In the snowstorm, the Russian flag, a sculpture of the glory of communism, a bust of Lenin … Inconsistent in the western lands, the symbols testify to the international goal in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the center of an alluring Arctic.
One thousand kilometers from the North Pole, the region is twice the size of Belgium, sometimes referred to as the “NATO Achilles heel of the Arctic”, providing unique opportunities for powers such as Russia and China to expand their footprint strategically important and economically committed. Region.
The reason? An atypical treaty concluded in Paris in 1920, recognizing Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard but guaranteeing the freedom of exploitation of natural resources “on the basis of perfect equality” to the citizens of the signatory states (today 46).
In this capacity, for decades, Russia – formerly the USSR – has been extracting coal on these lands inhabited by less than 3,000 people of about fifty nationalities.
Here, almost everything is frozen: nature with its snow-covered peaks, glaciers and sea ice damaged by climate change, temperatures that often drop to -20 degrees Celsius in winter, but also man-made decorations.
Announcing “Our goal – communism” and its other Soviet symbols, the village of Barnesburg, with its huge sculptures, perpetuated the Russian presence on the islands.
About 370 Russians and Ukrainians from Donbass still live in the vicinity of low-quality coal seams. Immersed in complete darkness in winter, without access to the capital Longyearbyen (inhabited mainly by Norwegians), they depend on the sea for their supplies.
At height, the Russian consulate, modern and guarded by high gates. Sergueï Gouchtchine welcomes a marble entrance illuminated by a winter garden, a luxury that clashes with the dilapidated look of the surrounding buildings.
“Spitsbergen has been covered in the sweat and blood of the Russian people for centuries,” the consul said. “I’m not arguing that this is Norwegian territory, but it’s (also) part of Russian history.”
The official official name chosen by Norway to establish its hold on the islands – “Svalbard” – the Russians systematically prefer the historical name “Spitsbergen” (or “Spitsbergen”), which is not symbolically innocent.
Arguing that its fishermen and hunters came to this latitude to hunt whales, seals and polar bears in the early 16th century and that it is there today, except Norway, the only economic player, any important, Russia wants Svalbard’s rule.
– Environmental Weapons –
Incidentally, the archipelago, especially the southernmost island, Bjørnøya (Bear Island), is located near the waters that the powerful northern fleet of Russian nuclear submarines have to borrow to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
“The main interest of Russians is to avoid situations where others may use the space for offensive purposes,” said Ariel Moe, a researcher at the Friedtzhof Nansen Institute in Oslo.
“To do this, they will maintain a reasonable presence there and will also be very attentive to what is happening there,” he said.
After a futile application for co-management at the end of World War II, Russia is now calling for the lifting of restrictions on “bilateral consultations” without further success, which it says is controlling its activities on the islands. ..
Its coal seam has been at a loss for a long time, Barentsburg has added strings to its bow, diversifying scientific research and tourism. On the west side of the Iron Curtain, people come here in snowmobiles or boats depending on the season to admire what the USSR showcase has been for decades.
All these patterns from the past, “We keep them here because we still do not aspire to communism, but because we care about our heritage and tourists like to take pictures with them,” said guide and historian Natalia Maximishina.
But Moscow has accused the Norwegian authorities of obstructing the expansion of its activities by calling for the protection of nature, an essential part of the agreement. Russian helicopter flights, for example, are very strictly supervised.
“We have begun to establish nature reserves around Russian settlements,” admitted Sverre Jervell, a former Norwegian diplomat and architect of Norwegian policy in the Barents Sea region.
“Especially after the end of the Cold War and the abolition of the USSR, when Barentsburg was struggling to stay afloat.”
To suppress Russian ambitions? “Not officially, but in reality, yes,” he said. “Of course we had a good argument: it is a very fragile nature. But we have protected the areas around Russian settlements in particular.”
In addition to Barentsburg, Russia has long maintained other mining communities (pyramiden, grument) on the islands, to the extent that the Russians there outnumber the Norwegians by the end of the Cold War.
– Action Feedback –
On a regular basis, Russia raises its voice and accuses Norway of violating an important provision of the treaty, which, in effect, makes Svalbard a disarmament site.
Every stopover of the Norwegian frigate or the visit of NATO MPs gives rise to official protests.
Similar to the huge Swalsat satellite station near Longyearbyen, it is the largest installation in the world.
On a windy plateau very close to the World Seed Reserve (the famous “Noah’s Ark Vegetable”), about 130 antennas are sheltered by white radom that communicates with space to look like a giant golf ball. And download military data, criticize Moscow.
In January, one of the two fiber optic cables connecting Svalsat to the mainland was mysteriously damaged.
Critics fly in both directions. Russia has also been accused of gaining independence through the agreement.
For example, his Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogzin, although on the list of European sanctions after the annexation of Russian Crimea in 2014, made an immediate appearance in Svalbard in 2015.
Or when Chechen special forces stop there the following year on their way to a training exercise near the North Pole.
If experts exclude a recurrence of the Crimean scenario in the islands, they are expected to observe new arms passes there due to the new cold snap caused by Russia’s aggression on Ukraine on 24 February.
“Svalbard is sensitive to the international situation,” analyzed Arild Moe. “This is a place where Russia can easily express their annoyance and put pressure on Norway. We will probably see this in the future.”
– “NATO Achilles Hill” –
George C. According to James Weider, a professor at the Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the archipelago is NATO’s “Achilles Hill in the Arctic” because of its “distance from mainland Norway and its special legal status makes it politically and militarily vulnerable to Russian adventure.”
“Although the risk of direct military confrontation is low, Moscow may be tempted to move there to split the western camp,” the former British officer wrote in 2018.
Norway seeks to reduce Russian accusations, arguing that they have long been known and that Norway enjoys the same sovereignty over these islands in any other part of its territory.
Appreciated for succeeding in establishing close ties with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during his tenure as foreign minister between 2005 and 2012, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr wants to send “high north, low tension” proverbs.
“I wouldn’t say we’re being tested, but interest in the Arctic is growing from neighboring and more distant countries,” he said.
“We want to see community growth in Svalbard … and it will happen in a transparent way,” he added.
As a precaution, the Norwegian state still spent 300 million crowns (33.5 million euros) to buy a huge plot of land in the vicinity of Longyearbyen in 2016, which is still in private hands in the islands.
Faced with the supposed interest of foreign investors, especially the Chinese, the then government justified its purchase of 217.6 km2 with its “wish that these lands be Norwegian”.
The possible arrival of new energy raises fears of instability, a fear that Russia will not fail to play.
“If we leave Spitsbergen, who will come to take our place?” Consul Sergei Gouchin asked. “It could be China, for example, or the United States, or any other state party to the treaty.”
– “Diplomacy through Science” –
Like Greenland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands, Svalbard seems to be a Chinese landmark, defining itself as an “Arctic” state and expressing a desire to establish a “Polar Silk Road.”
An Arctic warming three times faster than the planet, the retreat of sea ice opens up economic opportunities, real or imagined: new fishing grounds, new maritime trade routes, easy access to potential oil, gas and mineral resources. ..
Everything is good to get your feet on the door.
The third area of the archipelago, Ny-Ålesund, is a former mining community that is now leaning towards international scientific research.
Among the buildings occupied by institutions from a dozen countries, it is difficult not to see the building occupied by Chinese researchers.
Featuring imperialist China, the two large marble guardian lions honorary buildings in the Norwegian state keep an eye on the entrance to the property but have been dubbed the “Yellow River Station” by tenants of the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC).
According to Torbjorn Pedersen, a Norwegian professor of political science at the University of Bodo, “flagging” of “diplomacy through science” is a clear example of an opportunity that should not be underestimated.
“Some foreign capitals have come there to portray their presence as a national station and strategic location that could have a political impact on their islands and the wider Arctic region,” he wrote in 2021 in the Polar Journal.
“Some scientific presence in Svalbard may seem to be driven by geopolitical inspiration,” he added. It could “potentially encourage some state actors, including major powers with regional aspirations – and the host country could become a real security challenge for Norway.”
Norwegian authorities view these attitudes as a dim one, with more space in Antarctica than in a sovereign state.
In 2019, they launched a new government strategy aimed at undermining the logic of autonomous stations on which each nation would fly its flag. From now on the emphasis will be on joint research by theme in shared infrastructure.
The Franco-German Scientific Mission (AWIPEV) seems to be pushing for this recovery. Since 2014, France and Germany have sought to consolidate their resources, which are currently scattered across different sites, in a single building, but the file is not moving forward.
Behind the scenes, it is rumored that Norwegians are afraid to set a precedent.
“We can’t do anything for the French and we can’t deny it for the Chinese,” Sverre Jervell summed up. “The principles of the Svalbard Agreement are not discriminatory.”