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UKRAINE

Ex-KGB officer’s superyacht to finally leave Norway after being stranded

An ultra-luxurious yacht owned by a Russian oligarch and former KGB officer may soon be on its way again after weeks of being refused fuel by Norwegians.

The Ragnar.
A 68 meters luxury yacht called Ragnar, owned by a former KGB officer, Russian oligarch Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, is pictured at the quay in Narvik, north Norway on March 21, 2022. - Local fuel suppliers refuse to refill the vessel since it arrived at the Narvik port on February 15, 2022, although its owner, linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is not on the EU sanctions list. Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

The converted icebreaker is docked in the port of Narvik, a small town in Norway’s far north, where it has been snubbed by fuel suppliers in protest over the Ukraine war.

With its imposing bow and helicopter platform, its dark grey silhouette stands in contrast to the cargo ships that come to load iron ore transported from a mine in neighbouring Sweden.

But, it is the identity of its owner which makes it a local curiosity: the 68-metre (223-foot) yacht, said to house a host of toys — like jet-skis, snowmobiles and ROVs, as well as amenities like an English pub — belongs to Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, according to various yacht industry sites.

T he 67-year-old businessman, who became extremely wealthy after a stint as the head of the mining giant Norilsk Nickel, is said to have links to Vladimir Putin, with whom he served in the KGB in Saint Petersburg, when the city was still called Leningrad.

Although he is not on the list of Russians targeted by European sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine, his alleged ties to the Russian leader has spooked locals and when the Ragnar needed to refuel in Narvik, where it anchored on February 15, no one there would sell him fuel.

‘Let them row’

“I have no sympathy for the conduct of the Russians in Ukraine. Why should we help them?” argued Sven Holmlund, director of one of the local suppliers.

“Let them row home. Or hoist sails,” he told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

Unable to leave, the yacht has been condemned to stay in port for five weeks now.

There, it has seen NATO warships participating in the Cold Response 2022 exercise, currently taking place in Norway.

This week, the Russian oligarch’s ship was even moored next to the Italian aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The yacht’s captain, a former Royal Marine, has not hidden his frustration.

In a note posted in the harbour, Rob Lankaster said he and his crew were “very disappointed in the double standards” applied by their Norwegian hosts, who agreed to supply Russian fishing trawlers but not the Maltese-flagged yacht he was commanding — which had an all Western crew, and whose owner he claimed not to know.

According to website Superyachtfan, the Ragnar was put up for sale for 69.5 million euros ($76.5 million) in 2021. But there is no indication that the boat was actually sold.

Sailing on Tuesday?

The case is an inconvenience for Norway’s authorities, who have themselves adopted almost all the sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU) but are generally reluctant to anger their powerful neighbour.

Seizing the yacht, as France and Italy have done, has been ruled out since Strzhalkovsky is not among those targeted by sanctions.

Without openly encouraging suppliers to have a change of heart, Norwegian minister for fisheries Bjornar Skjaran has signalled that it might be the easiest solution.

“We can all agree that the best thing now would be for the yacht to continue on its way,” he told NRK.

According to the broadcaster, a supplier has finally agreed to sell up to 300,000 litres (about 79,250 gallons) of diesel, which would allow the yacht to set sail on Tuesday.

In the port of Narvik, a tanker truck is waiting near the Ragnar, and the boat’s crew, which is said to have 16 members, seems to be in full preparation, an AFP team at the scene noted.

But the crew and officials are tight-lipped.

Only one British man, who seemed to have a management role, agreed to answer a few questions, without giving his name.

As for a departure on Tuesday, he tentatively said ‘no’, citing unspecified problems with the fuel tank

“The whole situation is absurd,” he said.

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UKRAINE

War in Ukraine casts a chill in Norwegian Arctic town

War may be far away but tensions from the Ukraine conflict are causing an unprecedented chill in a remote Arctic town where Russian and Ukrainian coalminers have worked side by side for decades.

War in Ukraine casts a chill in Norwegian Arctic town

 In Barentsburg, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, relics of a bygone era — a bust of Lenin, a sculpture with Cyrillic script declaring “Our goal – Communism” — bear witness to Russia’s longstanding presence.

The town’s population peaked at around 1,500 in the 1980s, but shrank after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Now, some 370 people live here, two-thirds of them Ukrainians — most from the Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region — and the remainder Russians.

The atmosphere on the archipelago changed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, officials and residents told AFP.

“Opinions are absolutely polarised,” admits Russian tour guide and historian Natalia Maksimishina.

But, she says, “what our long and difficult history of the Soviet Union has taught us is that people here know when to stop talking politics”.

Some Ukrainians accuse the Russian state-owned company Arktikugol Trust operating the coal mine in Barentsburg of muzzling dissent.

But Russia’s consul Sergey Guschin says there were “no visible signs of conflict on the surface”, although he admits “there are of course some tensions and discussions on social networks” like Facebook and Telegram.

The consulate is protected by high iron bars and security cameras, and lavishly decorated with a marble entrance, winter garden and custom-made tapestries. Its splendour stands out in the otherwise drab town.

Departures

In what could be another sign that anger is simmering under the surface, around 45 people have left Barentsburg “since the start of the operation”, acknowledges Guschin, using Moscow’s terminology for the Ukraine invasion. There were no further details about the individuals.

The departures speak volumes, as leaving Barentsburg is no easy feat. estern sanctions imposed on Russian banks have not only prevented the miners from sending money home to their families, they’ve also made it difficult for them to buy plane tickets.

The only airport is in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main town 35 kilometres (22 miles) away, where it is difficult to get by without a Visa or Mastercard, which Russians cannot use because of sanctions.

At the entrance to Barentsburg, the coal plant spews out black smoke, adding to the town’s dreary atmosphere.

A 1920 treaty which gave Norway sovereignty over Svalbard guarantees citizens from signatory nations equal access to its natural resources.

Russia’s Arktikugol Trust has operated the mine in Barentsburg, on the shores of the Isfjorden fjord, since 1932.

 A few locals huddle between the town’s pastel-coloured buildings, seeking shelter from the bitter cold that reigns even in May.

Locals are more discreet today, especially since they work for the state-controlled company that runs the whole town, from the mine to the shops and restaurants.

Russia imposes heavy fines or even prison terms on anyone found guilty of “discrediting” its military or publishing “false information” about it.

‘People just shut up’

Longyearbyen is inhabited mainly by Norwegians but has a large Russian and Ukrainian community.

It can only be reached by helicopter or snowmobile in winter and boat in summer due to lack of roads from Barentsburg.

Julia Lytvynova, a 32-year-old Ukrainian seamstress who used to live in Barentsburg, accuses Arktikugol Trust of suppressing dissent

As a result, “people just shut up, work and live their lives like nothing has happened”.

She hasn’t been back to Barentsburg since the war started, but she asked a friend to put up an anti-war poster for her on the gates of the Russia consulate.

Her sign, written on a blue-and-yellow background, had a now-famous expletive-laden line used by Ukrainian border guards after rejecting a Russian warship’s surrender demand. Her poster was taken down in less than five minutes, she says.

The mayor of Longyearbyen, who has lived in Svalbard for 22 years, says he has “never experienced the kind of discord” now seen among the 2,500 residents of 50 nationalities, including around 100 Russians and Ukrainians.

“There are some tensions in the air,” Arild Olsen admits.

n response to the invasion, most tour operators in Longyearbyen stopped taking tourists to Barentsburg, depriving the state-owned company of a lucrative cash cow.

Lytvynova supports the move “because this money supports the Russian aggression”. By ending this source of income, “they don’t help to kill my Ukrainian people”.

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