Svalbard and geopolitics: A need for clarity

15

“Strengthen national control”

White papers on Svalbard are produced at regular intervals. The latest, presented by Norwegian Minister of Justice and Public Security Emilie Enger Mehl in Longyearbyen on May 31, was written in a new security policy context.

Beyond the war in Ukraine and increased rivalry between China and the US, Norway’s Arctic areas are also central to security relations between NATO and Russia. Svalbard is increasingly attracting attention from countries far beyond the Arctic Circle: India has an Arctic strategy, and both North Korea and Turkey have signed the Svalbard Treaty.

Svalbard is Norway’s crown jewel in the north, the archipelago that makes Norway a polar superpower, granting it access to the Arctic Ocean, together with Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Russia, and the USA.

“We want to strengthen national control and build up Norwegian presence on the archipelago,” Mehl asserted on the occasion of the new Svalbard paper’s presentation.

The same white paper fails to clarify precisely which concerns have intensified Norway’s need for national control. In other words, in outlining its plans for Svalbard, Norway has hitherto remained silent on several geopolitical aspects. This is not accidental but is driven by a fear that discussion of these concerns will exacerbate the existing tension and confusion.

Misunderstandings

As a study published this week titled “The myths of Svalbard geopolitics: An Arctic case study” shows, several misunderstandings surround the question of Svalbard’s security and geopolitics. These include which laws and regulations apply to Svalbard as well as the archipelago’s status more generally: some describe Svalbard as a “shared space” between countries; others hold that the area is demilitarized (meaning that military activity is not allowed).

Several researchers, including Western scholars, have questioned Norwegian sovereignty or characterized it as disputed. However, this is erroneous. Norwegian sovereignty is not disputed, and Svalbard is Norwegian. Norwegian laws and regulations apply on the archipelago, and not even the unpredictable and militaristic Russia claims otherwise. NATO’s security guarantees also apply to Svalbard. Neither is the archipelago ‘demilitarized.’ The Svalbard Treaty merely states that Svalbard cannot be used for war purposes and that Norway cannot have military bases there. Both Norwegian coast guard vessels and frigates call at Longyearbyen for various reasons.

Real concerns

The above facts notwithstanding, several geopolitical challenges linked to the archipelago persist, and these have become increasingly important in the security policy situation in which Norway finds itself. 

The first challenge concerns the fear that Russia, as the only other country besides Norway that has separate communities on Svalbard, will create problems for Norway. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, an even more assertive and nationalistic Russia has emerged, including on Svalbard.

This is exemplified by Russia’s illegal use of a helicopter during a symbolic parade in Barentsburg, the erection of a cross in the conservation area outside Pyramiden, and far-reaching plans for a new research center also in Pyramiden together with, among others, China.

Moreover, a regular drip feed of statements pertaining to Svalbard from Moscow appears intended to underscore Russia’s strategic ambiguity and exert pressure on Norway. These statements assert, for example, that Russian rights on Svalbard must be respected or that Norway is violating the Svalbard Treaty. Owing to economic, strategic, and – not least – capacity considerations, Russia is unlikely to desire large-scale conflict over Svalbard. Nonetheless, it is clear that Svalbard has become a pawn in several campaigns.

First, Russian central authorities wish to demonstrate strength vis-à-vis the “West,” and Svalbard offers an excellent arena for this purpose, given that Russian citizens are allowed to reside and conduct business activities on Norwegian soil due to the provisions in the Svalbard Treaty. 

Second, the head of the Russian state-owned company Trust Arktikugol – which is responsible for Russia’s activity in Svalbard – wants attention and support domestically, and Symbolic and nationalistic actions are a great way to achieve this.

Disagreement at sea

Although Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard is not disputed, dispute over whether the provisions in the Svalbard Treaty should also apply at sea, beyond 12 nautical miles, is ongoing, as reflected in the infamous snow crab and cod quota cases. Here, it is the EU (or, at least, some EU countries) that often poses problems for Norway.

Although this disagreement with Norway’s relatively close NATO allies is unlikely to flare up, Russia is also an actor in this situation. When Norway established a Fisheries Protection Zone in these waters in 1977, the USSR claimed – and Russia continues to claim – that Norway has no right to create any management regime around Svalbard without consulting Moscow. In practice, Russia accepts the inspection and fining of Russian trawlers around Svalbard, but several cases in recent decades have attested to how situations with Russian trawlers can escalate.

Questions are also increasingly arising regarding the activity of both Russian fishing vessels and research vessels in Norwegian waters. A disrupted fiber optic cable shortly before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the sabotage of gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea exemplify the vulnerability of offshore infrastructure. Matters are further complicated for Norway by the fact that both fishing vessels and research vessels from Russia have access rights to Norwegian waters, which are difficult to restrict as a result of both Law of the Sea provisions and the co-management regime for fish stocks in the Barents Sea.

Don’t rock the boat

Researchers, politicians, and journalists in countries beyond Norway are talking about Svalbard. In the last month alone, journalists and filmmakers from Australia, France, India, and Sweden have made the journey north to report on geopolitics and security. The same may be said of academics, as the body of scholarly literature on security policy and Svalbard continues to increase.

Moreover, others are paying attention. Fear of China may be a dubious reason for the Norwegian government to buy the last private property on Svalbard for 350 million EUR, but China is obviously interested in developments on the archipelago.

When it comes to Svalbard and foreign and security policy, the Norwegian strategy has been to sit quietly without rocking the boat. The concern is that the more Norway talks about Svalbard with other countries, the more misunderstandings are likely to arise.

Unfortunately, recent developments suggest that the opposite is unfolding: the interest is already there. The less frank and transparent Norway is about issues pertaining to Svalbard, the more misunderstandings and conspiracy theories are likely to emerge, even among close allies. 

Other actors, including Russia, have an interest in the perception of issues surrounding Svalbard as unresolved or ambiguous.

Norwegian Svalbard diplomacy

For the Norwegian government, it is necessary to continue to note that Svalbard is not demilitarized; that neither Russia, China, nor others have officially challenged Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard; and that the ongoing disagreement between Norway and some third-party countries in relation to resource management applies not to the entire archipelago but only to the Svalbard Treaty’s application beyond 12 nautical miles at sea.

The new Svalbard white paper is clear on how national control is to be safeguarded and strengthened on the archipelago. However, it lacks transparency as to why these measures are necessary.

Norwegian messaging should be clear regarding the true nature of the challenges affecting Svalbard. This could help counteract the increasing number of misconceptions regarding Svalbard’s geopolitics.

 

Andreas Østhagen is a Senior Researcher with the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo. He studies Arctic geopolitics and international affairs; Norwegian foreign policy; Maritime boundaries and conflict; Marine resource management; Foreign policy decision-making and IR.