Ukraine’s ambassador to Norway, Vyacheslav Yatsiuk, visited the Svalbard archipelago on June 12, where he stated that his country “may become an Arctic player” (Vestifinance.ru, July 5), even though Kyiv is not currently directly involved in the region’s affairs. In 2017, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, on an official trip to Canada, articulated Kyiv’s determination to cooperate with Ottawa in the Arctic (Izvestia, July 5). And now, it appears, the Ukrainian government is trying to foster bilateral ties with Norway to make its presence in the Arctic more visible (Vestifinance.ru, July 5).
The representatives of Ukraine and Norway discussed Arctic regional cooperation—concerned mainly with research, climate change and satellite technology—during Ambassador Yatsiuk’s tours of the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Ny-Ålesund Research Station. Ukraine’s diplomat also visited the Incoherent Scatter Radar System in Svalbard. The facility, connected to the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT), was notably built with the contribution of Ukrainian scientists. During his trip to the polar islands, Yatsiuk noted that Norwegian-Ukrainian ties are tightening in the political, economic as well as cultural spheres (Norway.mfa.gov.ua, June 16).
Currently, Ukraine’s presence in the Arctic is limited to approximately 400 Ukrainian miners working in the village of Barentsburg (where they make up around 60 percent of the local population). These workers are employed by the Russian state-owned coal extraction company Arktikugol (Norway.mfa.gov.ua, June 16). Ukrainians have a long-standing tradition of working in Svalbard: in the 1980s, the number of newcomers from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) exceeded the Norwegians themselves (Birdinflight.com, August 22, 2016). Presently, the relatively low salaries paid by Arktikugol in Barentsburg (between $600 and $1,400 per month) are more attractive for Ukrainians than for Russian laborers (Arcticugol.ru, accessed August 2, 2019).
Barentsburg is the only remaining permanent Russian settlement on the Svalbard archipelago. While the mining industry is losing its former profitability, Moscow views its presence there primarily from a geopolitical angle. The 1920 Svalbard Treaty prohibits the creation of military bases on the archipelago, but the shores on the northern outskirts of the Barents Sea are of great geostrategic importance. The current militarization of the Arctic (see EDM, October 30, 2017; June 18, 2018; September 12, 2018; May 14, 2019) adds to the importance of Svalbard in the event of regional military escalation. Indeed, control over Svalbard secures dominance over the Barents Sea—the main route of Russian nuclear submarines and ships based on the Kola Peninsula—making Barentsburg an indispensable maritime gateway to the Russian High North (The Barents Observer, September 4, 2018). Russia intensified its presence in Svalbard in 2008 (Sergeydolya.livejournal.com, September 7, 2015), which seemingly did not affect Russian-Norwegian relations at the time. After 2014 (with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine), however, the political dialogue between the two neighboring Arctic countries suffered, which also strained military cooperation (RIA Novosti, April 9, 2019).
In April 2015, diplomatic friction reached a new high when Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (despite a sanctions ban on entering Norway) visited Svalbard. The scandal-prone Russian politician declared that the Arctic is a “Russian Mecca” and questioned Norway’s sovereignty over the Arctic island chain. In many ways, the situation began to resemble the October 2003 Russian-Ukrainian dispute over Ukraine’s Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait (Podrobnosti.ua, April 20, 2015). Furthermore, the first deputy chair of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs, Leonid Kalashnikov, in commenting on Rogozin’s 2015 trip to the archipelago, provocatively stated, “Russia in the Arctic should not be accountable to anyone, and Svalbard is a free economic and political zone” (Podrobnosti.ua, April 20, 2015).
Unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s recent declaration of its Arctic ambitions did not go unnoticed in Russia, and its media space exploded in outrage. For example, the special representative of the president of the Russian Federation on international cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, Hero of the Soviet Union Artur Chilingarov (known for his provocative gestures in the High North), told RIA Novosti that Ukraine will not become an Arctic power, because “she has irreversibly lost her technological capabilities [Arctic aviation and naval fleet]” (RIA Novosti, July 5, 2019). Meanwhile, Alexander Pilyasov, a professor of economics and head of the Center for Northern and Arctic Economies, believes that it will be extremely difficult for Ukraine to earn the right to be present and to conduct economic activity in Svalbard. Specifically, he argued, “Ukraine closed her Arctic ambitions” by selling the only ice-class research vessel built at the Kherson Shipyard (1993) to China; and now the only opportunity for Ukraine to become an “Arctic player” is to collaborate on Norwegian or Russian projects. Moreover, “Ukraine has neither geographical conditions nor economic potential to be able to increase transit flows and develop infrastructure through investments in Arctic projects.” Finally, he added that, to be legitimately considered an Arctic power, it is essential to first apply for observer status to the Arctic Council, which cannot be accomplished without Russia’s assent (Ekonomika Segodnya, July 5).
Despite visible pessimism, Ukraine has already made some progress in increasing its presence in the region. On April 18, Ukrainian military pilots and a Ukrainian Il-76MD military transport aircraft returned from a joint Ukrainian-Danish operation, Northern Falcon 2019. Within the scope of the exercise, Ukrainian military pilots spent more than 100 hours in the polar sky, 44 flights were made from the United States’ Thule Air Force to the Danish polar station Nord, and more than 600 tons of fuel and almost 20 tons of other goods were transported. The participating personnel performed their tasks under particularly challenging conditions: with temperatures as low as –50 degrees Celsius (–58 degrees Fahrenheit), wind speeds of 15–20 meters per second (34–45 miles per hour), and without ground-based radio navigation equipment or spare airfields (Wing.com.ua, April 18). Ukraine is also involved in projects in the Antarctic region (notably, the Ukrainian research station Academician Vernadsky), where it is gaining valuable experience working in harsh climactic conditions. Incidentally, on March 26, the 24th Ukrainian expedition (with the first female group member in 20 years) arrived in Antarctica (Fakty.com.ua, July 5).
For now, Ukraine’s bid to expand its standing in the Arctic remains shaky. However, Russia’s immediate reaction highlighted visible signs of concern in Moscow toward such a prospect. At the same time, to give more credibility to these Ukrainian plans, the support (political and technical) of Canada, Denmark, Norway and other Western Arctic states will be instrumental.