UPDATED: Russia’s ambassador to Norway trooped up to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry on Monday after being summoned to explain why his country’s deputy prime minister visited Svalbard over the weekend, in violation of the EU’s and Norway’s sanctions against him. Ambassador Vyacheslav Pavlovskiy blamed the incident on “technical” issues and the weather, and called Norway’s objections an “overreaction.”
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Monday that Pavlovskiy claimed there was never any plan to land on Norwegian territory on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard Saturday. Rather, the Russian ambassador claimed, it was a “necessary” stopover because of the weather and the need for the Russians to transfer to a plane capable of landing and taking off at the North Pole, which was the deputy prime minister’s destination.
“My personal opinion is that this is an overreaction,” Pavlovskiy told Norwegian reporters in referring to the Norwegian government’s demand for an explanation and its claims that his country’s deputy prime minister knowingly violated the sanctions against him. The ambassador said he would “try to convince my Norwegian friends and partners” that the unexpected and unwanted visit by Dmitry Rogozin did not represent any new policies by Russia.
Rogozin’s own comments, widely shared by Russian and social media, would suggest otherwise. Rogozin claimed “we will make the Arctic our own” and later compared Russia’s self-perceived rights in the Arctic to those it has used to justify its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. He also made made fun of how he slipped past Norwegian authorities and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the diplomatic fuss he stirred up.
(Read Russia’s official response to the incident on NRK’s website here – external link, scroll down to the response in English, in which the Russian Embassy called Norway’s reaction “puzzling’ and “absurd.” The embassy also claimed that Norway’s “regrettable” decision to join the EU sanctions against Russia “now lead to negative consequences for Russian-Norwegian relations” and “provoke a distorted perception of the reality.”)
Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende claimed it was “unacceptable” for Russia “to send a deputy prime minister who’s on the sanctions list.” Although it was not illegal for Rogozin to visit Svalbard, it was a clear violation of Norway’s and the EU’s sanctions against people who are unwelcome because they’re tied to what the EU and Norway claim were violations of international law in Ukraine.
Russia’s ambassador in Oslo insisted there was no intention to visit Svalbard, rather that there were only “logistical reasons” why Rogozin landed on Svalbard. “He only flew to Barentsburg because of the weather and technical reasons,” Pavlovskiy claimed.
He described his meeting with Brende as useful, telling NRK and TV2 that he offered his explanation and said that the Svalbard visit shouldn’t have become such a big issue. He referred to the lengthy and “good relations” between Russia and Norway and said that’s what should be emphasized.
Military and foreign policy experts, however, also viewed Rogozin’s stopover as a provocation that was likely meant to challenge the Norwegians. Brende didn’t seem entirely satisfied with the Russian ambassador’s attempts to gloss over the incident.
“It’s not every day that the Russian ambassador is called in on the carpet by the foreign ministry,” Brende said. “We have no intention of escalating the situation. Norway wants good relations with Russia, but being good neighbours hinges on Russia complying with what’s important for Norway.”
Brende added that Norway had made it clear that people on the sanctions list are not welcome to Norway. “Nonetheless this (violation) occurred over the weekend,” Brende said. “Not only did the deputy prime minister come to Svalbard, but he made quite a point of his visit in social media. That is disappointing and unfortunate.”
He said Norway will now amend its regulations so that there can be no doubt that the sanctions list applies just as much on Svalbard, where Norway has jurisdiction, as it does on the Norwegian mainland.