Norway’s ban on Russians flying drones faces its most prominent test as a court case opens on Tuesday against the Russian-British son of a former close associate of president Vladimir Putin.
Andrey Yakunin, who has dual Russian and British nationalities, flew a recreational drone over the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard in August and September from his private yacht but will plead not guilty at his trial in the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø.
Norwegian authorities have arrested at least seven Russians in recent months for flying drones across the country as western Europe’s largest petroleum producer worries about a number of sightings of the unmanned aircraft close to oil and gas installations in the North Sea.
Norwegian and Nato jets and warships have patrolled close to oil rigs following the sabotage in September of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in international waters close to Denmark and Sweden.
Yakunin, the son of Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russian Railways who was known as one of the most influential members of Putin’s inner circle, will argue in court that Norway’s rules — based on EU sanctions that Norway also adopted — are harsher than any other European country and are discriminatory.
“There is no offence for a British man to fly a drone over Svalbard,” he told the Financial Times from his prison cell in Tromsø.
A Russian man who flew a drone in western Norway was sentenced to 90 days in prison by a court in Bergen last week.
Yakunin’s lawyers say his case will end up in the appeal system as it raises complex legal issues.
Bernt Heiberg, Yakunin’s lawyer at Oslo law firm Elden, said that Norway had never before had criminal sanctions “based on the citizenship of the accused” and it was “as far as we understand the only European country to prosecute people for flying drones in their airspace”.
Heiberg argued that interpretation of the rules changed after the Nord Stream sabotage to include drones among the aircraft to which EU sanctions apply. “It now entails something it didn’t entail before,” he added.
Svalbard is a demilitarised but geopolitically highly sensitive part of Norway with the most northern inhabited settlements in the world, including a Russian mining town. There are no oil rigs or pipelines nearby.
Yakunin said he had sailed in northern Norway for the past six years on his Firebird yacht — which he also rents out — and that capturing pictures using “a camera with wings” was his way of sharing the beauty of the Arctic.
Asked if he was working for Russian intelligence, Yakunin replied: “Not only I wasn’t, but I have nothing to do with them, and for that matter nothing to do with the Russian state either.”
He added: “There is no ill intent, or God forbid that we went near any critical infrastructure or no-fly zones.”
Norway, which borders Russia in the north, has been on edge in recent months following not only the arrests of Russians and drone sightings near oil rigs, but also the uncovering of an alleged Russian spy seemingly masquerading as a Brazilian researcher at Tromsø’s university.
Two days after Yakunin’s arrest in October, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said: “It is not acceptable for foreign intelligence to fly drones over Norwegian airports. Russians are not allowed to fly drones in Norway.”