In the middle of the blizzard, Russian flags, a sculpture glorifying communism or a bust of Lenin can be glimpsed. It is surprising to find these emblems on western soil, but the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard holds a special status in the heart of the Arctic.
A thousand kilometers from the North Pole, this territory twice the size of Belgium is sometimes considered the “Achilles heel” of the NATO in the Arctic by offering the opportunity for Russia or China to make their mark in this strategically important and economically promising region.
The reason? An atypical treaty, signed in 1920 in Paris, which recognizes Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard, but guarantees the citizens of the signatory States (46 at present) the freedom to exploit its natural resources “on the basis of perfect equality”.
Thanks to this, Russia, and before that the Soviet Union, has been extracting coal for decades from these islands inhabited by fewer than 3,000 people of some 50 nationalities.
In this cold place, with temperatures around -20° Celsius in winter, the Russian presence is perpetuated in the town of Barentsburg, where a giant sculpture stands with the motto “Our goal: communism”.
Some 370 Russians and Ukrainians from Donbas live around a low-quality coal mine. In an elevated position in the town is the Russian consulate, modern and protected by bars, with a lavishly decorated marble interior.
“Spitzberg (Russia’s historical name for the archipelago) is covered in the sweat and blood of the Russian people for decades,” says Consul Sergei Guschin. “I do not dispute that it is a Norwegian territory, but it is part of Russian history”Add.
Arguing that its fishermen and hunters have come to these latitudes since the 16th century to capture whales, seals and polar bears, and their important economic role on the islands, Russia wants to have a say in the governance of Svalbard.
The environmental argument
The southernmost island of the archipelago, Bjørnøya (Bear Island), is located near the waters that the Russian nuclear submarines of the mighty Northern Fleet must take to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
“The main interest of the Russians is to avoid a situation where others could use the place for offensive purposes”analyze Arild Moeresearcher at Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo.
“To achieve this, they will maintain a reasonable presence and will be very attentive to what happens”Add.
After asking in vain for co-management at the end of the Second World War, Moscow now claims, not without much success, “bilateral consultations” to lift the restrictions that curb their activities in the archipelago.
Faced with the long decline of its coal mine, Barentsburg has diversified into scientific research and tourism.
People come by snowmobile or by boat, depending on the season, to admire what for decades was a window on the Soviet world from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
all these vestiges “We keep them here not because we still aspire to communism, but because we value our heritage and because tourists like to take photos with them”says guide and historian Natalia Maximishina.
But Moscow reproaches the Norwegian authorities for hindering these activities, for example, by limiting helicopter flights in the name of the environment.
“We have started to deploy nature reserves around Russian settlements”acknowledges the former diplomat sverre jervellarchitect of Norwegian policy in the region of the barents sea.
“Especially after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, when Barentsburg could barely survive”Explain.
Was it to curb Russian ambitions? “Not officially, but actually, yes”recognize. “We had good arguments: it is a very fragile nature. But we particularly protected the spaces around Russian settlements.”.
Russia regularly raises its voice and accuses Norway of violating an important treaty provision that de facto establishes Svalbard as a demilitarized space.
Every stopover by a Norwegian frigate or visit by NATO parliamentarians gives rise to official protests.
The same goes for the huge Svalsat satellite station near the capital Longyearbyen, the largest such facility in the world.
On a windy plateau, near the World Seed Bank known as the “Vegetable Noah’s Ark”Some 130 antennas protected by white radomes that look like giant golf balls communicate with space. And, according to Moscow, they download military data.
In January, one of the two fiber optic cables linking Svalsat to the mainland was mysteriously damaged.
Russia is also accused of taking liberties with the treaty.
Your deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin He traveled to the archipelago in 2015 although it was banned by European sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Chechen special forces made a stopover there before some exercises in the Arctic.
Experts rule out a scenario like in Crimea in the archipelago, but predict new clashes due to the tension caused by the invasion of Ukraine.
“Svalbard is sensitive to the international situation”, analyzes Arild Moe. “It is a place where Russia can easily express its discontent and put pressure on Norway. We’ll probably see it in the future.”Add.
For james witherprofessor of George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studiesthe archipelago is “NATO’s Achilles heel in the Arctic” because your “remoteness from mainland Norway and its particular legal status make it politically and militarily vulnerable to Russian adventurism”.
“Although the danger of a direct military confrontation is low”, Moscow could try to advance to divide the Western camp and “neutralize NATO”this former British soldier wrote in 2018.
Norway tries to play down Russian grievances, arguing that they are long known.
“I wouldn’t say they are putting us to the test, but there is growing interest in the Arctic from coastal countries and beyond”says his prime minister Jonas Gahr Storepraised for having strengthened ties with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov during his time at the Foreign Ministry between 2005-2012.
“We want to see the progress of the communities in Svalbard and it will be done in a transparent way,” Add.
But out of an abundance of caution, Oslo shelled out some $30 million in 2016 to buy a sprawling property near Longyearbyen, the only one still in private hands on these islands.
Given the alleged interest of foreign investors, including China, the government justified the acquisition of the 217.6 km2 by its “I wish that those lands were Norwegian”.
The eventual arrival of new powers increases the fear of destabilization, a fear that Russia takes advantage of.
“If we leave Spitzberg, who will take our place?”asks the consul Sergey Guschin. “It can be China, for example, or the United States, or it doesn’t matter what other state party to the treaty”.
Like Greenland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands, Svalbard is in the sights of China, which defines itself as a State “almost arctic” and expresses its willingness to establish a “Polar Silk Road”.
In an Arctic that is warming three times faster than the global average, the retreat of the sea ice opens up economic opportunities: new fishing grounds, new maritime trade routes, and easier access to fossil and mineral resources.
The third locality of Svalbard, Ny-Ålesundis an old mining community converted to international scientific research.
Among the buildings occupied by institutions from a dozen countries, it is difficult to miss the one for Chinese researchers.
Two huge marble lions guard the entrance to the building, owned by the Norwegian state but renamed “Yellow River Station” by the lessors of the China Polar Research Institute.
For Torbjørn Pedersen, a Norwegian professor of political science at the University of Bodø, it is a blatant example of “plant the flag”of “diplomacy for science”.
“Some foreign capitals have established their presence there as strategic positions that can give them political influence in the islands and in the Arctic region”he wrote in the Polar Journal in 2021.
“A part of the scientific presence in Svalbard may seem motivated by geopolitical reasons”he added, warning that it can become “a real security challenge for the host country, Norway”.
The Norwegian authorities take a dim view of these maneuvers and in 2019 launched a strategy to prioritize joint research on shared infrastructure, thus preventing a nation from planting the flag on its islands in the name of science.