Russia has swapped three convicted foreign spies for two of its own as part of a three-country deal with Lithuania and Norway, in a dramatic exchange between the uneasy neighbours following months of backroom diplomacy.
At midday on Friday at a border crossing between Lithuania and Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, Moscow handed over two Lithuanians and one Norwegian citizen as two Russian intelligence agents crossed in the other direction, hours after they were pardoned by Oslo.
The long-rumoured deal marks a diplomatic victory for all three countries despite souring ties between Russia and the west due to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
After the attempted assassination of former Russia double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK by Russian operatives in March 2018, the UK, US and a number of EU and Nato members expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence operatives. Moscow has said that the number of foreign spies operating inside Russia has increased in recent years.
Jevgenij Mataitis and Arstidas Tamosaitis, who were imprisoned in Russia, were on their way back to their families, Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nauseda said in a statement. A Norwegian former border guard, Frode Berg, was handed over to the Norwegian embassy in Lithuania.
Earlier on Friday, Mr Nauseda pardoned Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko, two Russian citizens who were found guilty in 2017 of working for Moscow’s intelligence services and recruiting local agents.
“I thank the Lithuanian officers who professionally and smoothly returned the Lithuanian citizens to their homeland. I am happy that their loved ones finally have a chance to see their husbands, fathers and sons,” said Mr Nauseda.
Speculation over the spy swap rose last month after a Russian commission recommended that President Vladimir Putin pardon Mr Berg, a former guard on the Russian-Norwegian border who was sentenced to 14 years in a Russian penal colony in April after being found guilty of collecting information on Moscow’s nuclear submarine fleet and seeking to pass it on to Norwegian intelligence services.
“We are happy that Frode Berg is now coming home to Norway as a free man. I would like to thank the Lithuanian authorities for their cooperation and for their efforts to free Berg,” said Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg.
Mr Filipchenko was detained in 2015, and accused of being an intelligence officer in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and seeking to recruit Lithuanian security officials in order to infiltrate the office and home of former president Dalia Grybauskaite.
Mr Moisejenko was detained in 2014 as an alleged employee of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, and accused of recruiting an officer in the Lithuanian air force to collect information on Nato activities.
The exchange came a week after parliament voted to give Mr Nauseda the power to pardon convicts involved in spy swaps.