Norway MP warned for Russian spy contacts

Norway’s Police Security Service (PST) has warned an MP from the populist Progress Party about his excessive social contact with suspected Russian intelligence officers, Norway’s VG newspaper has reported in an investigative article.

Norway MP warned for Russian spy contacts
Progress MP Tor André Johnsen (right) talking to Semyon Dzakhaev (second right), the Russian diplomat who is Deputy Director General of the OSCE. Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
PST officers last year demanded a face-to-face meeting with Tor André Johnsen in the Norwegian Parliament, in which they demanded that he only meet the Russian embassy officials publicly in parliament, and not in his free time in restaurants and clubs. 
The VG article also details how Johnsen, who speaks Russian and lived in Moscow for nearly a year in 1998, lobbied his MP colleagues in Norway’s delegation to the OSCE to back a controversial Russian security proposal, which he then went on to become one of only two MPs in Europe to sign. 
According to VG, Johnsen has during two separate meetings with PST agents disagreed with their analysis of the risks posed by his meetings with Russian embassy officials, telling them that he did not intend to follow their advice.
Tor André Johnsen, who lives in Brumunddal, told VG that he had maintained a strong interest in Russia ever since watching the Russian delegation at the Lillehammer Olympics 22 years ago.
Johnsen responded on Tuesday with an article in Norway's Aftenposten newspaper. 
“VG is trying today to create an impression that I do not listen to PST, and that I have irregular contact with Russia,” he wrote. “These are very serious accusations that are not correct.” 
“I have worked with and in Russia for 17 years and my wife is Ukrainian. She was born in Ukraine and my daughter’s grandmother still lives there,” he said earlier. “I have a different relationship with Russia and Ukraine than many others in Norway.” 
He explained that he had moved to Moscow in 1998 to start a representative office for Norska Skog, the Norwegian forestry company, which is the world’s second largest producer of newsprint, staying there for almost a year. 
According to VG, Johnsen lobbied last year to convince Norway’s delegation to the OSCE to back a controversial Russian proposal on European security policy.
At a meeting in Norway’s parliament on June 12, just months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Johnsen tried to convince his colleagues to back an OSCE security proposal backed by  Nikolaj Kovalev, the Russian delegation member in the OSCE. 
“Johnsen was positive to the resolution, but we were very clear to him that this was problematic and would send the wrong signal,” Torstein Tvedt Solberg, an MP from the Labour Party and OSCE delegate, told VG. “The resolution had to be read in the context that Russia had just annexed part of another European country.” 
Conservative MP Trond Helleland was also against any Norwegian MP backing the resolution. 
“Although the resolution itself looked innocent, I suspected that if they got a Western signature on a resolution that the Russians were behind it, that they would then use it in their propaganda,” the 
Johnsen, however, continued lobbying for the proposal, and ended up signing it anyway, despite the opposition of his parliamentary colleagues. The only other European MP to sign the proposal was a member of the Independent Greeks, a hard-right Eurosceptic party. 
Andrej Kovalev, the proposal’s sponsor, was Vladimir Putin’s predecessor as head of Russia’s FSB intelligence service, leaving the job in 1998. 
The controversy over Johnsen’s close relationships with Russian diplomats deemed to be intelligence officials comes after Germany’s Bild newspaper last year detailed Russian plans to fund and influence Europe’s hard-right populist parties, presumably to weaken the European Union. 
According to VG, Johnsen’s backing for the Russian position on Ukraine has been an embarrassment for Norway, drawing complaints from OSCE delegates from Baltic states such as Lithuania. 
At the OSCE conference in Baku last June, Johnsen met with Russian delegates, despite a clear sense among other Norwegian MPs at the conference that the recent annexation of Crimea meant that they should refrain from friendly contact. 
“Johnsen was very active among the Russian delegation to the OSCE,” said Torstein Tvedt Solberg, a Labour party MP and OSCE delegate. “He talked with them both inside and outside the meeting rooms. As he speaks Russian, unlike everyone else in the delegation, I have no idea of ​​what they were talking about.” 
Arne Christian Haugstøyl, a Section head at PST, said that he had repeatedly warned Norwegian MPs against excessive contact with Russian diplomatic officials, warning that even social contact may be risky.  
“The Russian embassy has a fairly formidable number of intelligence officers under diplomatic cover,” he said. “These are highly trained personnel who will manage to build up trust and a friendly relationship. Then you become more vulnerable to being exploited to provide more information than you had intended.” 
He cited examples from the past where a Russian agent who had previously seemed friendly began blackmailing a Western contacts. 
“You can be put in situations where you can be put under pressure. We have examples where people have received film tickets in a brown envelope, but where the look is far more serious when the picture is taken.” 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Terror, cyber-attacks and espionage: These are the biggest threats to Norway’s security

The threats facing Norway have changed due to political and technological developments. But terrorism and espionage continues to be some of the biggest threats to national security, according to the annual threat assessment.

Terror, cyber-attacks and espionage: These are the biggest threats to Norway’s security
Photo: engin akyurt on Unsplash

The Police Security Service (PST), the Norwegian Intelligence Service (E-tjenesten) and the Norwegian National Security Authority (NSM) on Monday jointly presented their annual assessments of the biggest threats facing state and public security in Norway.

This was the 11th annual joint presentation of the threat assessment. The joint assessment is highly influential in determining Norwegian policy on a range of issues, such as foreign policy, cyber security and terrorism prevention.

“These three jointly form part of the foundation for those who reach decisions that impacts on our security,” said Norway’s Foreign Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen at the press conference in Oslo Monday.

The assessment identified geopolitical tensions, cyber-attacks and terrorism as the biggest immediate threats to Norway’s security.

“We have witnessed rapid technological change,” said the head of the Norwegian Intelligence Service, Nils Andreas Stensønes. “As a consequence, states and non-state actors have increased their room for manoeuvre. This has to also be considered alongside growing great-power rivalry. These are the driving forces behind the threats Norway is facing at the commencement of 2021.”

Terror a significant danger

The threat assessments identify terrorism as a significant public danger in Norway, particularly by violent radical Islamic terror. The threat from the extreme far-right, however, has also increased, and far-right propaganda is gaining traction.

The terrorist threat level in Norway, however, is still considered to be “moderate”.

“This entails that there are groups in Norway that support using violence as a means to threaten Norway and Norwegian society,” said Head of the Police Security Service, Hans Sverre Sjøvold.

“These are groups that we are aware of, and that we will confront with preventive measures,” Sjøvold said.

The assessments, however, also point out that growing discontent with restrictions introduced to combat the Covid-19 pandemic may fuel opposition and potentially lead to terrorist attacks.

Great power rivalry

Norway is a Nato member and close ally to the United States. Yet its position close to Russia and proximity to the Arctic region means the country must balance precariously between its strategic alliances and maintaining friendly neighbourly relations.

“We can see that the great power rivalry continues with unabated strength,” said Bakke-Jensen.

He emphasised that while Russia is of particular concern, China has become an important global actor. Increasingly the country is attempting to promote its foreign and domestic interest on the global stage, openly and in secret.

But as of yet, outright war remains an unlikely scenario. A growing concern is espionage and operations to influence public opinion, such as psychological operations.

“The Norwegian armed force’s defence and foreign policy, the arctic region, Svalbard, the health sector, the energy sector and advanced technology is of great interest to foreign intelligence services,” said Stensønes.

Cyber security

The assessments also point out that cyber-attacks are also one of the main threats facing Norway. The country has this year experienced several attacks, including one against parliament in August last year.

“The cyber-attack against parliament in the fall of 2020 is one of several severe occurrences in recent time that illustrates the threat actors’ capacity and will to assault Norwegian organisation,” the NSM-report states.

Norway’s Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has blamed Russia for the attack, allegations that the Russian government denies.

Interlinked threats

Bakke-Jensen also stressed that these threats are complex and interlinked.

“We today face threats that expands across sectors,” Bakke-Jensen said. “State security and public security are increasingly more closely connected.”

He said that this is partly a consequence from Norway being an open and liberal democracy where citizens have a high degree of freedom and face relatively few constraints on rights and behaviours.

READ ALSO: Syrian teen arrested in Norway for plotting attack