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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Russian embassy workers expelled after posing a ‘threat’ to Norway

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt minced few words when she announced on Thursday that 15 Russians working at the Russian Embassy in Oslo have been declared unwanted in Norway and ordered to leave the country. They’re all believed to have been working as intelligence gathering agents operating under diplomatic immunity and thus, according to Huitfeldt, posed “a threat to Norwegian interests.”

A total of 15 Russians working from their embassy here in Oslo have now been expelled because they’re believed to have been working as intelligence gathering agents. The embassy has been under constant police protection since Russia invaded Ukraine last year and set off ongoing protest demonstrations. PHOTO: NewsinEngish.no/Morten Møst

Huitfeldt claimed in an official statement that the 15 Russian “intelligence officers” had been carrying out activities that were not in line with their diplomatic status. All have been ordered to leave Norway, although Huitfeldt wouldn’t say exactly when.

Reaction from the Russian Embassy was swift, with an embassy spokesman telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the expulsions are “an extremely unfriendly move” that would be “followed up by a response.” It’s common in such diplomatic conflicts for the offending country to reciprocate by, in this case, expelling 15 Norwegian diplomats from Norway’s embassy in Moscow. When Norway expelled three Russian diplomats last spring, for example, Russia responded in kind.

NRK also reported that the Norwegian government’s sudden move on Thursday comes just days before NRK, Swedish broadcaster SVT, Danish broadcaster DR and Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle are expected to release an extensive report on the extent of Russian intelligence gathering in the Nordic countries. Several other Russians have also been detained or arrested after being found with drones. At least one man believed to have been posing as a Brazilian researcher at the University of Tromsø remains in custody, charged with espionage.

Anniken Huitfeldt met with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov just after she took over as Norway’s foreign minister in October 2021. Relations have since frozen, after Lavrov’s boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, ordered his invasion of Ukraine. PHOTO: Barents Observer screen grab

“We are more vulnerable and their (Russia’s) activity in Norway has more potential for damage than earlier,” Huitfeldt said at a press conference on Thursday. She said Norwegian authorities had been following the activities of those now being kicked out of Norway for quite a while: “The worsened security policy situation and the increased threat from Russian intelligence gathering against Norway is the reason that these 15 people are now unwanted.”

She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, expand on exactly what those expelled have done, referring questions to PST. A PST spokesman, however, referred questions back to the foreign ministry.

Norway’s own intelligence agencies including PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) have long viewed Russia as posing among the biggest threats to Norway and top opposition politicians supported the government’s move, agreeing with Huitfeldt that Norway’s diplomatic relations are now at an absolute minimum. Norway also recently introduced a new set of sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime. (external link to the ministry’s website).

Need for a ‘tougher approach’
“It’s reassuring to see that the government is taking the threat from Russian intelligence-gathering seriously,” said the leader of the Liberal Party, Guri Melby. She added that “it’s necessary to take a tougher approach towards the Russian.”

Huitfeldt’s predecessor as foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservatives, said she wasn’t surprised by Thursday’s new expulsions: “After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, channels of contact have become fewer and that means the Russian intelligence agents use more aggressive means of gathering information from Norway.” She expects even more aggressive use of Russian agents in the future.

Huitfeldt claimed that Norway still “wants normal diplomatic relations with Russia,” which had been relatively good neighbours in the far north for centuries, even during the Cold War. “Russian diplomats are welcome in Norway,” she told NRK. “What we’re doing now is targeted directly at unwanted intelligence operations. We want to have functioning diplomatic representation, but we will not accept diplomatic representation to be misused as undercover intelligence operations.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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