Russia turns up the heat on Svalbard

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Norway is resisting being drawn into a power struggle that’s heating up over important areas of the chilly Arctic. Russia, China and the US are all vying for more control in the region where Norway plays a major role through the Svalbard Treaty, which Russia accused Norway on Friday of violating.

Russia still has coal mining operations here at Barentsburg on Svalbard, and is complaining again that Norwegian laws and regulations that apply on Svalbard are hindering its development of more economic activity. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Morten Møst

It’s the latest offense launched by Russia in recent weeks, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov first complained about Norway’s administration of Svalbard and its surrounding area earlier this month. Russia’s latest moves come as recognition grows over the increasing strategic and natural value of an area once viewed as a frozen outpost.

Russia’s initial complaint, made on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Svalbard Treaty that gave Norway control over Svalbard and its surroundings, didn’t prompt any major reaction from Norwegian officials. They instead noted how Russia has a history of regularly griping about how the Norwegian laws and regulations that apply to Svalbard interfere with Russia’s business and development plans.

In this case, Russia expressed dissatisfaction, for example, over how its helicopter traffic on Svalbard was being restricted. Russia has long had a physical presence in both Pyramiden and Barentsburg on Svalbard, where it has run coal mining and tourism operations, along with fishing in the seas around the Arctic islands. It doesn’t like having to abide by Norway’s sovereignty over the entire archipelago, the vast areas around Svalbard and the islands of Bjørnøya and Jan Mayen.

‘Darkening’ relations
On Friday, Norwegian Broadcastng (NRK) reported that Russian authorities stepped up their complaint, outright declaring that Norway was violating terms of the important treaty agreement that guarantees Norwegian sovereignty. “In recent years Oslo has in fact broken the terms of the Svalbard Treaty,” Maria Zakharova, the high-profile spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry, declared at a press conference in Moscow.

She and her boss Lavrov have made it clear that Russia wants to develop more business operations on and around the island group. “Unfortunately,” NRK reported Zakharova as saying, the proposal earlier this month by Russia to carry out bilateral “consultations” to discuss “problematic questions” about Russian business- and scientific operations “have not been met with understanding.”

NRK reported that the Russian spokesperson went on to say that Norway’s management of Svalbard was “darkening” the bilateral relation between Norway and Russia. Norway’s “non-constructive attitude” was compounding problems, Zakharova claimed, that are now “steadily becoming more complicated.”

Russia’s and Norway’s foreign ministers met in Kirkenes last fall, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Finnmark. Now Russia’s Sergey Lavrov wants bilateral talks with Norway’s Ine Eriksen Søreide about Svalbard, but Søreide has refused. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway’s foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, was traveling in the Middle East this week and unavailable for immediate comment. A ministry spokesperson for the Norwegian government, however, responded later in the day with an email to NRK. In it, Siri Svendsen of the ministry, noted how the ministry had received a letter from the Russian foreign minister (Lavrov) on Februay 3 “about Russian activity on Svalbard.” Svendsen added that views expressed in Lavrov’s letter “are regularly taken up by the Russian side and well-known to Norwegian authorities.”

What’s new now, Svendsen said, is how Russia is now going public with its views. She maintained that Norway carries out “consistent and predictable policies that are in full compliance with the Svalbard Treaty.”

Svendsen added that Søreide answered Lavrov’s letter on February 12. Her letter contains positions that also have earlier been communicated to the Russians, Svendsen said. The ministry released the letter to NRK, in which Søreide claimed that Russian companies “have the same opportunities as others to establish economic activity on Svalbard. Such activity must of course be carried out within the framework of Norwegian laws and regulations.” Those laws and regulation must be respected on Svalbard, “as in all other areas of Norway.”

Søreide also firmly rejected any bilateral talks with Russia about Svalbard: “I don’t see any foundation for Norwegian-Russian consultations about regulation or other forms of authority on Svalbard.” She noted that Norway doesn’t carry out any such consultations with other countries either that have, like Russia, signed the Svalbard Treaty.

‘Svalbard is Norwegian territory’
Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen also ruled out any bilateral talks with Russia regarding Svalbard. He told NRK that the Svalbard Treaty declares how “Svalbard is Norwegian territory.” Norway won’t negotiate with any single nation on how it manages Norwegian territory, Bakke-Jensen said, adding that there have been no violations of the treaty.

It’s not only Russia that’s putting pressure on Norway. As rising temperatures change what have been the world’s coldest areas, and Arctic ice melts, the entire area and its untapped resources become more accessible and economically interesting. The area where new shipping routes have been opening up is also strategically important and of great interest to both the US and China.

“China is more interested in the Arctic than it was earlier, and Russia has always been interested,” Andreas Østhagen, a researcher at Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute, told newspaper Aftenposten not long after Russia’s first complaint. “But of all the players, the US has changed the most. That makes this a different discussion that what we had just a year ago.”

Pompeo’s ‘shock’
The Americans, he said, don’t like hearing China, which has no coastline along the Arctic, call itself a nation “close” to the Arctic. They’ve never liked Russia’s interest and own control in other areas nor, he believes, do they like both Russia’s and China’s growing interest in the Arctic.

Østhagen noted how US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “shocked” members of the Arctic Council last year when he broke an unwritten rule against discussing security policy at a council meeting, one of the few arenas where Russia and the US sit at the same table. “Gone was the focus on climate and the environment,” Østhagen told Aftenposten. “Instead, Russia and China were drawn in as threats.”

Østhagen also noted how the US is boosting investments in its military base at Keflavik in Iceland and how US President Donald Trump even proposed buying Greenland, as a means of hindering Chinese interest in the huge island that’s not up for sale. Russia was also unhappy when US forces inspected an airstrip on Jan Mayen, to see if their aircraft could land there.

Dilemma for Norway
It all poses a huge dilemma for Norway, which welcomes NATO’s and the US’ interest in Norway’s security but doesn’t want increased US presence to provoke its Russian neighbour to the east. Norway has also been keen to restore diplomatic relations with China after six years of a diplomatic freeze over the Nobel Peace Prize, and helped China gain observer status at the Arctic Council. At the same time, Norway can get caught between the increased rivalry between China and the US, not least in recent trade conflicts.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Søreide denies there’s any major superpower rivalry in the Arctic, but claims “there’s no doubt the Chinese want a clearer position.” She also told Aftenposten that she thinks “we’ll come to see more countries trying to assert that the Arctic is an area where no rules apply. Many have an interest in portraying the area as a sort of Wild West.”

It isn’t, Norway’s articulate and firm foreign minister declares. It’s an area where the rule of law applies and where, in Norway’s view, sovereignty over both its land and continental shelf has been clarified.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund