Eric Vandenbroeck 13 Febr. 2020


The Svalbard/Spitsbergen Saga

As an addition to what we recently covered here,  it is worth to remind ourselves of Svalbard, a remote Arctic archipelago that has been back in the news of late, and not only because of the islands is the subject of a nine-day, ‘slow TV’ documentary featured this month by the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK.

Russian authorities used the 100th anniversary for the signing of the Svalbard Treaty from 1920 to vocally attack Norway on how Norway manages the principle of equal treatment of signatory states on the archipelago. 

In a letter from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to his Norwegian counterpart Ine Eriksen Søreide, he consequently refers to the archipelago as ‘Spitsbergen’ or ‘the archipelago’.

And not just that. In a written comment to the Norwegian economy web site E24, the Russian embassy explicitly asks that the area be referred to as ‘Spitsbergen’ in print.

And as The North News reported behind the idyllic scenes on TV, where MS Spitsbergen glides past sleepy polar bears and lazy walruses under the midnight sun conflicts are emerging below the surface, conflicts about the archipelago over which Norway was granted sovereignty under the Svalbard Treaty.

We know that the geopolitical environment for the Arctic has been substantially affected by the renewal of great power competition. Although there continues to be significant international cooperation on Arctic issues, the Arctic is increasingly viewed as an arena for geopolitical competition among the United States, Russia, and China. Russia in recent years has enhanced its military presence and operations in the Arctic, and the other Arctic states are now taking steps to enhance their own military presence and operations in the region. China’s activities in the Arctic have been growing steadily in recent years.

The Paris Peace Conference in Versailles was a timely opportunity to find a solution to what then US Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, called “a unique international problem”.

Newspaper Dag og Tid reported last Friday how the aristocratic Norwegian diplomat “Fritz” Wedel Jarlsberg, who lived in Paris at the time, proposed making some Norwegian demands as compensation “for our losses at sea” during the war (even though Norway was officially neutral). Jarlsberg seized the opportunity to expand Norway and bring Svalbard, viewed as a “no man's land” at the time despite centuries of whaling, fishing, and some early coal mining, under Norwegian control.

Whereby the Newspaper Klassekampen reported on Friday that Norway won sovereignty over Svalbard “because we were a small, insignificant country” that presumably didn’t threaten any of the other players.

Thus 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.

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim recently revealed their registration of large discoveries of gold, silver, copper, and zinc in the seafloor between Svalbard and the island of Jan Mayen to the southwest, which is also under Norwegian jurisdiction.

Any deep-sea mining ventures to recover the valuable minerals could be good news for the Norwegian economy, with both state oil company Equinor and DNV GL already expressing interest. It would also present another potential conflict for the Norwegian government, however, in line with recent legal challenges over Norway’s imposition of a 12-nautical-mile zone around Svalbard under the treaty but a 200-mile zone beyond that for Norway alone. Norway’s foreign ministry maintains that the seafloor off Svalbard is part of the Norwegian Continental Shelf, giving it territorial rights also to exploit its resources.

Few other countries agree with Norway’s interpretation of the treaty’s application to the seafloor, with treaty signatories claiming that the treaty terms apply to the entire economic zone around Svalbard. Conflicts arose over trapping of snowcrabs in the area, with the EU giving Latvia the right to do so but Norway contesting it. The seafloor rights have, as yet, to be challenged in court.

Environmental and climate concerns are also cropping up. 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.

The opening up of areas in and around Svalbard due to retreating ice has 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 potentially 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 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 center for Arctic tourism. Barentsburg and another Svalbard town, Pyramiden, were brought under Soviet administration for coal mining purposes in the 1920s.

Norwegian authorities seem to be hoping to ride out the latest protests from Russia over its administration and sovereignty. Svalbard itself is demilitarized under the treaty, but remains strategically important for Norway and its NATO allies. Klassekampen noted this week how the former Soviet Union tried to overturn the Svalbard Treaty as early as 1944, when its then-Foreign Minister Molotov demanded that Bjørnøya be turned over to Russia and Svalbard divided between Norway and the Soviet Union, in return for the Soviet army’s liberation of Finnmark from Nazi German occupiers. Norway remained quiet as usual, the Cold War soon began and the Svalbard Treaty has survived despite occasional protests from Russia.

Among the issues under dispute are 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.

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.

According to an article published today Spitsbergen or Svalbard? The Answer Includes both Politics and History the perception in Russia is that they were the first to discover Svalbard, in Russian literature, the archipelago is referred to as Grumant, which is a Russified version of the term for Greenland. In earlier times, one did not know whether these islands were part of Greenland or not, as there was much ice in the area.

Last year, Russia began to pay closer attention to oil drilling samples the USSR had collected in Svalbard in the mid-1970s, a move is seen as an endeavor 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.

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 area 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 Barents Spektakel 2020 ‘The Russian Connection’ (Русский след).



The letter from the Russian Foreign Ministry has aroused heated public debate in Norway, where the authorities with growing concern view the current intense Russian military buildup in the Arctic, including in the nearby Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Nevertheless, as The Barentsobserver wrote yesterday, "Amid jubilant celebration at Svalbard, Norway sends strong signal it will not accept encroachment on sovereignty."

However, the recent Russian protests over their rights in Svalbard could over time 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 and a reminder that the consequences of the various treaties still have relevance today.


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