Concerns were rising in Norway on Thursday over whether Russian and now Chechen officials have once again tried to provoke Norwegian authorities on Svalbard, the Arctic archipelago over which Norway has sovereignty. A recent transfer of cargo and personnel at Svalbard’s airport in Longyearbyen has caught attention, because it was tied to a training exercise for Chechen special forces.
The Independent Barents Observer, which follows events in the Arctic region from its base in Kirkenes, reported this week that a “combat group” of Chechen special forces had used Svalbard’s airport (external link) in connection with a military exercise close to the North Pole. Before being dropped onto the ice on March 29, the Chechen paratroopers reportedly had undergone training in a program developed in cooperation with the Russian Geographical Society.
‘Heroes’ heading home
The website reported that Chechnya’s controversial president Ramzan Kadyrov has featured the Arctic mission and the Svalbard transfer on the Chechen government’s own website, claiming that Chechnya’s “heroes” were “on their way back to the homeland.”
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Thursday morning that the incident was similar to a controversial transfer of a Russian official at Svalbard’s airport last year. The official was among those hit by sanctions against the Russian government following its intervention in Ukraine, and he also bragged about how he nonetheless managed to travel to the Arctic through Svalbard. NRK’s correspondent in Moscow suggested on morning radio on Norway that Russian authorities, through their Chechen allies, may now be implying once again that Norwegian authorities don’t have full control over the Svalbard airport.
The Chechen transfer has raised questions because the Svalbard Treaty that gives Norway jurisdiction over Svalbard specifically restricts military activity, prohibiting establishment of naval bases and fortifications as well as the use of Svalbard for “warlike purposes.” A professor specializing in international law at the University of Oslo, Geir Ulfstein, told the Independent Barents Observer and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the use of Svalbard as part of preparations for military exercises could amount to a treaty violation.
‘Must apply well in advance for diplomatic clearance’
Norway itself has stated, in an updated report on Svalbard (external link), that “all foreign military activity on Svalbard is prohibited and would entail a gross infringement of sovereignty.” Unless such activity involves “innocent passage through territorial waters,” the Norway’s justice ministry stated that all “foreign military and civilian vessels wishing to enter Norwegian territorial waters around Svalbard must apply well in advance for diplomatic clearance,” and that “the same applies to calls at ports (on) Svalbard and landings at airports.” Ulfstein, the Oslo professor, said that “the kind of use of Svalbard that we now are witnessing” raises “an interesting question” over how far the treaty’s ban on “warlike purposes” can reach.
A spokesperson for Norway’s foreign ministry told the Independent Barents Observer on Wednesday that Norwegian authorities “have nothing against flights via Svalbard, as long as regulations are being followed.” Now it appears some of those regulations have been changed.
New restrictions are now being placed on flights involving Russian An-74 cargo and passenger aircraft between Longyearbyen and Barneo, a Russian ice base close to the North Pole. It was set up by the Russian Geographical Society for Arctic expeditions nearly 15 years ago for use mostly during the month of April, when the ice is still firm enough to support a landing strip and host visitors ranging from government officials to sports stars and tourists. It has been served for years by flights from or through Svalbard.
Norwegian authorities have now put new restrictions, however, on more flights planned between Longyearbyen and Barneo. Carl Einar Ianssen, head of operations at the Longyearbyen airport, told the Independent Barents Observer that the Russian An-74 flights now must report passenger lists and cargo 48 hours before take-off.
The Independent Barents Observer had reported last week that Russian airborne troops were also planning upcoming exercises close to the North Pole. The new restrictions may effectively halt as many as 11 flights involving their transport, while the Russian Geographical Society was complaining that Norwegian authorities had only authorized one more flight after the Chechens’. The society also complained on social media that several tourists and 55 marathon runners were left waiting for transport. It’s unclear whether Norway’s new regulations came in direct response to the Chechen flights.