Norway police arrest suspected Russian spy in Tromsø, say he was ‘illegal agent’

The man, who posed as a Brazilian researcher, was involved in a University of Tromsø group on hybrid threats in the Arctic, police said.

By Terje Solsvik, Reuters, Gwladys Fouche, Reuters - October 25, 2022
A helicopter patrols off Tromsø, Norway on June 2, 2012. (Saul Loeb / Reuters / Pool / File Photo)

OSLO — Norwegian police on Monday arrested a suspected Russian spy in the Arctic city of Tromsø, the PST security service said on Tuesday, describing him as a rare illegal agent.

The man, who worked as a researcher at the University of Tromsø, had posed as a Brazilian citizen but police believe his real identity to be Russian.

The news was first reported by Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

The man represents a “threat to fundamental national interests” and should be expelled from Norway, deputy PST chief Hedvig Moe told Reuters, describing him as an “illegal agent”.

An illegal agent is an intelligence operative without official government links who assumes a covert persona, often using a real, dead person’s identity.

“Typically illegal agents are talent scouts recruiting agents for later, and preparing the ground for other spies to do traditional intelligence work,” said Moe.

The accused man’s lawyer did not return a request for comment.

The suspect was involved in a research group that worked with Norwegian government agencies on “hybrid threats” linked to “Arctic Norway,” Moe said.

NATO-member Norway borders Russia in the Arctic and has ramped up security in the wake of Moscow’s February invasion of Ukraine.

The head of the research group the man was part told Reuters the suspect arrived in Tromsø in December 2021 as an unpaid guest researcher, which was unusual but not unheard of, who had recently completed a master’s degree in Canada.

According to publicly available data, his masters was from the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies.

“He first contacted me in autumn last year… We assessed him like we would other researchers. One of his references was a professor I knew very well,” said Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv, a professor of security studies at the University of Tromsø.

“He was a really lovely guy, very good at his job,” she said. “We had no reason to suspect him of being anything else than what he said he was.”

The man was arrested on Monday, Moe said, declining to say whether a specific event precipitated the decision. “It was the right point to stop the activity he was involved in,” she said.

The arrest was made possible with the collaboration of “several” international security services, declining to say from which countries.

“It is a long-term project to have an illegal agent,” said Moe. It costs a lot of money. Major state actors only use them and it is known Russia has used them in the past.”

Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo.