The Arctic archipelago, the “Achilles’ heel” of NATO and object of desire of Russia and China

“Our goal: communism,” reads a sign in front of a Russian building in Barentsburg, in the Svalbard archipelago (AFP/Jonathan Nackstrand) (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/)

In the middle of the blizzard, Russian flags, a sculpture glorifying communism or a bust of Lenin can be glimpsed. It is surprising to find these emblems on western soil, but the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has a special status in the heart of the Arctic.

A thousand kilometers from the North Pole, this territory with twice the surface area of ​​Belgium it is sometimes seen as NATO‘s “Achilles’ heel” in the Arctic, offering the opportunity for Russia or China to make a mark in this strategically important and economically promising region.

The reason? An atypical treaty, signed in 1920 in Paris, which recognizes Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard, but guarantees the citizens of the signatory States (46 at present) the freedom to exploit its natural resources “on a basis of perfect equality”.

As a result, Russia, and before that the Soviet Union, has been extracting Coal on these islands inhabited by less than 3,000 people of about 50 nationalities.

In this frigid place, with temperatures around -20ºC in winter, the Russian presence is perpetuated in the town of Barentsburg, where a giant sculpture stands with the slogan “Our goal: communism”.

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Bust of Lenin in Barentsburg (AFP) (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/)

Some 370 Russians and Ukrainians from Donbas live around a low-quality coal mine. On an elevated position in the town is the modern, railing-protected Russian consulate with a richly decorated marble interior.

“Spitzberg (Russia’s historical name for the archipelago) is covered in the sweat and blood of the Russian people for decades,” says Consul Sergei Guschin. “I do not dispute that it is a Norwegian territory, but it is part of Russian history“, Add.

Arguing that its fishermen and hunters have come to these latitudes since the 16th century to capture whales, seals and polar bears, and their important economic role on the islands, Moscow wants to have a say in the governance of Svalbard.

The environmental argument

The southernmost island of the archipelago, Bjørnøya (Island of the Bears), lies near the waters that Russian nuclear submarines from the mighty Northern Fleet must take to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

The main interest of the Russians is to avoid a situation where others could use the place for offensive purposes.”, analyzes Arild Moe, a researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo. “To achieve this, they will maintain a reasonable presence and will be very attentive to what happens“, Add.

After asking in vain for co-management at the end of World War II, Moscow is now demanding, not without much success, “bilateral consultations” to lift the restrictions that restrain its activities in the archipelago.

Faced with the long decline of its coal mine, Barentsburg has diversified into scientific research and tourism.

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Barentsburg poster in Russian (AFP) (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/)

People come by snowmobile or by boat, depending on the season, to admire what for decades was a window on the Soviet world from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

All these remains “we keep here not because we still aspire to communism, but because we value our heritage and because tourists like to take photos with them,” says guide and historian Natalia Maximishina.

But Moscow reproaches the Norwegian authorities for hindering these activities, for example, by limiting helicopter flights in the name of the environment.

We have started to deploy nature reserves around Russian settlements”, acknowledges former diplomat Sverre Jervell, architect of Norwegian policy in the Barents Sea region. “Especially after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, when Barentsburg could barely survive,” he explains.

Was it to curb Russian ambitions? “Not officially, but actually, yes,” she admits. “We had good arguments: it is a very fragile nature. But we particularly protected the spaces around Russian settlements.”

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General view of the Russian mining company Arktikugol Trust (AFP) (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/)

Action Reaction

Russia regularly raises its voice and accuses Norway of violating an important treaty provision that de facto establishes Svalbard as a demilitarized space. Every stopover by a Norwegian frigate or visit by NATO parliamentarians gives rise to official protests.

The same goes for the huge Svalsat satellite station near the capital Longyearbyen, the largest such facility in the world.

On a windy plateau near the World Seed Bank known as “Vegetable Noah’s Ark,” some 130 antennas protected by white radomes that look like giant golf balls communicate with space. And, according to Moscow, they download military data.

In January, one of the two fiber optic cables linking Svalsat to the mainland was mysteriously damaged.

Russia is also accused of taking liberties with the treaty. His Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin traveled to the archipelago in 2015 even though it was banned by European sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Chechen special forces stopped there before exercises in the Arctic.

Experts rule out a scenario like in Crimea in the archipelago, but predict new clashes due to the tension caused by the invasion of Ukraine.

“Svalbard is sensitive to the international situation”, analyzes Arild Moe. “It is a place where Russia can easily express its discontent and put pressure on Norway. We will probably see it in the future“, Add.

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Tourists in Barentsburg (AFP) (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND /)

“Neutralize NATO”

For James Wither, professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the archipelago is “NATO’s Achilles heel in the Arctic” because its “remoteness from mainland Norway and its particular legal status make it politically and militarily vulnerable to Russian adventurism”.

“Although the danger of a direct military confrontation is low,” Moscow could try advances to divide the Western camp and “neutralize NATO”this former British soldier wrote in 2018.

Norway tries to play down Russian grievances, arguing that they are long known.

“I wouldn’t say they’re testing us, but there is a growing interest in the Arctic from coastal countries and beyond”, says his Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, praised for having strengthened ties with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov during his time at the Foreign Ministry between 2005-2012.

“We want to see the progress of the communities in Svalbard (…) and it will be done in a transparent way,” he adds.

But out of an abundance of caution, Oslo shelled out some $30 million in 2016 to buy a massive estate near Longyearbyen, the only one still in private hands on these islands.

Given the alleged interest of foreign investors, including China, the government justified the acquisition of the 217.6 km2 by its “I wish that those lands were Norwegian”.

The eventual arrival of new powers increases the fear of destabilization, a fear that Russia takes advantage of.

“If we leave Spitzberg, who will take our place?” asks Consul Sergei Guschin. “It can be China, for example, or the United States, or it does not matter which other State party to the treaty”.

scientific missions

Like Greenland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands, Svalbard is targeted by China, which defines itself as a “quasi-Arctic” state and expresses its desire to establish a “Polar Silk Road”.

In an Arctic that is warming three times faster than the global average, the retreat of the sea ice opens up economic opportunities: new fishing grounds, new maritime trade routes, and easier access to fossil and mineral resources.

Svalbard’s third town, Ny-Ålesund, is a former mining community converted to international scientific research.

Among the buildings occupied by institutions from a dozen countries, it’s hard to miss the one aimed at Chinese researchers.

Two huge marble lions guard the entrance to the building, owned by the Norwegian State but renamed “Yellow River Station” by landlords of the China Polar Research Institute.

For Torbjørn Pedersen, a Norwegian professor of political science at the University of Bodø, it is a blatant example of “planting the flag”, of “diplomacy for science”.

“Some foreign capitals have established their presence there as strategic positions that can give them political influence on the islands and in the Arctic region,” he wrote in the Polar Journal in 2021.

“Part of the scientific presence in Svalbard may appear to be motivated by geopolitical reasons,” he added, warning that it could become “a real security challenge for the host country, Norway.”

The Norwegian authorities take a dim view of these maneuvers and in 2019 launched a strategy to prioritize joint research on shared infrastructure, thus preventing a nation from planting the flag on its islands in the name of science.

(With information from AFP)


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