First spy exchange in Lithuania: how did it happen?

Frode Berg after the spy exchange in Lithuania (second from the right). Frist from the right Norwegian Ambassador Karsten Klepsvik. Foto Facebook

Several decades ago, hostile parties would meet on a Havel river bridge in Germany and exchange captive intelligence operatives. This helped maintain a balance during the Cold War between clashing states and regain spies, who held valuable information. Nowadays, there are few spy exchanges and one occurred for the first time in Lithuania. That said, little is known about the spy exchange that occurred at Nida border post a week ago and according to specialists, that’s typical of our intelligence services – to talk little and only when absolutely necessary, Jūratė Važgauskaitė wrote in TV3.lt.

With Lithuania and Russia exchanging individuals sentenced for spying, two Lithuanians and a Norwegian returned to Lithuania. During the spy exchange in Lithuania at a border control post, according to Norwegian news media – the Nida border post, Lithuania handed Russia two sentenced Russian spies, who were pardoned by President Gitanas Nausėda. The operation occurred at noon.

First time and especially silently

Jevgenijus Mataitis and Aristidas Tamošaitis, who returned to Lithuania, were sentenced in 2016 for spying for Lithuania in Russia. A Moscow court sentenced Lithuanian citizen A. Tamošaitis to 12 years in prison, while a Kaliningrad Oblast court sentenced J. Mataitis, who has dual Lithuanian-Russian citizenship, to 13 years imprisonment. Norwegian citizen Frode Berg, who was sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment in Russia, was also returned to Lithuania.

Lithuania traded three individuals for three Russian agents, albeit, in order for this to happen, not just the president had to issue a pardon, but the Seimas also had to change legislation. With necessary procedures completed, Russian citizens Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko were traded for three individuals imprisoned in Russia under charges of spying.

N. Filipchenko was arrested on April 29, 2015, when he was travelling by train from Kaliningrad Oblast to Belarus. Vilnius District Court sentenced him to 10 years in prison on July 7, 2017.

According to law enforcement, he was a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer for Kaliningrad Oblast and used a fake identity for spying. According to Lithuanian intelligence, this was the first case, when a Russian intelligence service cadre staff was arrested for spying in Lithuania.

Law enforcement has stated that N. Filipchenko sought to recruit Command Security Department officers to install bugs in President Dalia Grybauskaitė‘s office and residence. Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer S. Moisejenko was arrested in late 2014.

Closely guarded spy exchange in Lithuania, but…

There was very little revealed by Lithuanian intelligence services on when and how the exchange occurred, how it was planned. Information on the operation for news media was strictly dosed and many details were simply left undisclosed. More information about the spy exchange in Lithuania was revealed by Norwegian government officials and their news media, from whom certain things were not concealed. According to the Norwegian publication VG, the spy exchange in Lithuania actually occurred near the Nida border post, which was confirmed to journalists by F. Berg’s lawyer.

The two Lithuanians and Norwegian were flown in from Moscow to Kaliningrad, taken to the border control point, where they were read an order on them being pardoned. On the other side, they were awaited by, among others, the Norwegian ambassador. That said, the Lithuanian border guard did not confirm this information, albeit explaining to Norwegian news media that no bridges were involved in the spy exchange. This revealed that the spy exchange did not occur on the Queen Loise Bridge between Lithuania and Kaliningrad Oblast, as could have been expected.

Patreon the Lithuania Tribune

Strategizing for the spy exchange, according to Norwegian news media, was begun after Norwegian border guard F. Berg was arrested on the border with Russia. The Norwegian prime minister herself admitted that they began seeking ways to regain the man and after long searches and inquiries with the NATO community, it turned out that Lithuania has what Russia wants – FSB agent N. Filipchenko. That said, the path to the exchange was neither short nor easy. Elections in Lithuania and before – President Dalia Grybauskaitė’s unwillingness to display initiative for the exchange were obstacles.

New developments with a new President

Only after the change of presidents and F. Berg being tried in Moscow did the potential exchange get greenlit, albeit preceded by difficult negotiations, during which the Russians constantly opposed the 3+2 formula, albeit agreeing to it eventually. Why Russia changed its mind is not known.

For the spy exchange in Lithuania to occur, careful planning was needed, as well as the blessing of the State Defence Council and legislative changes in Seimas. Norwegian news media reports that their country’s government employed all possible means for this question to remain “warm” in the West, it also involved the USA, which is rumoured to have also contributed.

Nikolai Filipchenko
Nikolai Filipchenko at the court DELFI / Domantas Pipas

That said, Lithuanian officials speak very little about the spy exchange and the returned Lithuanians, even now. While the Norwegians know a great deal about F. Berg and he willingly speaks himself, Lithuanians have never even seen one of the two freed operatives, no one knows of either how they feel, nor where they are. Such mystery, according to specialists, is a particular trait of the Lithuanian intelligence branch.

Surprising Norwegian openness

National Security and Defence Committee (NSGK) chairman Dainius Gaižauskas told tv3.lt that such a “spy exchange” is unprecedented in independent Lithuania. During the interwar era, there were various occurrences and exchanges could be interpreted in various ways. There were troop exchanges and such, but what happened now is a first in [our] history.

“The way Norway communicated was a surprise to many. Realistically, such operations or such exchanges are always classified and success depends on it to a great extent. In order to not spoil the exchange, the utmost care is upheld all the time. On the other hand, no one could guarantee that Russia will uphold its end of the bargain. Up to the last moment, there was tension, we were all waiting, uncertain whether things will proceed or not,” D. Gaižauskas spoke.

State secret law is the law

He was unwilling to comment on when and where the exchange occurred and also would not present more details despite the operatives having returned for a while now and being safe.

Nikolai Filipchenko at the Vilnius' court
Nikolai Filipchenko at the Vilnius’ court DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

“I offer no official comment and would like to first meet with the State Security Department (VSD) specialists, discuss, what can be communicated. There is the state service secret law and such things are clearly regulated there. Is the secrecy still needed? I do not think so, but there are procedures, how things are declassified. When possible, I promise to comment. This is not just interesting, but important to know, even an amendment [regarding pardoning] was made for it in the name of transparency and publicity. This is a first for us and perhaps this is why care is upheld and there is little communication,” the committee chairman mused.

He noted that cases, where there are exchanges of sentenced individuals when they are already imprisoned and sentencings are completed, are not frequent.

“What we have done is a historic matter and furthermore, we have instruments now. I believe that other states could do something akin to this as well,” D. Gaižauskas said.

Intelligence operating everywhere

Political scientist Linas Kojala explained that a “spy exchange” is not a frequent occurrence, but it draws attention namely due to its nature. Exchanges do happen though because intelligence agencies are actively operating and often the need emerges [to exchange individuals] regardless of inter-state relations.

“We have seen a number of times, for example how the US and Russia had a famous exchange in agents ten years ago in Vienna. Earlier there were exchanges between the Soviet Union and the USA. A mirror principle is upheld in exchanges, with the same number of equally important agents exchanged,” the political scientist said.

According to him, intelligence agencies operate around the world, regardless if the country is friendly or hostile. That said, the nature of their activities often differ and there are tolerance limits. Allies typically understand, what is permitted in one another’s territory and what goes beyond acceptable. Exchanges typically occur between confrontational countries because they operate with less civil approaches.

According to L. Kojala, Russian intelligence activity is the significance, which is seen in Lithuania and is also felt by other Western states. The geopolitical circumstances are such that various scandals occur between the West and Russia, ranging from the Skripal poisoning to cyber-attacks and data leaks and it is clear that intelligence operatives play a role.

All countries have intelligence and counterintelligence bureaus, just that traditions, practices and the nature of operations differ. Nevertheless, every country wants to know, what is happening in the world and performs intelligence gathering.

Kremlin really wanted Filipchenko

Political science specialist Nerijus Maliukevičius says that such exchanges occurred more frequently during the Cold War. At the time, there was even a “spy bridge” in Germany.

“This exchange is special in that it is complex. The 2+1 formula illustrates cooperation from our side between NATO partners, where Norway and Lithuania can come to agreement and aid one another. […] From communications, it appears that the most important figure was the Norwegian border guard, but it would appear that to the Russians, FSB officer Filipchenko was the most important. I believe this is also illustrated by the two for three formula. Publicity might be directed to the Norwegian citizen, but it is clear that Lithuania held an individual of importance to the Kremlin, whom Russia sought to regain and in this case, Lithuania’s role was essential: we held him, we coordinated this operation and even had to change legislation to ensure everything proceeded successfully,” the political scientist said.

We should change our style

He noted that secrecy is typical for Lithuania, even compared to the Estonians. “When the Estonians performed their exchange and regained their man, they filmed the exchange. The style of our intelligence institutions is significantly different in terms of publicity. We must understand that up to the last minute there are worries that certain incidents could harm the entire operation because it is based on the principle of agreement between two very different and opposing sides. If certain incidents occurred, Russia could withdraw its decisions. We saw how difficult the exchange was between Ukraine and Russia when Oleg Sentsov was returned and the Russians wanted to regain last minute their man related to the downing of the plane. This took time because there were unplanned changes. All this illustrates fear of things harming the entire operation,” the political scientist mused.

Russian spies are here to stay

Russian intelligence has always been active and the Baltic States are “a region of interest”. That we had such relatively high-level security officers, spies arrested is an illustration of the entirety of intelligence institution work.

When the Cold War ended, spy exchanges became a rare event. One of the largest exchanges occurred in Vienna airport nine years ago, when ten Russian agents were flown in from the USA in exchange for four Americans, who were sentenced in Russia. In 2015, a spy exchange was performed on the Narva river bridge in Estonia.

During the Cold War years, the most popular spy exchange location was the Glienicke bridge over Havel river, which separated East Germany and West Berlin. The first spy exchange between hostile sides occurred in 1962, while the last – in 1986, when three Western agents and the political prisoner were released for four Eastern bloc spies and Karl Koecher, who successfully penetrated the CIA.

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