On 27 September 2019, the well-informed Norwegian security and defence portal Aldrimer.no reported that Russian Spetsnaz units were recently found operating inside Norwegian territory. More specifically, Russian forces were discovered both on Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and on mainland Norway.
National and NATO military exercises frequently attract Russian interest in nations bordering Russia; vehicles with Russian licence plates have been seen in the vicinity of exercises held in the Nordic and Baltic nations, and military facilities and exercises are filmed and photographed with the aim of collecting information. In 2015, Russian tactical drones were reportedly identified during a military exercise in the western part of Estonia. Over the past few years, courts in all three Baltic states have sentenced individuals to jail for spying on behalf of Russian intelligence agencies, in some cases for reporting on NATO forces deployed in the region.
Unsurprisingly, Moscow has denied any involvement in these spying activities. While much has changed since the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s straightforward, not to say aggressive, interest in neighbouring nations and policy of total denial has remained.
However, the deployment of Russian special forces in Norwegian territory, if true, would represent a notable escalation when compared to the afore mentioned intelligence gathering activities. Research conducted over the last 10-15 years suggests that Spetsnaz units were occasionally deployed in Swedish territory during the Cold War but were done so in a highly concealed way. This time, the Russians appear to have taken a more deliberate risk of being discovered by operating against the backdrop of intensified western intelligence activities in response to a larger Russian exercise held in the area between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land.
Moscow is signalling to its neighbours that Russia can deploy its forces whenever and wherever necessary, even in foreign territory. By doing so, Russia is seeking to adjust the status quo by normalizing their actions and testing western capitals on how much Russia can get away with before being publicly attributed. If Norwegian authorities do not respond to this challenge, Russia will conclude that this behaviour has been accepted and that Moscow has been granted de facto access to Norwegian territory, whenever needed.
The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter and the hacking attempt on OPCW, both in 2018, serve as useful parallels. In the former case, the UK government attributed the attack to Russia, but local authorities failed to apprehend the suspects. In the latter, Dutch authorities arrested the Russian operatives, but instead of bringing them to justice, the government decided to expel the perpetrators and only go public with the matter thereafter. Both nations opted for openness and sent strong signals to Moscow condemning these acts.
As with this incident in Norway, it will be interesting to follow how German authorities decide to react to the assassination of an ethnic Chechen on 23 August 2019, as there are strong indications that Moscow is also responsible for this carefully orchestrated, broad-daylight murder that occurred in central Berlin. The ball is now in the court of Oslo and Berlin.