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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Norway's Spying Game

Peaceful Norway is rocked by the waves of a major spy scandal. Official and public indignation runs high. Relations with Russia are severely strained. Five Russian officials are declared personae non gratae -- three of them in absentia -- and two are drummed out of the country.

An unsuspecting observer might think that a tremendous seditious plot has been uncovered, something that has threatened the very foundations of the Nordic country itself.

The real story, as seen from Moscow, seems rather trivial. One Svein Lamark, a petty official from Norway, offered his services to the Russian intelligence service in the far northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk. In Lamark's words, he just wanted to play a spy game and meant no harm to anyone.

Here, I would enter a note of caution. Nobody ever wanted to play the part of a spy for the fun of it. It is possible that Lamark was serious, decided to make some money on the sly, then got scared and confessed to the Norwegian secret police.

But for an amateur, he was rather too well-prepared. In order to lure the Russian contact, he claimed to have access to North Atlantic Treaty Organization secrets and, it seems, gave some proof of this. The bait was taken.

One had reason to suspect, even at the outset, that Lamark was not a dilettante acting on his own.

In this case, we have a classical plant, or a podstava in the parlance of Russia intelligence -- an age-old trick that secret services play on each other with varying degrees of success. A plant supplies plausible, often intriguing, information that is a mixture of fact and invention. The information is, of course, prepared by the intelligence service.

The aims of the game are to mislead the opposition, to learn its intentions, to study its modus operandi and, at an appropriate moment, to stun the opponents with the exposure of their misdeeds. This is exactly what happened in the case of the two expelled Russian diplomats.

The reaction of the Russian side was routine and easily predictable. Two Norwegian diplomats, one in Moscow, another in Murmansk, were ordered out of the country. That is the rule of the game -- a tit for a tat.

Moscow indicated that it was not going to take any further retaliatory steps and to even the score. In the peculiar world of diplomacy and secret services, it is an obvious goodwill gesture. Officials on both sides heaved an audible sign of relief.

The incident may be over, but the question remains: Why did Norwegian counterintelligence play the game with the Russians for four long years? Why was the scandal initiated just a few days before the visit of Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik to Russia, which had been scheduled to begin Tuesday?

A tempting explanation is at hand -- Norwegian secret services are eager to improve their public image, which has been marred by a series of internal scandals. They have to demonstrate that their activities are not directed at damaging the political life of Norway and have a nobler national meaning.

This must certainly be the case, but decisions that can affect relations with an important neighbor are always taken at the highest political, not departmental, level.

The incident points to the existence of deep rift within the Norwegian establishment as far as relations with Russia are concerned.

Here lie the seeds of possible future complications.

The press has reported that the Norwegian intelligence services closely cooperated with their Swedish and Finnish colleagues on the Lamark case. It is impossible to presume that their U.S. and British colleagues were not in the picture. This may provide the key to the entire overblown affair.

Russia begins to provoke displeasure in certain influential quarters. It tries to assert its independent stand on various international matters. It is not ready to accept unconditionally economic diktats and acts in other ways that do not meet with approval. So, Russia must be cut down to size, put into embarrassing situations and presented as an unrepentant, dangerous monster. Norway, as expected, did its North Atlantic duty.

The incident has been closed. Bondevik plans to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, later this month. We hope that their majesties King Harald and Queen Sonja will visit Russia in May. They will be warmly received here.

One can't help wondering, however, whether the sounds of the scandal were a fading-away echo of times past or a muted rumbling of days to come.

And, finally, espionage is a fact of international life. Every country engages in it, and never -- but never -- does it cause serious complications in bilateral relations, unless political expediency dictates otherwise.

Leonid Shebarshin is former head of the KGB's Foreign Intelligence Service. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.