The Arctic town at the centre of a Norway-Russia 'spy war'
When Frode Berg was a guard on the border near Kirkenes, Norway, in the 1990s and 2000s, relations with neighbouring Russia were so good that he would do joint patrols and go fishing with his colleagues from across the line. They drank vodka toasts after holding an annual cross-border ski race.
But in recent years this town of 3,500 on Norway’s Arctic coast has found itself caught up in a geopolitical chess game between Nato and Russia. Mr Berg became the first pawn to be captured when he was arrested in Moscow and sentenced in April to 14 years in prison for espionage.
Located about 130 miles from Murmansk and the headquarters of Russia’s northern fleet, sleepy Kirkenes has become the epicentre of a spy war with Russia—and Norwegians who have worked to develop cross-border trade and cultural exchanges are paying the price. One of them is even suing Norwegian intelligence over lost Russian business.
“If Norway has one real challenge regarding foreign policy, it’s here,” said Kirkenes mayor Rune Rafaelson, a long-time friend of Mr Berg’s who attended navy day celebrations in Murmansk last month. “It’s not membership of the EU or making peace in Middle East. Here is the only real challenge, because we have an interesting and complex neighbour called Russia.”
Kirkenes traditionally prided itself on having warmer relations with this neighbour, even during the Cold War, when this was Nato’s lone point of contact with the USSR.
After the Soviet collapse, Russian ships began unloading fish, crabs and oil products in Kirkenes, and many local men married Russian women. Since the two countries offered visa-free travel to residents of border areas in 2012, tens of thousands of Russians have been coming to shop in Kirkenes each year.
But Moscow’s military modernisation campaign, increasingly assertive foreign policy and annexation of Crimea changed the bigger context. When foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Kirkenes for the 70th anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis by the Red Army in 2014, he scolded Norway for joining Western sanctions against Russia.
Duelling military manoeuvres and signals intelligence operations have become matters of course. This spring, Russia repeatedly tested missiles off the Norwegian coast, and Norway and Finland also accused it of jamming GPS signals during Nato bomber exercises, putting civilian aircraft at risk.
Meanwhile, a Beluga discovered in Hammerfest wearing a “Petersburg” camera harness was dubbed the “Russian spy whale” over espionage suspicions.
In July, a secret nuclear-powered Russian submersible that can reportedly eavesdrop on underwater cables caught fire during an operation somewhere near Murmansk, killing 14 sailors.
For its part, Norway hosted the major Trident Juncture Nato war games in 2018 and has welcomed Western troops, including 1,000 Royal Marines who will train there each year. The United States paid to upgrade the Vardø radar station near Kirkenes and begin joint intelligence collection.
Many believe that Washington also began pressuring Oslo to deliver more information on Russia’s northern fleet. Kirkenes, where many residents have worked across the border, has long been a fruitful recruiting ground.
“If you have been active in Russia you are approached, especially if you are a leader because then you’re in position to meet people at a higher level,” said Rune Rautio, an employee of the Kirkenes business garden who used to travel to Russia every other week and has been occasionally questioned by Norwegian intelligence for years.
One of the recruits was Mr Berg, who began bringing envelopes of cash to an informant in Russia in 2015 despite having misgivings.
In autumn 2017, intelligence officers approached him to do one last errand. Journalist Trine Hamran, a friend in whom he had confided, counselled him not to do it, but the secret services played upon his patriotism, asking him if he didn’t want to be a “good Norwegian,” she said.
“He said it was not dangerous, just one last thing,” Ms Hamran told the Telegraph. “And then he goes to Moscow and we don’t hear from him again.”
The Russian informant was actually a double agent. FSB operatives arrested Mr Berg as he stepped out of the Metropole hotel with an envelope of 3,000 euros.
“After a couple of days we where informed that he was alive,” said his wife Anita, who believed he was going to Moscow to meet friends and buy Christmas gifts. “It was such a relief. But then we where shocked to learn that he had been arrested, suspected of espionage.”
She accused Norwegian military intelligence of recklessly manipulating her husband, who was so guileless he posted a Moscow snapshot to Facebook hours before his arrest, and “sabotaging years of positive collaboration” between Kirkenes and Russia. The agency declined to comment.
Mr Berg was not the first to fall victim to the spy services’ alleged blundering. In 2015, Atle Berge, the founder of a cross-border oil services company called Ølen Betong, refused to cooperate when approached by Norwegian intelligence looking for information on Russia.
FSB agents nonetheless grabbed him on the street in Murmansk shortly thereafter and interrogated him for more than six hours, asking him what his ties to the service were and threatening to inject him with an unknown drug.
He was then expelled from the country and lost a contract with a major Russian firm, he said.
One of his employees was also interrogated and expelled, only in his case Russian agents also brandished a gun.
Now Mr Berge is suing his government for £12 million, arguing that the repeated approaches by the same Norwegian intelligence agent convinced the FSB that he and his employee were spies.
“The Norwegians had behaved very unprofessionally and stupidly,” he said. “It seems they have been under pressure from someone and urgently had to find out something,”
The case also revealed how many eyes Russia has in Kirkenes. During his interrogation, Mr Berge’s employee was shown a photograph of the Norwegian agent at his door.
Meanwhile, Norway’s counter-intelligence service has a list of Russians who are followed whenever they come to Kirkenes, Mr Rautio said.
The town is so small that most people know the agent who Mr Berg said had liaised with him. When confronted at his home by the Telegraph, the man first lied that he was a neighbour, then declined to comment.
Yet locals are surprisingly blasé about the presence of spies here and largely blame Norwegian intelligence for undermining the warm ties that people like Mr Berg worked to promote.
Thomas Nilsen, editor of the Kirkenes-based Barents Observer news site, said many residents suffer a “Stockholm syndrome” of sympathy to their larger neighbour. His site, which publishes in Russian and English, has been blocked in Russia, and he was banned from the country as an alleged security threat in 2017.
“We have been living for so many years with positive development across the border, then things turn around, and people understand this is bad, but they take the position of Moscow, not Europe,” he said.
It’s also a question of the £140 million Russia contributes to the local economy each year.
“Fifty metres from here is the Russian general consulate. There’s too many people working there, but how should we develop the economy and municipality?” Mr Rafaelson said in his office. “I do my job I’m elected for, which is too promote a good neighbour policy.”
Norway and Russia are now discussing a prisoner exchange to bring home Mr Berg, who is suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, his lawyers said.
Yet while Russian diplomats have been expelled from Oslo on espionage suspicions, Norway has no similar prisoners. Instead, they’re hoping for a “triangle deal” involving an ally, perhaps the United States.
When PM Erna Solberg spoke with Vladimir Putin at an Arctic forum in April, days before the Norwegian was convicted, the president said Russia “will take a look at what we can do with this depending on the court’s decision”.
“I think most people in this case understand Russia is doing what any other country would do,” Mr Rautio said. “Frode confessed, so people are more waiting now for the Norwegian government to get to the table and make a deal with Russia to get him out so he won’t have spend the rest of life in labour camp.”