By Anton Troianovski / The Washington Post
KIRKENES, Norway — Frode Berg volunteered in a soup kitchen in rural Russia. He helped organize an annual cross-border festival and ski race. His congregation supported a new church in a Russian town just over the boundary line that divides East from West.
Then the Russians arrested him and accused him of being a spy.
That an espionage mystery is unfolding here on the Arctic frontier confounds residents who didn’t expect to be swept up in the confrontation between Russia and the West. On the snowbound shore of an icy fjord, a three-decade experiment in building cross-border ties independent of geopolitics now hangs in the balance.
No one in this Barents Sea port town, a 15-minute drive from the Russian border, seems to know why the police arrested Berg, a 62-year-old retired border inspector, near Moscow’s Red Square in December. His lawyers say Berg stands accused of mailing envelopes with cash and spy instructions addressed to a Moscow woman named Natalia and now faces a virtually certain espionage conviction.
“I can guarantee you that he is not a spy,” said Kirkenes Mayor Rune Rafaelsen. “What I’m wondering is, has someone used him?”
The case has received scant international attention, in part because the Norwegian government has resisted the entreaties of Berg’s friends to bring more public pressure to bear on the Kremlin. But it has jolted Kirkenes, where residents say that Berg personified this remote region’s efforts to foster bonds even after geopolitical tensions spiked in recent years.
Did Russian spies set up Berg to provoke an international incident with Norway, a front-line member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Did Norwegian intelligence use Berg as an unwitting courier in an operation gone wrong? Or — in a scenario that Berg’s friends categorically rule out — did he truly lead some kind of double life?
“He seemed to be a nice guy,” said Arve Henriksen, a Kirkenes port agent who specializes in Russian clients, among them the nine crab fishing boats in the harbor outside his office window. “But then again, who really knows anybody when it comes down to it?”
On Friday, a Moscow judge extended Berg’s jail term for an additional three months as Russia’s investigation of him continues. After the hearing, as Norwegian journalists lobbed questions at him, Berg gripped the bars of his courtroom cage and insisted he had been trapped.
“I feel really misused,” Berg said, referring to unidentified people in Norway who his lawyers say gave him the envelopes to mail. “I have been fighting against hate and anger.”
For now, the only thing that seems clear is that not even Kirkenes — liberated by the Soviets from the Nazis in 1944 and part of a Russia-Norway visa-free zone — can escape the confrontation between Russia and the West. Schoolteacher Robert Nesje realized that last weekend when he was keeping the time at a friendly Russian-Norwegian swim meet and thought of his close friend Berg imprisoned at the same moment in Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo Prison.
“That’s kind of absurd. That’s kind of unreal,” Nesje said. “We feel that the Cold War is coming back.”
Driving south and east out of Kirkenes, travelers leave a prim Scandinavian town where a hotel serves $220 crab dinners and arrive in the Russian town of Nikel, where smoke billows out of a huge nickel plant and a bust of Lenin still stands sentry. The region’s coordinator for international affairs, Tatiana Bazanova, said Berg participated “everywhere and in everything” when it came to cross-border projects and that his case could cast a shadow on all of them.
“If he was truly a spy,” Bazanova said, “it would turn out that all our cooperation is a cover for various operations. Then people might say that I’m undercover.”
Berg came to Kirkenes — on the front line of the original Cold War — as a military officer in 1975. Weekly, he drilled in preparation for a Soviet invasion, training in the use of defensive fire on tanks and helicopters, he recalled in an interview last year for an art project about the border region.
He switched to the border commission in 1990, and in the ensuing quarter-century lived Western hopes for a closer relationship with Russia. He went out on joint patrols with Russian counterparts and ate and fished with them after meetings. He helped arrange an annual ski race for Russians, Finns and Norwegians passing through the normally off-limits border strip. After he retired in 2014, he joined the board of a Kirkenes art organization, Pikene pa Broen, that focuses on cross-border exchange.
The efforts of Berg and others pushing for closer ties paid off. Russian fishing and oil firms flocked to the Kirkenes port and shipyards, and Russian shoppers sought out cheap diapers and other Western goods. An agreement allowing visa-free travel for residents near the border came into force in 2012. Border crossings surged from around 2.000 a year in 1990 to a high of 320,000 in 2013.
Daily buses now run between Kirkenes and Russia’s northern port city of Murmansk. Travelers wind past Russian military bases hidden in the hills and snow-sheathed barbed-wire fences that, in late January, are bathed in the pink light of the Arctic afternoon.
“I’m not afraid of Russia,” Berg said in the interview. “I know the history. I know the Russians very well. And I have no problem with them.”
According to the official line in Moscow, it was all a lie.
“Can such a good-hearted European pensioner be a spy?” asked a December report about Berg on Russian state television. “An investigation by Russian intelligence shows that this is very much possible.”
Berg’s version of the story, according to his lawyers, is that an Oslo acquaintance introduced him to another Norwegian who asked him to take 3,000 euros in cash to Moscow in December and send it to someone named Natalia. On Dec. 5, when Berg was on his way to the post office with the cash, Russian authorities arrested him.
Berg’s Norwegian lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, is trying to find out whether the men who sent him were spies, and if so for whom. They could have been connected to Norwegian intelligence, he says, or they may have been part of a Russian plan to entrap Berg and provoke an international incident.
“When Russia’s leadership’s ties with one of its neighbors worsen, the FSB reacts by seeking to open a spy case related to that country,” said Berg’s Russian lawyer, Ilya Novikov, referring to Russia’s security agency, which is investigating Berg.
Novikov said that even though his client maintains his innocence, Berg’s best hope was to be traded for Russian spies in custody in the West. A Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that diplomats were working to safeguard Berg’s interests but that he wasn’t at liberty to discuss details of the case because of Norwegian confidentiality rules.
The lawyers say Berg denies knowing that the envelopes he was carrying contained spy instructions. They say that the FSB has accused Berg of being merely a one-way courier, who learned no Russian secrets. But the Russian state news media said Berg stole secrets on Russia’s Northern Fleet and suggested that pretty much any foreigner who takes a great interest in Russia cannot be trusted.
Russian counterintelligence agents should keep an eye out for foreigners who “are too passionately in favor of developing relations with Russia,” a national-security expert interviewed on state television said about the Berg case.
Relations between Russia and Norway, a founding NATO member, have grown more tense as Europe’s Far North has re-emerged as a strategic focal point. About 300 U.S. Marines arrived in central Norway early last year for winter-warfare training.
The Berg case marks the first time since at least the Russian Revolution that a Norwegian has been arrested for espionage in Russia, according to Lars Rowe, a Russia specialist at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute outside Oslo. He said the arrest would deal a blow to the country’s efforts of “strengthening and preserving whatever can be saved in regional cooperation in the north.”
“For 25 years, we have been working systematically to bring people together. This takes people more apart,” said Lars Georg Fordal, head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, which finances Russian cooperation projects. “Even during the Cold War, nothing like this was actually happening.”