Svalbard Islands: Russian or Norwegian territory?5 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Russia

Northern lights, polar bears, and arctic landscapes attract more and more tourists each year to the Svalbard Islands, located halfway between Norway and the North Pole. The favourable climatic conditions guaranteed by the influence of the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream have allowed Svalbard to become the northernmost inhabited land on the planet.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists arrive by sea or by air to the archipelago to observe the rare natural and man-made beauties it has to offer. In fact, the charm of the Svalbard Islands also lies in the imprint left by human beings, between the crystallised past of Soviet ghost towns and the modernity of Norwegian tourist infrastructures. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault deserves special mention: an underground deposit of 1,000 square metres with more than 1.5 million samples, created to preserve world biodiversity in crisis scenarios.

The history of the archipelago

Since their discovery, the Svalbard Islands have aroused the interest of neighbouring countries first for whaling and then, starting from the 19th century, for the exploitation of coal deposits. These growing economic interests gave rise to territorial disputes between Norway, Sweden, and Russia primarily over those which, at the time, were still called the Spitsbergen Islands in honour of the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, who landed in the archipelago in 1596. The dispute was resolved in 1920 with the Svalbard Treaty, which recognizes Norway’s full sovereignty over the archipelago, while guaranteeing the same economic rights over the islands’ resources to all signatory countries, including Russia.

When the treaty went into force, Norway changed the name of the archipelago to the Svalbard Islands, while Russia still uses the archipelago’s original name from before the agreement and, according to unconfirmed sources, consider themselves the first to set foot on the archipelago. From 1930 until today, only Soviet, then Russian, and Norwegian companies have continued their coal mining activities in Svalbard. The Soviets helped build and develop three self-sustaining mining towns, two of which are now abandoned, and also tried unsuccessfully to get Norway to renege on the deal, though eventually they opted for joint management of the islands between the two countries.

In the late 1980s, the islands were inhabited by around 2,500 Soviet citizens and 1,000 Norwegians. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, although the Russian presence has steadily decreased over the years, Russian interests in Svalbard have remained more or less unchanged. Relations between Moscow and Oslo even experienced a period of relaxation. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine reversed this trend.

The Russian-Norwegian incident of 2022

The international press turned its attention to Svalbard last year due to a dispute between Russia and Norway that arose against the background of the war in Ukraine. Tensions between the two countries escalated when Oslo, in compliance with economic sanctions aimed at Moscow that banned Russian lorries from entering Norway, began blocking cargo ships with supplies bound for Barentsburg, the Russian settlement on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago.

Russia’s indignation over this blockade, defined as “unacceptable” by the Foreign Ministry, was not long in coming. Konstantin Kosachev, president of the Foreign Commission of the Federation Council, denounced the violation by the Norwegian authorities of the 1920 treaty in a message on Telegram, and called the Norwegian will to leave Russian miners without supplies in violation of human rights principles. Eventually, to the amazement of many, the dispute was resolved diplomatically. The 20 tons of goods, including food supplies and spare parts, were transferred onto Norwegian ships which then delivered the goods to the Russian miners. In the future, however, increasing friction between Russia and NATO, of which Norway is a member, could further jeopardise diplomatic efforts.

Russian security interests and the Arctic victory parade

Following Finland’s entry into NATO, ratified on 4 April 2023, and of Sweden when Turkey will give the green light to it, the Baltic Sea will become an “internal lake of NATO.” Thus, Russia’s security interests in the Svalbard Islands are increasing. In a possible crisis scenario, the Barents Sea, in which the archipelago is located, would become Russia’s privileged access route to the world’s oceans. A symbolic testimony of these islands’ importance would seem to come from an event widely covered by Russian mass media: the furthest north victory parade for the Great Patriotic War — as the Second World War is called in Russia — in the world.

On 9 May, the day when the capitulation of Nazi Germany is remembered in Russia, around fifty cars, snowmobiles, and special vehicles paraded along a single snow-covered street in Barentsburg, waving the Soviet banners of Victory over Nazism and Russian flags. The diplomatic car of the Russian Consul General in the Svalbard Islands led the procession. In the sky, a helicopter accompanied the marching column. Watching a video of the event, it is hard to believe that the march took place on Norwegian territory, let alone during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Diversification: tourism and research

Given the growing Russian interests in Svalbard, and the crisis in the mining industry, Russia has been forced to diversify the activities that allow it to be permanently present in the archipelago. Recently, the Russian Far East and Arctic Development Ministry announced a reduction of the annual coal production of the state-owned Trust Arktikugol from 120,000 tonnes to 40,000 tonnes by 2032, in line with the company’s policy of substituting energy from coal with green technologies.

In the future, the company will focus on the further development of an independent tourism industry in Russian settlements. This action is related to the Svalbard Tourism Council’s decision to exclude Trust Arktikugol from its organisation following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s violations of international law and human rights. The Russian state-owned company also wants to invest in research and development and has communicated its intention to install an international Arctic research station in Svalbard together with partners from the BRICS countries, primarily allowing entry into the archipelago to China, whose interests in the Arctic are now more than obvious.

In the future, most likely, we will continue to hear more and more about the Svalbard Islands, not only for its beauty that attracts tourists from all over the world, but also because the archipelago is becoming an increasingly important pawn in the race to ensure the navigability of the Arctic among major world powers.

This article was originally published in Italian on 30 June 2023 by our partner Meridiano 13

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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