Spies in the Arctic and Why We Need Them

Skjermbilde NRK
NRK's narrative about Russian intelligence on Svalbard: (Screenshot NRK)

(Commentary) NRK is serving news so old that they could be part of the history syllabus already in the 90s. Now I am just waiting for them to announce that the earth is round.

On Wednesday, the Norwegian national broadcaster flooded its broadcasts with the "revelation" that Russian military intelligence is present on Svalbard.

Through cooperation with Russian exile journalists, Consul Andrei Chemerilo in Barentsburg was traced back to a residential complex that belongs to the military intelligence agency GRU.

Like a bomb

A valid piece of information, in and of itself, based on thorough and competent investigations carried out by Russian journalists.

However, it takes off when this information reaches the news desk in NRK, the Norwegian national broadcaster. There, and only there, it hits like a bomb and is consequently wrapped up in a dramaturgy made to make us jump by the radio and TV set. Apparently, the consul's connection to GRU represents a dramatic change in Russia's presence on Svalbard. 

It is a curious angle to adopt, as NRK has journalists with great knowledge about both Svalbard in particular and the High North in general.

News so old that they could be part of the history syllabus already in the 90s.

I met KGB in Pyramiden on Svalbard in the 90s, when it was still a vibrant Russian community. It was neither surprising nor sensational. 

Svalbard's holy history

Others, with greater Svalbard expertise, had discovered GRU's presence long ago.

The book "Svalbard historie" (the History of Svalbard), written by the historian Thor B. Arlov, was first published in 1996. It is considered a holy book among Svalbard experts and is an obligatory read for all who want to understand Svalbard. Not least the relationship between Norway and Russia on the archipelago.

On side 419 in my quite worn-out copy, Thor B. Arlov refers to decades of Norwegian and Russian intelligence, and writes the following:

"It is a poorly kept secret that Norwegian surveillance has identified personnel from the military intelligence agency GRU in the Russian settlements." 


I met KGB on Svalbard.

At least 30 years too late

Almost 30 years later, NRK insists that they have revealed a secret when they share that also today, at a time when Svalbard's strategic significance has considerably increased, Russian intelligence is present in Barentsburg.

The dramatic gravity, according to NRK, is emphasized by constant references to military activity in the High North, and reaches a climax of sorts when NRK asks if Russian "military intelligence has taken control over the Russians settlement on Svalbard?".

If full control equals the consul having a background in military intelligence, then the answer is yes, with a necessary addition: This has been the case for decades.

If NRk had followed up with an equally important question about whether Norway has control over the Russian settlement on Svalbard, then the answer would also be yes.

The challenge on Svalbard is not found in mutual intelligence in two, three if we count Pyramiden, very transparent settlements. Quite the contrary, it is a benefit that Russia has a correct understanding of Norwegian security policy, also on Svalbard.

Stress testing Norway

With a sky full of satellites, the control of unwanted activity outside the settlements has never been better.

Right now, one of the challenges, if we disregard increased military activity in the sea areas off Svalbard, is a Russia that is actively stress testing Norway's sovereignty practice. Not by questioning Norwegian sovereignty, but by testing where the limits of Russian activity are.

Everyone who reads Svalbardposten or High North News has registered how Trust Arktikugol, the Russian mining company in Barentsburg, is gushing out requests to open everything from liquor stores to research stations on Svalbard.

This, however, takes place with full transparency because it is the absolute most effective method to create unrest in the civilian population, and perhaps also in the government.

But a "revelation" which announces that GRU is present in Barentsburg is no news story and is not creating any unrest with the Governor of Svalbard, or as Governor Lars Fause elegantly replies to NRK:

"I have employees that are closely keeping watch on such issues and I am well trained in this myself."

A dash of reality orientation.

The Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) is also unwilling to meet NRK's need for sensationalism. Quite the contrary.

"For Russian intelligence services, it is important to have information about actors that are involved in the management of Svalbard. Russia is seeking a good situational awareness in the region," says Inger Haugland of PST to NRK.

Frightening narrative

Still, NRK's presentation of its own "revelation" is well-suited as a means to intimidate the civilian population in mainland Norway. The local population in Longyearbyen is mostly shaking their heads at the information. For them, this has always been a part of their reality.

The Russian settlement on Svalbard was originally established to control its own settlements and inhabitants. 

"Anything else would be very surprising and inconsistent with Soviet tradition when it comes to the stationing of people abroad," wrote Thor B. Arlov already in 1996.

Later on, the intelligence was expanded to apply to other strategic areas on Svalbard.

Much like Norwegian intelligence.

NRK paints a quite disrespectful picture of the situation in Barentsburg in which Russian and Ukrainian inhabitants do not want to be interviewed. A phone call to its colleague in Moscow, would "reveal" that the challenge is the same for them. No Russians within Russian borders are currently talking to the media. Not even in Barentsburg.

The fact that NRK is not allowed access to the mining company Trust Arktikugol's cafeteria is also made out to be suspect. For the sake of comparison, I am not allowed access to NRK's cafeteria in Marienlyst without an invitation either.

If NRK had just knocked on the door of the Norwegian police station located in the middle of Barentsburg, they would probably have been invited in for coffee.

With, if not vodka, then perhaps a dash of reality orientation.

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This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.