If there is one thing northern Norway likes to pride itself on, it is that, even when relations with Russia are strained, practical matters like border crossings, commerce and maritime-rescue training are kept aside from the dispute. And, indeed, these have continued despite Moscow’s starting a war against Ukraine on 24 February. But, as the West, including Oslo, has imposed increasingly tougher sanctions to punish the Kremlin, Norway’s domestic intelligence agency, the PST, is growing ever more concerned that Moscow may be seeking to use this openness to bring Norwegians around to the Kremlin’s way of thinking about the war.
In response, the Norwegian government announced last week that it was proposing that the Storting, the national assembly, add an additional 100 million kroner (€10 million) to the PST’s 2.1 billion kroner budget to help it sniff out and respond to things like sabotage, influence operations and outright spying.
Most of the money would be spent on counter-intelligence operations in Norway’s northern regions, including Finnmark and Troms, a county bordering Russia, as well as in Svalbard, which is administered from Oslo. The extra funds would be used for things like more equipment and more employees whose main job would be to keep a close eye on social media in order identify disinformation and to trace it back to its source. In Svalbard, Oslo would like to use 8 million kroner to carry out random ID checks of people entering and leaving the territory. Systematic checks are not planned, but they could be implemented later if the situation requires, according to the justice ministry.
Despite the sometime friendship, Norway, the PST wrote in its annual threat assessment, published on 12 February, has “special challenges” when it comes Russia (this is the same way it describes Norway’s relationship with China, Pakistan and Iran). The war against Ukraine and the retaliatory sanctions have not made the situation any easier, the justice ministry said when proposing the increased funding, noting that the PST now warns that the threat of Russian intelligence operations is even higher than it was when the assessment was compiled.
The concerns are not groundless: Russia has probably been involved in espionage operations in the past, including what the PST describes as a “serious and unexplained” 2020 hacking incident in which the administration of Universitetet i Tromsø, as well as some of the faculty members in its Arctic-studies programme, had their e-mail accounts broken into. The PST expects that, the more its snoops look, the more suspicious things they will find, but it reckons that most of the concerns they look into will turn out to be harmless activity. That, too, should be a source of pride.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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