Russian espionage against NATO members is rising as the crisis in Ukraine drags from weeks into months. Some of this intelligence-gathering is aimed at political and military information, as in the case of Hungary, which I recently detailed. However, economic espionage is always a high Kremlin priority as well. Such matters are seldom discussed openly by Western countries who know what’s really going on.
However, the matter has grown so serious that Norway has decided to go public this week with statements from Benedicte Bjørnland, the chief of the country’s Police Security Service (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste or PST), who went into cautionary detail about what Russian spies are seeking. Norway’s opposition to Russian expansionism is hardly new, and the country’s devotion to NATO has never been in doubt, so Moscow has long considered Norway an important intelligence target (perhaps not coincidentally, Oslo has been on the receiving end of several damaging intelligence revelations, care of the Snowden Operation lately).
The PST chief’s statements make clear that Russian espionage is also aimed at Norway’s important oil and gas sector, the backbone of the country’s economy, so it’s worth reading her comments in toto, not least because they provide some helpful counterintelligence tips:
The crisis in Ukraine has made the Norwegian oil and gas industry more interesting to Russian intelligence. The Norwegian Police Security Service urges caution.
“The Russian intelligence service has informational needs that it wants covered in connection with the crisis in Ukraine. Our oil and gas sector is of special interest,” PST chief Benedicte Bjørnland says.
Bjørnland underlines that other states also are interested in Norwegian petroleum operations but it is only Russia that she names this time around. Russian complicity in the Ukraine crisis is the main reason.
“We are an important supplier of oil and gas. It is of interest to other states to know what kind of capacity we have,” she says.
According to the PST chief, people do not need to be high up on the career ladder in politics or industry to have an intelligence service seek them out.
“Intelligence officers orient themselves toward oil and gas suppliers and industrial activity but employees in technological enterprises, research institutes and public administration can also be of interest,” Bjørnland says, continuing:
“Anyone who has access to relevant and attractive information is, in principle, of interest to foreign intelligence services. It’s in the nature of intelligence that it is long-term. Attempts may be made to recruit young people and students,” she says.
She urges caution about what people send by e-mail and talk about on the telephone. Take good care of your smart-phone, tablet or computer when traveling, and to discard used memory sticks are other pieces of advice that she gives.
Stable, High Intelligence Pressure
Bjørnland says that foreign intelligence officers often operate under cover of being diplomats or journalists but they can also acquire sensitive information by acquiring access to computer networks.
The Ukraine crisis has not had any impact in increased activity from other intelligence services but only in a tendency.
“For a number of years, we have described stable, high intelligence pressure. That is still the picture, but the intelligence is going in a somewhat different direction.”
She underlines that the activity is serious and damaging, not least because information that goes astray can severely set Norway or Norwegian interests back in negotiation situations.
“Often the harmful effects only show themselves once some time has passed, frequently a number of years,” Bjørnland says.
In 2008, the PST came out and warned of Russian spies. On that occasion, then-chief Jørn Holme connected the activity with the Norwegian focus on the High North. The Embassy of the Russian Federation dismissed the allegations as groundless and called them a “repetition from the days of the Cold War.”
I’m confident NATO countries are going to get more Russian espionage operations aimed at them, not less, as long as Putin rules in the Kremlin, so it would be a good idea for all Westerners holding positions of political, economic, or military importance to take seriously the solid counterintelligence advice by the PST director.