On September 27, AldriMer, a Norwegian information outlet specializing in military affairs, claimed that, according to its sources, “members of the Russian special services without any insignia and dressed as civilians were spotted on Svalbard [Spitsbergen] Island” and on Norwegian continental territory. As noted by the media site, forces deployed to Norway were “militarized mercenary formations, whose activities have been very well known starting from the annexation of Crimea”—in other words, members of Russian private military companies (PMC). The group was said to have been transferred to the island by a P-650 midget submarine, designed to transport military personal behind the enemy’s front lines (AldriMer, September 27).
The publication triggered a fierce reaction in Russia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the information a “fake story” and an “example of a rude provocation […] aimed at manufacturing the image of Russia as an enemy state.” The purpose of the publication is “nothing but an attempt [of the Norwegian defense ministry] to hammer out additional economic means to confront the so-called ‘Russian threat’ ” (Mid.ru, September 27). In turn, leading Russian military expert and editor-in-chief of the military magazine Natsionalnaya Oborona, Igor Korotchenko, classified the publication as “hogwash [gazetnaya utka] generated to exploit fears within populations of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] member states regarding illusory Russian intelligence missions on their territory” (RIA Novosti, September 30). Bogdan Bespalko, a member of the Russian Presidential Council for Inter-Ethnic Relations, linked the appearance of the aforementioned AldriMer article to attempts of “certain groups to derail the nascent armistice between European countries and Russia,” adding that it was “nothing but part of the informational-psychological war against Russia” (RIA Novosti, September 30). Later, the Norwegian embassy in Moscow reportedly declared that it has no “data proving the validity of this information,” nor can it “provide evidence that these activities took place” (Rosbalt, October 7).
Nonetheless, the information presented by the above Norwegian outlet was compounded by an investigative report in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which assessed the news from a different prospective. The press outlet argues that, based on the analysis of pictures uploaded to Instagram and related comment posts, the Chechen Spetsnaz has been active in the area since 2016, illegally and covertly penetrating Norwegian borders in the Arctic zone (Svalbard) on a regular basis and on numerous occasions. The newspaper argues that forces that took part in the unauthorized landings were members of the so-called “Kadyrov Squad”—highly professional units trained at the Russian Spetsnaz University, a unique private institution in Gudermes, Chechnya specializing in the preparation of elite special forces. It is said to be personally patronized by Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov. The main instructor at the University is the first deputy director of the National Guard (Rosgvardia) in Chechnya, Daniil Martynov. The institution prepares professionals in a variety of specializations (snipers, military alpinists, and paratroopers), equipping them with knowledge and skills essential for conducting fighting in both urban areas and forested or mountainous terrain (Novaya Gazeta, October 2).
Based on the Instagram pictures available, Novaya Gazeta claims to have identified two members of the institution that may have been deployed to Svalbard (Novaya Gazeta, October 2). Incidentally, the aforementioned center is said to have given training to members of the Chechen military police who took part in missions on Syrian territory. Moreover, the Spetsnaz University in Gudermes is said to soon start preparing bodyguards—de facto members of private military security companies (PMSC)—on an individual basis. Crucially, former members and veterans of special forces units Alfa group (Spetsgruppa ‘A’) and Vympel group (Spetsgruppa ‘V’) will conduct the training (RBC, October 4).
The official statement from the Norwegian embassy in Moscow denying having any evidence of Russian special forces operating on Norwegian territory would seem to sufficiently bring this potential scandal to a close (although, in this regard, a statement from Norway’s Ministry of Defense would be of value as well). Nevertheless, the issue still deserves an additional look from three specific angles.
First, Russia’s recently concluded strategic-operational exercise Tsentr 2019 (September 16–21) was meant to simulate anti-terrorist operations along the country’s southern flank. Presumably, the “Arctic dimension” should not have had any major role. And yet, this was not the case. Indeed, a closer look at the “Arctic side” of Tsentr 2019 provides a better understanding of the tactics that the Russian Armed Forces are likely to employ in this theater in case of hostilities. Available information suggests that in the High North, the legend of the exercises primarily focused on simulating operations by small, tactical highly maneuvering groups launching a surprise attack against enemy forces. The exercises, held just prior to the official start of Tsentr2019, clearly demonstrated that the Russian military expects local operations to have to be carried out with limited ground (ten BTR-82A 8×8 wheeled armored personnel carriers), sea (three combat ships), or aerial support (two Ka-27 helicopters) (Mil.ru, September 14). The total number of military personnel (500 troops, with a decisive role allocated to the military divers) and equipment offered an important glimpse into how Russia expects future conflict(s) to play out in the Arctic region (Regnum, September 17). As Russian military expert Vladislav Shuryghin explained late last year, “In the Arctic region, you do not fight wars with armies and divisions” (Izvestia, December 18, 2018). The alleged insertion of a small group of Russian (Chechen) special forces to Svalbard would, thus, seem to fit this model.
Second, previously held regional drills in the Russian High North are fully commensurate with the above-made point. Notably, in 2016, when the Russian tourist camp Ice Camp Barneo was surreptitiously transformed into a special forces training range, the exercises held there notably included Chechen Spetsnaz (see EDM, May 14, 2019).
Third, Russia’s actions in the Arctic and northern Scandinavia—provocations actively supported by high-level Moscow officials, including former deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin (Novaya Gazeta, April 22, 2015)—have been increasingly used by the Russian side to discredit the European Union and NATO, as well as to highlight the Kremlin’s supposed invulnerability to international reaction.
When it comes to its actions in the Arctic (tactics of “small steps”), Russia quite skillfully combines both actual military preparations with an element of disinformation. And by successfully utilizing the latter, Moscow succeeds in distracting international attention from the former.