The arrest of a Russian man in Oslo on suspicion of spying, the first such arrest by Norway in the modern era, could trigger a wave of hostile reactions by Russia including increasing its presence in Svalbard, according to experts.
Mikhail Botsjkarev, 51, was arrested at Oslo Airport on Friday after exhibiting “strange behavior” at an information technology conference in Norway’s Parliament. The Russian Embassy in Norway. The Russian embassy in Norway issued statements that “we believe the detention and subsequent arrest are far-fetched and done under an absurd pretext,” and “Norway’s ambassador to Moscow had been called on the carpet” Monday.
In a press release, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared there would be “consequences” due to the arrest.
Iver B. Neumann, a professor of Russian studies at Oslo Metropolitan University, told Dagbladet those consequences may include Russia failing to align itself with international law and more aggressively marking its presence in Norwegian territory.
“They may choose to step up their presence in Svalbard,” he said. “They can expel Norwegian diplomats, abstain from talks and affect Norwegian business interests.”
While the arrest is a unique event for Norway, accusations of recent Russian espionage are rife. The Washington Post, in an article Monday headlined “All over Europe, suspected Russian spies are getting busted,” detailed what it called “a string of defeats in Europe for Russia’s military spy agency, the GRU, and mass expulsions of Russian diplomats and spies.”
Norway’s concerns about Russian espionage – especially in Svalbard and other areas in the far north – are not. Annual reports by the Norwegian Police Security Service have stated Svalbard is top target due factors such as the easy ability of foreigners to move and blend in, state-of-the-art satellite and research facilities that could be hacked or attacked, and its strategic location near vast amounts of natural resources such as oil.
“The High North, including Svalbard, is an important region for Norway and Norwegian policy,” the 2016 report states. “Other countries also have interests and ambitions in the north, and make active efforts to strengthen their political influence and secure their current and future business interests.”
The potential for oil exploration and commercial shipping in the region has numerous countries making “active use of their security and intelligence services to further these ambitions,” according to the report. Intelligence activity is often mixed with above-board activities such as research projects, political activity and “cooperation forums.”
Russia, which regularly accuses Norway of a nationalistic interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty that defies the “equal access” provisions, has also aggressively stepped up its military activities near Svalbard in recent years, including massive training exercises on the sea ice near the North Pole.
There have also been plenty of accusations by both sides of conducting provocative activities, including earlier this month when U.S. bomber jet flew a loop around Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, followed by Russia conducting a simulated attack along the Norwegian coast several days later.