In a wary Arctic, Norway is starting to see Russian spies everywhere
TROMSØ, Norway – Looking back, some things just didn’t fit Jose Giammaria.
For one thing, the visiting scholar at the University of Tromsø, in Norway’s Arctic Circle, was ostensibly Brazilian. But he couldn’t speak Portuguese. Then there was the fact that he self-funded his visit, an oddity in academia, and even planned to extend it – but he never talked about his research. But he was always helpful, even offering to redesign the homepage of the Center for Peace Studies, where he worked.
That was until October 24, 2022, when Norwegian security police, the PST, arrived with a warrant to search his office. A few days later they announced his arrest as a Russian spy named Mikhail Mikushin.
The revelation sent a chill through campus, said Marcela Douglas, who directs the Center for Peace Studies, which studies security and conflict. “I started seeing spies everywhere.”
The same is true for Norway and much of the rest of Europe.
As the war in Ukraine bogs down and Moscow’s isolation increases, European nations are wary of a desperate Kremlin exploiting their open societies to further attempts at espionage, sabotage and infiltration – may be to send a message or to probe how far it might go if necessary in a larger conflict with the West.
Mr Mikushin is one of three Russians recently arrested in Europe on suspicion of being ‘illegals’ – spies who integrate into a local company for espionage or long-term recruitment. In June, an intern at the International Criminal Court, also holding a Brazilian passport, was arrested in The Hague and charged with spying for Russia. In late November, a Swedish raid nabbed a Russian couple accused of spying.
Other suspicious incidents have popped up across Europe: In Germany, drones discovered flying over military sites where Ukrainian forces were trained are strongly suspected by German officials to be Russian intelligence. The severed undersea cables in France, although not attributed to malicious intent, have raised suspicion among security analysts. And a hack into fuel distribution networks in Belgium and Germany days before the Russian invasion also sounded the alarm.
Not every incident can be attributed to the Kremlin with certainty, and in many places heightened vigilance and genuine concern have become hard to separate from growing paranoia. Russia has called a series of recent Norwegian arrests, mostly of Russian citizens for flying drones, a form of “hysteria”.
Norway, however, may have more to worry about than most.
Now that Western sanctions have all but cut off Russian fossil fuels from Europe, Norway is the continent’s biggest supplier of oil and gas. Off its Arctic coast are undersea cables that are essential for internet service from London’s financial hub and for passing satellite imagery from the Far North, where Norway borders Russia for 123 miles, across the Atlantic to the United States.
This vital role has felt all the more vulnerable since September, when explosions destroyed Nord Stream pipelines between Russia and Germany, and for which Moscow and Washington shared responsibility.
“It was a wake-up call. The war is not just in Ukraine. It can affect us too, although it’s hard to attribute,” said Tom Røseth, a professor at the Norwegian Defense University College.
A number of more conventional Russian spies have been arrested and deported in recent years, perhaps making Russia more dependent on sleeper agents, especially as the war in Ukraine stumbles.
The recent surge in cases, Mr Roseth said, reflected Russia’s need to see its sleeper spies through.
“Right now in Europe, with the pressure of the situation Moscow is in, they want their network to be up to the job,” he said. “Even if these activities existed before, I think they take more risks now.”
In Norway’s case, unease began to mount after a military-grade drone was spotted in September over an oil rig in the North Sea. Soon there were more drone sightings over oil and gas facilities and a power plant. In October, Bergen Airport, located near the country’s largest naval base, was closed for two hours after drones were seen in the area.
Norwegians have begun to question other incidents that occurred earlier in the year: A damaged undersea cable in January, which transmitted satellite images to Western space agencies. A damaged water supply near several military sites, not far from Tromsø. What if it wasn’t accidents or troublemakers, but Russian sabotage?
“Attacks like this could be useful – like monitoring oil rigs,” said Ole Johan Skogmo, a regional police inspector, who said the PST was still investigating the damaged water supply. “We don’t know exactly who did it. But now they know we know someone could do it.
Norwegian citizens have dutifully responded to warnings to be vigilant, flooding police with calls about drone sightings or allegedly suspicious strangers.
But now some worry that hypervigilance has gone too far, especially on such murky ground as alleged espionage.
On a recent afternoon, in the pitch black of the arctic winter, the small regional courthouse in Tromsø was hearing two cases against Russian citizens accused of flying drones.
Neither has been charged with espionage, which is difficult to prove. Instead, they were accused of breaching European sanctions that ban Russians from flying planes, which Norway now interprets to include Russian individuals using recreational drones.
Seven Russians were arrested in mid-October for flying drones, and four went on trial. Two were found guilty and sentenced to serve prison terms of 90 or 120 days.
Among those arrested is Andrey Yakunin, the son of Vladimir Yakunin, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, in a closely watched trial across the country.
Young Yakunin, a businessman who lives in the UK and holds British nationality, has distanced himself from the Russian invasion.
He was arrested after his yacht, the Firebird, was detained by Norwegian authorities, who asked him if he had a drone. He showed them a drone used to capture footage of himself and his crew skiing and fishing in the glacial landscapes of arctic Norway.
Prosecutors are pursuing a 120-day sentence.
“Of course, I am not a spy, although I have a complete collection of James Bond films,” Mr. Yakunin joked, in an interview after his trial began on December 3.
Speaking to The Times, Mr Yakunin declined to say whether his arrest was political, but argued it was strange that he and three other men were all arrested in a short period in October: “As a studying statistics, it means nothing. fit the normal distribution.
Across the hall, in a small courtroom away from the cameras, a grizzled man in denim, Aleksey Reznichenko, a Russian engineer, pleaded his own case in tears in a much more low-key trial. He was arrested after taking photos of the fences and parking lot outside the Tromsø airport control tower.
“It was an instinctive feeling,” said Ivar Helsing Schrøen, the air traffic control manager, who became suspicious and called the police. “Something was very strange.”
In court, Mr Reznichenko wept as he spoke through a Russian translator, saying he feared for his family, of which he was the sole breadwinner.
He was found with photographs of a military helicopter and nearby Kirkenes Airport. He said taking pictures of airplanes and airports has been a longtime hobby. But in any case, none of the photographs were illegal. Instead, Mr Reznichenko was charged with flying a drone.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers say that by pursuing such cases, Norway has entered a legal gray area that calls into question its democratic values.
The Mikushin case has sparked a fight between security analysts and academics over how strictly to monitor and restrict foreign researchers or international collaboration, which could have a chilling effect on important research.
In the drone cases, lawyers for Mr. Yakunin and several other defense attorneys have argued that punishing Russians on the basis of their nationality is discriminatory and potentially a human rights violation.
“There’s a question of whether it’s the law – but if the wording of the law covers that, the law is a problem,” said John Christian Elden, Mr Yakunin’s lead lawyer.
The country itself appears to be in conflict over how to handle the situation. The judges dealing with the cases of Mr. Yakunin and Mr. Reznichenko have now decided to acquit them. But prosecutors are appealing both cases. Mr Yakunin will be back in court in Tromsø in January.
“I’m not off the hook yet,” he told reporters after his release.
Ola Larsen, Mr Reznichenko’s lawyer, said Norway’s PST was unusually aggressive in making its case.
“Politics plays a role,” she said. “They want to make a statement to the Russians.”
Security jitters in the Norwegian Arctic were high before the invasion of Ukraine. The northern borders had friendly relations between the locals, who traded with each other, but there have been several suspected cases of espionage, dating back to the Cold War.
Some spy cases bordered on comedy. In 2019, a beluga whale found by a Norwegian fisherman in its Arctic waters was widely speculated to be a “spy whale” escaped from the Russian military. Norwegian media dubbed him “Hvaldimir” – a portmanteau of the Norwegian word for whale and the name Vladimir.
Yet those like Mr. Schrøen, the airport’s screening officer, insist that caution is always in order. Checking the news from his tower, a few miles from the courthouse, he didn’t feel guilty for putting a man on trial.
Spies, he says, are definitely interested in the Arctic: “You would have to be naive to think otherwise.