MOSCOW — When Russian agents grabbed Frode Berg in front of Moscow’s ritzy Metropol Hotel two years ago, they turned the retired Norwegian border inspector into the symbol of a new Cold War descending on Scandinavia’s Arctic north.
At noon on Friday, Mr. Berg walked free after 23 months in prison on espionage charges, in a spy swap that harked back to the original Cold War. At a border crossing between Lithuania and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Russia released Mr. Berg, along with two Lithuanians convicted of spying. Lithuania freed two convicted Russian spies.
“We are happy Frode Berg is now coming home to Norway, as a free man,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway said in a statement. “I would like to thank the Lithuanian authorities for their cooperation and for their efforts to free Berg.”
The unusual three-way swap with two NATO allies underscored the Kremlin’s interest in using foreign citizens arrested in Russia to secure the release of its own citizens abroad. Mr. Berg’s Russian lawyer, Ilya Novikov, said the Russian authorities had sought different deals in return for Mr. Berg’s freedom that they were not able to secure.
“The solution that worked was not the first and the second solution that was considered,” Mr. Novikov said in an interview. “That’s why it took so long. Russia had its own ideas that proved impossible to realize.”
One of the Russians released in the swap, Nikolai Filipchenko, was detained in 2015 and accused of trying to recruit Lithuanian security officers to plant bugs in the office and residence of the Lithuanian president. The other, Sergey Moiseyenko, had been in prison since 2014 for spying on NATO and the Norwegian military.
The two Lithuanians released, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis, had been convicted of espionage in Russia in 2016.
The arrest of Mr. Berg in December 2017 shocked his Arctic hometown, Kirkenes, Norway, where the retired border inspector had been active in promoting closer ties with Russia. Many in Kirkenes, a Barents Sea port town a 15-minute drive from the Russian border, took pride in their work to strengthen their remote region’s cultural and economic links with Russia even as geopolitical tensions grew.
But the authorities in Moscow said Mr. Berg had a secret mission on his trips to Russia, accusing him of collecting information about Russian nuclear submarines. Through a lawyer, Mr. Berg last year admitted he believed he was acting as a courier for Norwegian intelligence, but said he was not informed of the risks involved.
“I feel really misused,” Mr. Berg said in a Moscow court appearance last year.
Mr. Berg was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and his supporters feared it would be years until he returned. Even if Russia were to consider a spy swap, they said, there appeared to be no Russian spies in Norwegian prisons.
But Friday’s three-way swap shows Russia is prepared to get creative in making deals. The Kremlin is reported to have tried to exchange an Israeli woman arrested with a few grams of marijuana in her luggage at a Moscow airport for a Russian set to be extradited from Israel to the United States on hacking charges.
That effort failed this week after Israel went ahead with the Russian hacker’s extradition. In September, Russia and Ukraine swapped dozens of prisoners, with Russia returning a Ukrainian filmmaker, Oleg Sentsov, who had been jailed in Russia after being convicted on what were widely seen as trumped-up terrorism charges, and 24 sailors detained late last year in waters near Crimea.
“Any foreign citizen detained in Russia is a hostage, and he must be exchanged for someone or for something,” said Mr. Novikov, Mr. Berg’s lawyer, who also represented several of the Ukrainians in the September swap.
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