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Norwegian may be new victim of old Arctic sovereignty game

  • Author: Steve Haycox
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 9
  • Published February 8

You may have learned that Norway has an Arctic mystery in its hands. According to a story by the Washington Post's Moscow bureau chief (Feb. 3), Anton Troianovsky, an apparently upstanding Norse citizen from the far north Barents Sea port town of Kirkenes, 15 miles from the Russian border, was arrested in December in Moscow by the FSB, Russian security police. He is imprisoned, accused of being a spy. When arrested he was carrying an envelope containing 3,000 Euros and, say FSB officials, letters with espionage instructions. The Norse citizen, Frode Berg, is a 62-year old retired border inspector. A resident since 1975, like many non-Natives Berg became enamored with life in the north, and with its people.

As Troianovsky tells it, the residents of Kirkenes have not seen themselves as geopolitical warriors. Over the years they have developed personal and institutional ties with the Russians just across the border. While still an active border agent, Berg helped arrange cross-border ski races. An arts organization in Kirkenes arranges exchanges with Russians in Nikel, an industrial town just across the frontier. The Russians have been permitted to shop in Kirkenes, and Russian boats have frequented the Norwegian port. In 2012 the two countries established a visa-free zone between the two towns and cross-border traffic has soared.

Whether Berg is a spy, just a hapless fellow taken advantage of, or the victim of an FSB set- up, no one knows, and probably won't. Berg, who the people in Kirkenes say is the most unlikely spy, protests his innocence. A year ago, U.S. military planners dispatched several hundred marines to Vaernes, farther south in Norway, for cold weather training. Vaernes is near an underground Norwegian military supply cache that could supply nearly 5,000 troops. Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Berg's arrest, some speculate, is Russia's way of protesting this new American and NATO presence in the north. There are a number of unsolved Arctic mysteries through the years, many involving sovereignty, and there will likely be more.

In 2016 Russian scientists re-assessed the World War II German weather station in Franz Josef Land which they now think may have been used to store treasure looted across Europe during the war. Last year residents of Igoolik, on Foxe Basin north of Hudson Bay, between Baffin Island and the Melville Peninsula, reported a persistent ping, apparently emanating from the sea floor. It's loud enough to be heard though the hulls of passing boats; Inuit fishers who use the area are worried it will drive off sea life. To date, the source has not been identified, and there is speculation that it may be coming from a Russian intelligence devise. The Canadian army stages an annual training exercise in the Arctic, NOREX. While the emphasis this year is on responding to an Arctic emergency, such as a plane crash or other human crisis, the training site is near Resolute, Nunavut, not too far from Igoolik. There has been concern for several years over Russian military advances in the Arctic.

Three years ago a 5-day Russian Arctic exercise involving 68,000 personnel and more than fifty surface ships dwarfed anything the Canadians or Americans have undertaken and excited the attention of the Pentagon and NATO commanders. It's common knowledge that the Russians are far ahead in Arctic capability than everyone else in the Arctic. Where might this lead? Sovereign claims in the Arctic are not new. In 1907, in response to American Robert Peary's Arctic expeditions, a member of the Canadian parliament advanced his nation's claim to much of the region. Upon reaching the North Pole in 1909, Peary claimed "formal possession" of the region "in the name of the President of the United States." In 1925 both Canada and Russia claimed sovereignty over the area north of their mainlands to the North Pole. In 1945 President Truman claimed sovereignty for the U.S. over natural resources in the American continental shelf, approved in a U.N. Convention on the Continental Shelf in 1948. In 1982 the U.N. Law of the Sea convention sought to normalize all such claims in order to prevent clashes in the future. All the Arctic nations have signed it, except the United States." A story by the Washington Post's Moscow bureau chief, Anton Troianovsky, an apparently upstanding Norse citizen from the far north Barents Sea port town of Kirkenes, 15 miles from the Russian border, was arrested in December in Moscow by the FSB, Russian security police. He is imprisoned, accused of being a spy. When arrested he was carrying an envelope containing 3,000 Euros and, say FSB officials, letters with espionage instructions.

The Norse citizen, Frode Berg, is a 62-year old retired border inspector. A resident since 1975, like many non-Natives Berg became enamored with life in the north, and with its people. As Troianovsky tells it, the residents of Kirkenes have not seen themselves as geopolitical warriors. Over the years they have developed personal and institutional ties with the Russians just across the border. While still an active border agent, Berg helped arrange cross-border ski races. An arts organization in Kirkenes arranges exchanges with Russians in Nikel, an industrial town just across the frontier. The Russians have been permitted to shop in Kirkenes, and Russian boats have frequented the Norwegian port.  In 2012 the two countries established a visa-free zone between the two towns and cross-border traffic has soared.

Whether Berg is a spy, just a hapless fellow taken advantage of, or the victim of an FSB set-up, no one knows, and probably won't. Berg, who the people in Kirkenes say is the most unlikely spy, protests his innocence.

A year ago, U.S. military planners dispatched several hundred marines to Vaernes, farther south in Norway, for cold weather training.  Vaernes is near an underground Norwegian military supply cache that could supply nearly 5,000 troops. Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Berg's arrest, some speculate, is Russia's way of protesting this new American and NATO presence in the north.

A Norwegian tunnel in Kirkenes, near the border with Russia. (Photo for The Washington Post by Ksenia Ivanova)

There are a number of unsolved Arctic mysteries through the years, many involving sovereignty, and there will likely be more. In 2016 Russian scientists re-assessed the World War II German weather station in Franz Josef Land which they now think may have been used to store treasure looted across Europe during the war. Last year residents of Igoolik, on Foxe Basin north of Hudson Bay, between Baffin Island and the Melville Peninsula, reported a persistent ping, apparently emanating from the sea floor. It's loud enough to be heard though the hulls of passing boats; Inuit fishers who use the area are worried it will drive off sea life. To date, the source has not been identified, and there is speculation that it may be coming from a Russian intelligence devise. The Canadian army stages an annual training exercise in the Arctic, NOREX. While the emphasis this year is on responding to an Arctic emergency, such as a plane crash or other human crisis, the training site is near Resolute, Nunavut, not too far from Igoolik.

There has been concern for several years over Russian military advances in the Arctic.  Three years ago a five-day Russian Arctic exercise involving 68,000 personnel and more than 50 surface ships dwarfed anything the Canadians or Americans have undertaken and excited the attention of the Pentagon and NATO commanders. It's common knowledge that the Russians are far ahead in Arctic capability than everyone else in the Arctic.

Where might this lead? Sovereign claims in the Arctic are not new. In 1907, in response to American Robert Peary's Arctic expeditions, a member of the Canadian parliament advanced his nation's claim to much of the region. Upon reaching the North Pole in 1909, Peary claimed "formal possession" of the region "in the name of the President of the United States." In 1925 both Canada and Russia claimed sovereignty over the area north of their mainlands to the North Pole. In 1945 President Truman claimed sovereignty for the U.S. over natural resources in the American continental shelf, approved in a U.N. Convention on the Continental Shelf in 1948. In 1982 the U.N. Law of the Sea convention sought to normalize all such claims in order to prevent clashes in the future. All the Arctic nations have signed it, except the United States.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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