This week, Norway accused one of its own citizens and a Russian official of espionage. The resulting arrest and expulsion are a low point amid the Arctic states’ already sanctions-strained relationship.
On August 17th, Norwegian police apprehended a man suspected of passing state secrets to Russia. The suspect was caught selling energy information acquired via his position at risk management firm DNV GL.
His handler was also caught, and a briefcase seized. The contents have not been disclosed to the public. The Russian Embassy in Norway characterized the arrest and seizure as baseless fear-mongering. Russia took this stance previously when Norway conducted war games with NATO forces along the countries’ borders.
Two days later, on August 19th, Norwegian officials expelled a member of the Russian Embassy’s trade division. The envoy was accused of involvement in the espionage scheme. The Russian Embassy in Oslo protested the decision, but no retaliatory action has been taken.
The row represents Russia’s larger diplomatic difficulties in the High North. NATO-aligned Scandinavia fears the Federation will infringe on its sovereignty and is an integral part of the Crimean sanctions regime. As a result, relations between the Arctic sub-region and Russia can only advance so far, leading Russia to look toward China for capital and cooperation. However, Russia also fears for its sovereignty, and seeks to diversify its Arctic partnerships.
Norway’s Relationship with Russia and China
The state of Norway’s relationships with China and Russia will be important for places like Kirkenes. The port town is courting Chinese infrastructure investment, but is also a borderland hotspot for commercial activity. Travel between Russia and Norway in the area is common, with Norwegians crossing to buy Russian fuel and Russians journeying over for goods and services. Though this espionage incident is relatively minor, Norway’s long-term relationship with Russia will play an important part in Kirkenes’ future and the region’s.
“This is the center of Norway … This is the closest Norway comes to something that is important regarding foreign policy. Nothing is happening in Oslo”Rune Rafaelsen, Mayor of Sør-Varanger, Norway
Given the European Arctic’s steady remilitarization, espionage is bound to increase. Until there is a comprehensive end to Western sanctions, covert operations accompanied by occasional shows of force will remain the regional norm.