Spitzbergen: A New Hotspot in the Cold North Between Russia and the West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 101

Spitzbergen, Norway (Source: Hinrich Bäsemann/Picture Alliance)

Spitzbergen, the largest and only continually inhabited island of the Svalbard Archipelago, located in the Arctic Ocean, 1,000 kilometers north of Norway, is on its way to becoming a new hotspot in the emerging cold war between the Russian Federation and the West (Nrk.no, June 28; Ekho Rossii, June 29). For decades, this Norwegian territory’s legal position has been anything but simple. Yet the latest flare-up stems from Norway’s imposition of Western sanctions on Moscow in response to the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s propensity to view this action as part of a larger Western effort to ostensibly humiliate Russia and exclude it from the Arctic more generally. The current conflict began when Norway announced, at the end of April, that it would block goods from Russia to the Russian communities in Spitzbergen. It intensified at the end of June, when that policy began to bite and Russian officials and politicians took notice. And it may come to a head as soon as August, when, according to Russian officials, the 500 Russian citizens living in Spitzbergen will run out of supplies—an event that some in Moscow say would constitute a humanitarian disaster and justify an intervention to save their co-nationals.

Spitzbergen attracted little attention from the outside world in recent decades; and even today, it is known primarily because it has more polar bears than people and is the site of a seed storage facility designed to ensure bio-diversity in the future. But the deeper roots of the current crisis lie in the efforts of the international community a century ago to resolve territorial claims to the archipelago by Sweden, Norway and Russia. In 1920, the Svalbard Treaty of Paris, negotiated by Western states without Russia’s participation, declared that Norway had sovereignty over the islands but that Oslo had to allow for the development of other national communities there, including most prominently the Russians, whose governments would have the right to supply those populations without Norwegian interference. Moscow signed the treaty only reluctantly, in 1935 (Christopher R. Rossi, “ ‘A Unique International Problem’: The Svalbard Treaty,” Washington University Global Studies Law Review 15-1, 2015).

The numbers of Russians in Spitzbergen have been small, about 4,000 during the Cold War, when Moscow sought to develop the coal reserves there; today, only around 500 Russians remain since local coal production has fallen. Nonetheless, in the past several years, the Svalbard archipelago became the focus of Russian attention for two reasons: the discovery of nearby offshore natural gas fields and the islands’ location near the entrance of the Northern Sea Route, which passes north of Russia between Europe and Asia. But it was Oslo’s decision, on April 29, to impose European Union–mandated sanctions on Russia that triggered the latest crisis (Nrk.no, June 28; Ekho Rossii, June 29). Norway is not a member of the EU but tends to closely coordinate its foreign policy with Brussels. Mounting evidence that Norway intended to implement this ban on Russian shipping to Spitzbergen led the Russian foreign ministry to call in the Norwegian ambassador for a dressing down in late June (Mid.ru, June 29). At the same time, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev announced that Russia would be increasing its forces along the Norwegian border (The Barents Observer, June 28).

Yet it was the expression of outrage by Russian parliamentary deputies that may say more about how this conflict could develop. Some Russian parliamentarians argue that Norway is violating the 1920 agreement and later accords, like the 1959 Arctic Treaty and the 2010 Russian-Norwegian agreement on the Barents Sea. As such, they said, the Nordic state can no longer claim sovereignty over the Svalbards. If Oslo does not change course, these Russian State Duma members asserted, Moscow should denounce the 2010 accord and take action, including the possible use of force, to ensure that the compatriots living on the archipelago are supplied with all the goods they need (Interfax, Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 29; The Barents Observer, Riafan, June 30; IA Rex, July 5).

Most statements about this situation coming out of Moscow are less about Spitzbergen itself than about the feeling many Russians have that what Norway is doing there is part of a general Western plan “to expel Russia from the Arctic”—such as by cutting back loans, ignoring Russia as the chairperson in office of the Arctic Council, and building up Western defenses in the Far North (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 26; Rhythm of Eurasia, Rosbalt, June 30; see EDM, June 1, 6). By casting the issue in this way, the Russian officials and politicians are raising the stakes, amplifying the problem of the supply of food to Spitzbergen’s Russians from a narrow issue that might be easily negotiated into a centerpiece of the Kremlin’s far broader contest with the West.

Some Russian voices, including the Russian consul general in the archipelago, are taking a different tact, arguing that the Spitzbergen crisis has not yet reached a point of no return. As he noted, provisions on the island still exist; there are alternative ways to supply them, such as purchasing goods in Europe for delivery there; and Moscow can take different steps short of the use of force to show its displeasure, including dispatching Russian officials under Western sanctions to visit the island, as Russia did in 2015, when then–deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin traveled there (Vzglyad, June 29).

Nonetheless, there is serious reason for concern that Moscow may be far more prepared to take military action in the case of Spitzbergen than has been the case with Kaliningrad (see EDM, June 21). That reason lies in the fact that while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would respond forcefully to any move against Lithuania or Poland (the two NATO members that border the Russian Baltic exclave), there is real doubt about how the Western alliance might respond in the case of a Russian military move in Svalbard given that the stipulations of the 1920 treaty have kept NATO countries from adopting a united front. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that any attack on Svalbard would be treated as an attack on the Alliance as a whole and trigger an Article 5 response. But he is a Norwegian, and his words may reflect Oslo’s hopes more than the position of other NATO countries. As a 2018 National Defense University study makes clear, the United States, for one, has not adopted an unequivocal position on the archipelago (Prism, November 8, 2018). And unless that changes, Putin could be tempted to test the West in a place few have thought about.