In a Wary Arctic, Norway Starts to See Russian Spies Everywhere

TROMSO, Norway — In hindsight, some things just didn’t add up about Jose Giammaria.

For one, the visiting researcher at the University of Tromso, 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 — yet he never talked about his research. But he was always helpful, even offering to redesign the home page for the Center for Peace Studies, where he worked.

That was until Oct. 24, when Norway’s security police, the PST, arrived with a warrant to search his office. Days later, they announced his arrest as a Russian spy, named Mikhail Mikushin.

The revelation sent a chill through campus, said Marcela Douglas, who heads the Center for Peace Studies, which researches security and conflict. “I started to see spies everywhere.”

So is Norway, and much of the rest of Europe, too.

As the war in Ukraine bogs down and Moscow’s isolation increases, European nations have grown wary that a desperate Kremlin is exploiting their open societies to deepen attempts at spying, sabotage and infiltration — possibly to send a message, or to probe how far it could go if needed in a broader conflict with the West.

Mr. Mikushin is one of three Russians recently arrested in Europe on suspicion of being “illegals” — spies who embed in a local society for long-term espionage or recruitment. In June, an intern at the International Criminal Court, also with a Brazilian passport, was arrested in The Hague and charged with spying for Russia. In late November, a Swedish raid caught a Russian couple accused of espionage.

Other suspicious incidents have popped up across Europe: In Germany, drones found flying over military sites where Ukrainians forces were being trained are strongly suspected by German officials of being Russian intelligence. Undersea cables cut in France, while not attributed to malignant intent, have raised suspicions among security analysts. And a hack of fuel distribution networks in Belgium and Germany days before Russia’s invasion also raised alarm.

Not all of the incidents can be traced to the Kremlin with certainty, and in many places, heightened vigilance and real concern have become hard to separate from widening paranoia. Russia has called a string of recent Norwegian arrests, mostly of Russian citizens for flying drones, a form of “hysteria.”

Norway, however, may have more reasons to worry than most.

Now that Western sanctions have all but cut off Russian fossil fuels to Europe, Norway is the biggest oil and gas supplier to the continent. Off its Arctic coast lie underwater cables that are critical for internet servicing for the financial hub of London, and for passing satellite imagery from the high north, where Norway borders Russia for 123 miles, across the Atlantic to the United States.

That vital role has felt all the more vulnerable since September, when explosions destroyed the Nord Stream pipelines between Russia and Germany, and for which Moscow and Washington have traded blame.

“It was a wake-up call. The war is not only in Ukraine. It can also affect us, even if it is hard to attribute,” said Tom Roseth, a professor at the Norwegian Defence University College.

A number of more conventional Russian spies have been rounded up and expelled in recent years, possibly making Russia more reliant on sleeper agents, especially as the war in Ukraine stumbles.

The recent surge in cases, Mr. Roseth said, reflected Russia’s need for its dormant spies to come through.

“At this point in time in Europe, with the pressure of the situation that Moscow is in, it wants its network to deliver,” he said. “Even though these activities have been there before, I think they take higher risks now.”

In Norway’s case, unease began rising after a military-grade drone was spotted in September over an oil platform in the North Sea. Soon, there were more drone sightings over oil and gas installations, and a power station. In October, the Bergen airport, located near the country’s largest naval base, was closed for two hours after drones were observed in the area.

Norwegians began questioning other incidents that had happened earlier in the year: An underwater cable damaged in January, which transmitted satellite images for Western space agencies. A damaged water reserve near several military sites, not far from Tromso. What if these were not accidents or troublemakers, but Russian sabotage?

“Attacks like that could be useful — same as surveillance over oil rigs,” said Ole Johan Skogmo, a regional police inspector, who said the PST is still investigating the damaged water reserve. “We don’t know exactly who did it. But now, they know that we know someone could do it.”

Norwegian citizens have dutifully responded to warnings to be alert, inundating police with calls over drone sightings, or foreigners allegedly acting suspicious.

But now, some worry that hyper vigilance has gone too far, especially in terrain as murky as suspected espionage.

On a recent afternoon, in the pitch black of Arctic winter, Tromso’s tiny regional courthouse was hearing two cases against Russian citizens accused of flying drones.

Neither was accused of spying, which is hard to prove. Instead, they were charged with violating European sanctions that ban Russians from flying aircraft, which Norway is now interpreting to include Russian individuals operating hobby drones.

Seven Russians were arrested in mid-October for flying drones, and four have been put on trial. Two have been convicted and ordered to serve prison sentences of 90 or 120 days.

Among those caught up in the arrests is Andrey Yakunin, the son of Vladimir Yakunin, a longtime ally of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, in a trial closely followed across the country.

The younger Yakunin, a businessman who lives in the United Kingdom and holds British citizenship, has distanced himself from Russia’s invasion.

He was arrested after his yacht, the Firebird, was stopped by Norwegian authorities, who asked if he had a drone. He showed them a drone used to capture images of himself and his crew skiing and fishing among the glacial landscapes of Arctic Norway.

Prosecutors are pursuing a 120-day sentence.

“For sure I’m not a spy — though I do own a full collection of James Bond movies,” joked Mr. Yakunin, in an interview after his trial began on Dec. 3.

Speaking to The New York Times, Mr. Yakunin refused to comment on whether his arrest was political, but argued it was an oddity that he and three other men were all arrested over a short period in October: “As a student of statistics, this does not fit normal distribution.”

Across the hall, in a tiny courtroom away from the cameras, a graying man in denim, Aleksey Reznichenko, a Russian engineer, tearfully pleaded his own case in a much lower profile trial. He was arrested after taking pictures of fences and the parking lot outside the control tower at Tromso airport.

“It was a gut feeling,” said Ivar Helsing Schrøen, the air control manager, who grew suspicious and called the police. “Something was very strange.”

In court, Mr. Reznichenko teared up as he spoke through a translator in Russian, saying he feared for his family, for whom he was the sole breadwinner.

He was found with photographs of a military helicopter and the nearby Kirkenes airport. He said that taking photos of aircraft and airports is a longtime hobby. But in any case, neither photograph was illegal. Instead, Mr. Reznichenko was charged for flying a drone.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike say that in prosecuting such cases Norway has crossed into a legal gray area that challenges its democratic values.

The Mikushin case has sparked a tussle 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, Mr. Yakunin’s and several other defense lawyers have argued that sanctioning Russians based on nationality is discriminatory, and potentially a human rights violation.

“There is a question whether this is the law — but if the law’s wording covers this, the law is a problem,” said John Christian Elden, Mr. Yakunin’s lead lawyer.

The country itself seems to be conflicted as to how to handle the situation. The judges in both Mr. Yakunin and Mr. Reznichenko’s cases have now decided to acquit them. But prosecutors are appealing both cases. Mr. Yakunin will be back in Tromso’s court in January.

“I am not out of the woods yet,” he told journalists after being released from custody.

Ola Larsen, Mr. Reznichenko’s lawyer, said Norway’s PST was being unusually aggressive to make a point.

“Politics is playing a role,” she said. “They want to make a statement to the Russians.”

Security jitters in Norway’s Arctic were high before the invasion of Ukraine. The northern frontiers had friendly relations among locals, who trade with one another, but there have been several suspected espionage cases, dating back to the Cold War.

Some espionage cases have bordered on the comical. In 2019 a beluga whale found by Norwegian fisherman in its Arctic waters was widely speculated to be a “spy whale” escaped from Russia’s military. Norwegian media dubbed him “Hvaldimir” — a portmanteau of the Norwegian word for whale and the name Vladimir.

Yet those like Mr. Schroen, the airport control manager, insist caution is always warranted. Checking the news from his tower, just a few miles from the courthouse, he felt no guilt over sending a man to trial.

Spies, he says, are definitely interested in the Arctic: “You’d have to be naïve to think it was otherwise.”

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