Ukraine can continue to rely on Norway’s support,” Støre said. The country has already donated nearly NOK 11 billion worth of civilian and military support to Ukraine and has set aside billions more during 2023.

(Less than two weeks later, Støre’s government announced an order for NOK 2.6 billion worth of ammunition and weapons from the state-owned Nammo arms company in Raufoss, much of which will be sent to Ukraine and bought by NATO allies.)

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For earlier news items about the consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine in Norway, click here.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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