Wednesday, 8 Jul 2020

Five freed in three-country spy swap

Two Russians jailed for espionage have been pardoned and freed in Lithuania, in exchange for two Lithuanians and a Norwegian held in Russia.

Lithuania’s head of state security announced the three-way swap had taken place at the Lithuanian border after a complex operation.

For weeks, Norway, Russia and Lithuania have been working on the exchange.

The best known of the five is Frode Berg, a Norwegian ex-border guard arrested in Moscow in 2017.

His case became a cause celebre in Norway after he was found with naval documents handed to him by a former Russian policeman.

Russians Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko were jailed in Lithuania two years ago.

The Lithuanians, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis, were jailed in 2016. Lithuania was a former Soviet republic but since independence in 1990 has joined the EU and Nato.

How did the exchange happen?

Berg’s lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, revealed on Twitter that the Norwegian was “finally free” after crossing from Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordering Lithuania. “I’m in Lithuania and waiting to meet him soon,” he added.

The transfer took place at midday (10:00 GMT), according to Lithuanian intelligence head Darius Jauniskis. The foreign ministry in Oslo confirmed Berg was in Norwegian hands and said he would return to Norway to be reunited with his family.

Lithuanian reports said the two Russians and two Lithuanians were part of the same exchange.

Mr Jauniškis, head of Lithuania’s SSD state security, said only that the swap had taken place at one of the country’s border control posts and paid tribute to the intelligence officers who had planned and carried out the operation.

How the swap was prepared

Talk of a three-way exchange first surfaced last month when Moscow’s official pardons commission recommended the Norwegian for pardon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Norway and promised a decision would come soon.

The process was then put on hold for several weeks for Lithuania’s parliament to change the criminal code to allow the president to pardon the two Russian spies.

Lithuania’s state defence council, which is chaired by the president, then approved the swap last week, according to Baltic News Service.

Early on Friday Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda announced the two men had been pardoned. It was a signal that the operation was under way and the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, said “reciprocal measures” would take place.

Who are the five involved?

Russians: Nikolai Filipchenko – FSB security service agent was given 10 years for trying to recruit senior Lithuanians; Sergei Moisejenko was given 10 years for recruiting a Lithuanian army officer serving at Siauliai military base.

Norwegian: Frode Berg – retired border guard admitted acting as a courier for Norwegian intelligence but denied spying.

Lithuanians: Ex-naval officer Yevgeny Mataitis is a dual Russian-Lithuanian citizen who served in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. He was given 13 years for selling secrets to Lithuanian intelligence.

Where do spy swaps take place?

During the Cold War, exchanges took place at the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin.

Since the end of the Cold War, spy swaps have become rare events. The last big one, in 2010, took place at Vienna airport, when 10 Russian agents were flown in from the US and swapped for four Americans convicted in Russia.

But there have been smaller swaps on a bridge between Russia and Estonia. In 2015, an Estonian security official who the EU said was abducted by Russia was swapped for a man imprisoned in Estonia for spying for Moscow.

When the US released convicted Russian agent Maria Butina last month, she was deported straight back to Moscow.

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