Norway, Russia, and a Changing Svalbard

Bust of Vladimir Lenin in Barentsburg, Svalbard [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
by Marc Lanteigne

Svalbard, a remote Arctic archipelago, has been back in the news of late, and not only because of the islands being the subject of a nine-day, ‘slow TV’ documentary featured this month by the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK. Norway, which administers Svalbard under the terms of the Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Treaty, (a document which observes its hundredth anniversary this year), is feeling a diplomatic chill from Russia over the regulation of the islands. This comes at a time when relations between Moscow and Oslo have become more difficult as both governments are seeking to improve their security situation in the Arctic.

The Svalbard Treaty confirmed Norwegian sovereignty over the islands, (population about 2700), with the caveats that neither Oslo nor any other government shall place military installations there, and that the islands’ distinct environment be protected. In addition, any state which agrees to sign the treaty is granted access to Svalbard for scientific as well as commercial / economic purposes, including extractive industries such as mining. Among the treaty signatories are great and medium powers such as Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia and the United States, as well as Southern Polar states including Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. Even North Korea announced in 2016 that it was willing to sign the document in the hopes of gaining access to the islands.

As a commentary published last year by the Arctic Institute noted, the treaty offered a unique outlet for non-Arctic states to enter the region for research purposes, and today several states operate scientific stations in Svalbard, especially in the region of Ny-Ålesund. However, the piece also concluded that the venerable legal framework surrounding Svalbard needed to catch up with modern conditions and concerns.

In recent years, climate change has had both an environmental and a political effect on Svalbard. Alterations of glacial patterns, including their size and moments, are being measured on the islands. Like much of the Arctic, Svalbard is experiencing the various effects of ice erosion and warmer average temperatures, including the loss of permafrost in and around the capital of Longyearbyen, as well as floods and avalanches. A January 2019 report [pdf] by the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services (NCCS) concluded that over the next eight decades the islands would experience higher temperatures, shorter periods of snowfall but increased overall precipitation in the form of rainfall, losses of glaciers and sea ice, and a 1ºC average increase in surrounding sea temperatures.

Map of Svalbard [Via Wikimedia Commons]
Often seen as a microcosm for the study of climate change in the overall Arctic Ocean regions, Svalbard has been the subject of much scientific study from a variety of actors seeking to understand the physical transformations facing the far north. This week, new data on glacial movements from satellite observations was presented by glaciologist Professor Adrian Luckman (Swansea University, UK) at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø. Among the points raised were how glacier speeds were increasing over time, with ‘surge’ behaviour changing, including instances of surges in glacier movement taking place earlier in the year around the region of Tunabreen, a site popular with tourists, in central Svalbard.

The opening up of areas in and around Svalbard due to retreating ice have presented a greater challenge to the Norwegian government as it continues to carefully walk the line between maintaining its sovereignty over the archipelago and following the letter of the 1920 treaty. The islands’ location in the Atlantic-Arctic region, a site of heightened military activity both by Russia and the West, including NATO, over the past few years, along with the deteriorated relations between Moscow and Washington, (as well as many European governments), have further complicated Norwegian Svalbard policy.

At the same time, the economic benefits of the region have also attracted more international attention which has led to diplomatic brushes. One of the most infamous of these rifts was the dispute, starting in 2017, between the European Union and Norway over snow crab fishing rights near the Svalbard coast. The issue was then brought to the Norwegian Supreme Court, which ruled in February last year that the EU needed to seek permission from Oslo before engaging in any future snow crab catches, a ruling which was seen as having a potential positive effect on future Norwegian rights to drill for oil and gas drilling in the region.

As a May 2019 article [paywall] by Andreas Østhagen and Andreas Raspotnik also explained, the case had potential ramifications for the integrity of the Svalbard Treaty system itself. Yet, the matter may not be over, as it was reported in October last year that the EU was again planning on awarding snow crab fishing licenses despite the ruling.

Other non-Arctic actors have also made attempts to subtly challenge Norway’s paramount role within the Svalbard Treaty system, including China, which took Oslo to task over a 2014 plan to set up a radar installation in Svalbard, which the Norwegian government vetoed [in Norwegian], as well as Norwegian regulations over what constituted permissible research activities on the islands. Beijing claimed in 2019 that these rules were overly restrictive [in Norwegian], and beyond Oslo’s treaty mandate.

Yet it has been Russia which has been most active at seeking to chip away at what Moscow has viewed as Oslo’s inflexibility regarding the treaty. Russian business interests are active in Svalbard, especially in the Russian-majority town of Barentsburg, which has been seeking to turn itself from a mining hub to a centre for Arctic tourism. Barentsburg and another Svalbard town, Pyramiden, were brought under Soviet administration for coal mining purposes in the 1920s.

This month, however, it was reported by the Russian Foreign Ministry that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had written a letter to his Norwegian counterpart, Ine Eriksen Søreide, asking for a bilateral dialogue to discuss what was perceived in Moscow as discriminating restrictions on Russia’s economic activities in Svalbard. Among the issues under dispute were Norwegian plans to develop a fishing interdiction zone near Svalbard, a deportation rule affecting specifically Russian citizens, and regulations regarding Russian helicopter usage within Svalbard’s airspace which Moscow saw as obstructive.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide speaking at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, January 2020 [Photo by Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers 2020].
It was confirmed this week that the Ms Søreide had received the letter in question, and a subsequent statement from the Norwegian MFA stated that ‘the views appearing in the letter are regularly brought up by the Russian side and are well known to Norwegian authorities’. The Russian governmental news service Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Российская газета) published a stinging rebuke [in Russian] of Norway’s stance on these issues earlier this week, stating that Oslo was in violation of the treaty by seeking to unfairly micromanage Russian commercial activities in and around the islands.

It was unclear whether Russia’s request for a direct dialogue about Svalbard with Norway was timed for this month’s centenary of the treaty signing, and whether this represented a form of diplomatic posturing on Moscow’s part. However, another factor may be ongoing Russian concerns about ensuring a long-term presence in Svalbard as the Arctic region continues to open up to increased economic activity. Last year, Russia began to pay closer attention to oil drilling samples the USSR had collected in Svalbard in the mid-1970s, a move seen as an endeavour to further maintain its economic foothold on the islands.

As well, last month, it was reported [in Norwegian] by the Norwegian TV2 news service that deposits of base and precious metals, possibly worth as much as US$100 billion and including copper, gold, silver and zinc, had been detected in the seabeds near Svalbard according to a study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Should this discovery be further validated, it could open up another jurisdictional tug of war between Oslo and other governments, including Russia.

Map of Svalbard at Oslo Airport [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
This most recent Norway-Russia Svalbard dispute comes at a time of cooling bilateral relations between the two countries and Western concerns about growing Russian military interests in the Arctic Ocean. Norway was the main staging areas for the NATO military simulation named ‘Trident Juncture’, which took place in late 2018. More recently, the Norwegian military expressed unease at Moscow’s announcement earlier this month that the Russian Navy was planning missile tests in Arctic international waters near Norway’s Nordland county and the country’s Aasta Hansten gas field.

There was also a diplomatic tussle this month over the refusal by the Norwegian government to allow visas for a Russian military signing and dancing group which was scheduled to perform at next week’s Barents Spektakel, in the northern Norwegian border town of Kirkenes, which begins on 12 February. The Barents Spektakel is an annual cultural event which frequently brings together Norwegian and Russian performers and tourists, and the theme for this year’s celebration is ‘The Russian Connection’ (Русский след).

These recent Russian protests over their rights in Svalbard may simply spark another round of (re-)negotiations, as well as discussions over how Norway can better balance its sovereignty over the islands with the interests of Russia and other treaty signatories. However, both the emerging importance of the Arctic Ocean as an area of untapped resources, and growing impatience in Russia and the West over each others’ Arctic strategies, may lead to Svalbard becoming a de facto pawn in an emerging regional game over regional influence.