ArticlesDoes Russia have aggressive designs on Svalbard?

Does Russia have aggressive designs on Svalbard?



Svalbard is an archipelago of some 61 thousand square kilometers located midway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. Due to the influence of Gulf stream – an ocean current that brings relatively warm water from the equator up the high north – Svalbard stands out with more benign climatic conditions than other areas at the same latitude. Svalbard is a part of Norway, but at the same time nationals of other countries enjoy certain liberties. Russia has had a long-term presence on the islands. In the current volatile international situation, the question has been asked if there is a risk that Russia will try to take control over the archipelago by military or hybrid means. In this article we will briefly review the peculiar history of the archipelago and discuss Russian interests and options.

Brief history and legal status

The Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz is usually considered the discoverer of the archipelago, in 1596. But there are indications that the islands had been visited before that, notably by Pomors, hunters living on the northern coast of Russia. For centuries the archipelago was a no-man’s land in terms of governance, but extensive hunting for mammals took place, starting in the sixteen hundreds. Ships from the Netherlands, Germany and Britain became very active and in the seventeen hundreds the Russian Pomors became dominant. Norwegian hunters were involved from early on and became particularly active well into the eighteen hundreds when the Russian hunting died out. By the end of the 19th century discoveries of significant coal reserves were made, attracting companies and adventurers from many countries. This created a need for an authority to manage conflicts between actors staking claims. Discussions of the status of the islands – at the time called Spitsbergen – had started between interested states, mainly Norway, Sweden and Russia, culminating in three diplomatic conferences held in the Norwegian capital between 1910 and 1914. The main question was whether to establish an international governing system for the islands or put it under the sovereignty of one state.  Negotiations were inconclusive and were interrupted by the war, new talks started as an annex to the peace talks at Versailles after World War 1.  These negotiations concluded that the best solution was to give Norway the sovereignty, but at the same time the Treaty Concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen signed in 1920 stipulated certain conditions that would protect the interests of other states.  

The Russian government, not being recognized by the victorious powers, did not take part in the Versailles-negotiations, but the Treaty expressly stated that “[u]ntil the recognition by the High Contracting Parties of a Russian Government shall permit Russia to adhere to the present Treaty, Russian nationals and companies shall enjoy the same rights as nationals of the High Contracting Parties” (article 10). The Treaty came into force in 1925. Norway incorporated the archipelago as a part of Norway and changed the name to Svalbard, whereas the name Spitsbergen was reserved for the largest island. The Soviet Union had initially been against the Treaty, but in 1924 it unconditionally accepted Norwegian sovereignty, after Norway had recognized the Soviet government. It acceded formally to the Treaty only in 1935, following broader international recognition.

The treaty recognizes “the full and absolute sovereignty of Norway” (Article 1) over the archipelago, defined as the islands within the coordinates of a geographical quadrangle. Economic interests of other signatories were secured by provisions granting citizens of all signatory states equal access and be admitted “under the same conditions of equality to the exercise and practice of all maritime, industrial, mining or commercial enterprises both on land and in the territorial waters” (Article 3). Thus, Norway would not be permitted to discriminate citizens or companies from other states in favour of its own citizens in these areas of activity. But as sovereign state it could set the rules for activities, applied equally to all. Security interests were covered by a paragraph stating that Norway could not allow establishment of naval bases or construction of fortifications on the islands “which may never be used for warlike purposes” (Article 9).

Soviet Svalbard policies

Whereas international economic interest in the islands had spurred clarification of its legal status, the attention soon vanished and from the 1930s only Norwegian and Soviet companies had permanent mining operations. Soviet mining operations had started already in 1919. From the early 1930s a Soviet state company bought up coal assets from other companies and from 1932 Soviet mining were consolidated in one company with operations in two mining towns – Barentsburg and Grumant, and development of a third – The Pyramid – soon started. The Soviet mining towns were built up as self-sufficient settlements with little interference from Norwegian authorities, who in any case had a very modest administration on the islands at the time.

Most scholars seem to agree that Svalbard in this early period mainly was of economic interest to the Soviet Union. Coal from the islands transported by sea was an important contribution to industrial development in Northwest Russia because railway capacity from the south was limited. During World War 2, the USSR took an interest from a security perspective, however. It wanted to deny a German presence on the islands. The mining towns were evacuated. The Germans, however, only set up some weather stations. A small British-Norwegian force established a garrison there from 1942, but overall Svalbard played a peripheral military role.

Towards the end of war, in 1944, the Soviet foreign minister Molotov demanded that the Treaty should be annulled and that the USSR and Norway should govern the islands jointly – a condominium. The Soviet argument was that the war had shown the importance of the islands as a gatepost to the ice-free ports on the Kola peninsula and that the Treaty, which had been negotiated without Soviet participation, was against Soviet interests. After some wavering, Norway rejected the Soviet demands. The soviet security interest and concerns continued, however. The USSR was following developments on the islands closely and protested any activity or construction which could be deemed militarily relevant. The soviet and Russian interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty’s article 9 has been much wider than the Norwegian understanding.

The USSR launched strong protests against plans for construction of an airport, which they argued would have a considerable military potential. The Soviet edginess was, however, reduced over time. Establishment of an airport only took place in the 1970s after Norway had given the USSR assurances that it would be used exclusively for civil aviation and allowed a permanent soviet representation at the airport – an airport which also was a great benefit for the soviet communities.

By this time, the military significance of airfields on Svalbard had been reduced. The islands had a conceivable potential for transit of strategic bombers in the first post war period, but the development of inter-continental strategic missiles made such use irrelevant.

The size of the Soviet presence increased, even if one mining town – Grumant – was closed in 1962. By the end of the 1980s there were about 2500 Soviet citizens on Svalbard compared to some one thousand Norwegians. But the mining activities had lost much of their economic significance and were dependent on heavy subsidies. After the dissolution of the USSR, activities soon contracted, and they were concentrated in one settlement – Barentsburg. Since the end of the 1990s its population has hovered below five hundred.

Russia’s Svalbard policy – some change, much continuity 

In general, Russia’s attitude to Norwegian authority on Svalbard had become more relaxed, but the fundamental Russian interests were stable: Ensure that the islands cannot be used militarily against Russia. Starting in the 1960s, the Northern Fleet based in ports on the Kola peninsula had become the most important Russian fleet and Svalbard’s location in the exit area to the deeper Atlantic Ocean was obviously of importance. Russia protested the visits of Norwegian naval vessels or military transport planes conducting civilian tasks, but often the protests were just a formality, and in periods Russia did not protest at all. Overall Russia had reason to be satisfied with Norwegian policies which served to prevent breaches of the Treaty’s Article 9.

As coal mining was becoming increasingly loss-making with depleting mines and run-down production machinery, Russia by the turn of the century started to explore alternatives to maintain a sizeable presence on the islands. The main “growth areas” pointed out were tourism and research, including support to researchers from other countries. The “new” activity areas, which implied movement out of the mining town Barentsburg, collided with Norwegian environmental regulations which have been adopted to protect the vulnerable nature, more than the mining activity had. Strong restrictions on use of helicopters are by the Russians also seen as hindrance to their economic development on Svalbard. In recent years Russia has stepped up its rhetoric, accusing Norway of complicating development of Russian activities and not respecting the spirit of the Treaty. In a letter to his Norwegian counterpart on occasion of the Treaty’s 100 anniversary, Russian Foreign minister Lavrov listed a series of objections to Norwegian policies and calling for bilateral consultations. The criticism was mirrored in a number of articles in Russian media, some of which also called for more resolute Russian action against Norway.  The government newspaper Rossiyskaya gazeta claimed that Norway ignored the articles in the treaty which protected the rights of other signatories. But at the same time it is clear that Russia on a strategic saw benefits from Norway’s strict regulations. They made it difficult for companies from other states to establish activities on the island, something we believe Russia absolutely does not want.

The maritime zones around Svalbard

Some incidents have taken place at sea, where there is a long-term dispute about jurisdiction. The Norwegian view is that the non-discrimination clauses in the Treaty do not apply to sea areas outside territorial waters since the Treaty explicitly refer to the land territories and their territorial waters. The legal concepts of exclusive economic zones and continental shelf did not exist when the Treaty was signed. They are products of the modern law of the sea and Norway bases its position on the latter and consequently holds that Norway, as the coastal state, has exclusive rights to living and non-living resources on the continental shelf and in the waters adjacent to Svalbard’s territorial waters. However, some states argue that the Treaty should also be applied on the continental shelf and in the 200-mile zone. To avoid unnecessary tension and at the same time secure effective management of the fish stocks in the area, Norway chose to establish a two hundred miles Fisheries Protection Zone (FPZ) around the islands in 1977, and not a full exclusive economic zone. In this zone Norwegian Coast Guard enforces fisheries regulations, but states with historical fishing activities there are allowed to continue fisheries based on quotas allocated by Norway. The Soviet Union and later Russia have maintained that Norway has no right to unilaterally establish such a zone and that the sea areas around Svalbard are high seas. They have also suggested that fisheries could be regulated bilaterally between Russia and Norway. Nevertheless, Russia and Russian fishers have largely accepted Norwegian jurisdiction in the zone.

This paradox can be explained by the broader cooperation between Norway and Russia on management of fisheries in the whole Barents Sea. For more than forty years fish stocks in the Russian exclusive economic zone, the Norwegian exclusive economic zone as well as the Svalbard FPZ have been treated as a whole, since the fish moves around between these sectors. Norway and Russia have long ago agreed on a fixed sharing of the stocks, typically 50/50. In annual meetings they determine the total allowable catch each year. Altogether this framework has provided for stability and prevented conflict. Fishermen from Norway and Russia can catch fish anywhere in the Barents Sea, but most fisheries take place in the western parts and not in the eastern, Russian part, where the fish is younger and smaller. In fact, a big share of Russian fisheries happens in the FPZ around Svalbard. Russia benefits from the Norwegian enforcement of regulations in the zone, because even if Norway allocates some fishing quotas to fishers from third countries it is not legally high seas where anybody can fish, which would have been the case if Russia’s official position were implemented. Over the years there have been several episodes where Russian fishing boats have been arrested by the Norwegian coast guard for overfishing or breach of regulations, sometimes leading to loud Russian protests. Russia has also disputed some Norwegian technical regulations. But as noted by a Russian scholar: “Russia, while not recognizing the FPZ as a legitimate institute, has opposed primarily the unilateral nature of the Norwegian enforcement measures, rather than the measures per se.”  By and large the arrangement in the FPZ has worked well. 

Russia has protested Norway’s policy for the continental shelf around Svalbard. Here the Russian position is in line with some of the other states that have voiced their opinion, namely that the shelf must be governed according to the principles of the Svalbard Treaty. This would imply equal rights for companies from treaty countries and very soft taxation. A leaked report from the Russian Defence Ministry in 2017, described Norway as a threat against Russia, striving for “absolute national jurisdiction over the Spitsbergen archipelago and the adjoining 200-mile sea area”. This was after Norway had announced petroleum exploration licenses in an area which according to Russia should be governed by the Treaty. However, no discovery was made, and Norway has not licensed more areas near Svalbard.

Security issues back on the agenda

Critical remarks from Russian officials had for many years been focused on the conditions for economic activities, but in November 2021, Russia also charged that Norwеgian actions were not in line with the peaceful spirit of the Treaty, “which determines the strictly peaceful status of the use of this archipelago”. Whereas earlier, such allegations had been frequently voiced in Russian media and by members of the military and security forces as well as Duma representatives, they were now given a more official government backing in a statement from the Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman. She charged that Norway prepared to use infrastructure on the islands in planning for military defence of Norway, including receiving re-enforcements from NATO allies. Thus, security was again at the forefront, much like the situation was during the Cold War.

The question now is which implications the new international situation will have.

There are obvious shifts in the geopolitical situation. As noted by the secretary of the Russian Security council, with Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, the Baltic Sea becomes a “NATO lake”, and the importance of the ice-free Murmansk port correspondingly greater. The argument was made in favour of expansion of the port in Murmansk, but it will probably also be maintained that Russian naval operability in the Baltic could be more constrained in event of a crisis, and that logically, access to the world ocean from the Barents Sea becomes even more valuable for Russia.  The implication for Svalbard is that the Russian security interest in the islands increases. But it does not change fundamentally.

In the short term, there has not been any report of increased Russian military activity on land in the areas bordering the Norwegian mainland. On the contrary, since military units stationed on the Kola peninsula have been transferred to the frontline in Ukraine, military activity has actually gone down. According to the Norwegian Chief of Defence this shows that Russia knows that NATO has no intent of attacking Russia. But undoubtedly, the Barents Sea is a key stationing as well as exercise area for the Russian navy and the increased naval activity seen in recent years has continued. A big naval exercise, involving areas in the Norwegian exclusive economic zone was announced a week before the invasion of Ukraine. In retrospect it seemed clear that the exercise, which probably was planned long in advance, also was meant to signal combat readiness to the West in days when tensions were running very high. In May a smaller four-day drill took place in the Norwegian economic zone in the Barents Sea, and in August a large exercise was announced in the eastern part of the Barents Sea with a shooting area involving the Norwegian exclusive economic zone. The Barents Sea also remains an important area for testing of new weapons. Military exercises in another country’s economic zone is not a breach of the law of the sea, provided sufficient warning is given and safety arrangements are made. Norwegian fishers complained that they were given very short notice about the exercise in May and that the Russians had no right to close areas in the Norwegian EEZ. Complaints about lack of warning have also been issued during earlier exercises.

The Russian naval activity has not directly been linked to Svalbard. Historically, Russia’s anxieties around Svalbard have been connected to Norway’s membership in NATO, and such anxieties are unlikely to disappear. There is a growing and explicit interest of the United States in this part of the Arctic, reflected in the sailing of surface vessels in the Barents Sea, but also by visits of B-1 bombers in North Norwegian air bases and operations of the advanced Sea-Wolf submarine, designed for intelligence gathering, out of Tromsø, Norway. When NATO warships sailed into Russia’s EEZ in the Barents Sea in May 2020, for the first time in 40 years, Russian authorities reacted vehemently. In a second sailing, in September the same year, a Norwegian frigate took part.

It seems reasonable to expect increased Russian vigilance and protests about any development in the area that might have military relevance. This includes all kinds of visits by Norwegian military personnel. More focus may be directed at satellite infrastructure which can be used to download data with military application. Svalbard is particularly well located for the reading of satellite data, which has become a very big activity. It is, of course, inherently difficult to separate civilian and military use of satellite data. Russia has protested or raised concerns on several occasions, whereas Norway has enacted legislation which prohibits downloading data from satellites if they are intended mainly for military use. But Russia also has its own plans for a satellite station on Svalbard. It is considered as one of many possible locations for Russia’s warning system for tracking dangerous objects that can hit Earth from space. Possibly such an installation could have dual-use capacity.  

The over-arching question is if Russia is likely to do something radical to change the control over the islands – and deliver on some of the extreme proposals voiced inside the country.

A Russia military action on Svalbard could probably be carried out swiftly, given its proximity to major Russian bases on the Kola Peninsula and since there is no military defence on the islands. But such action would entail a colossal risk of unleashing a major international conflict. Svalbard is a part of Norway and has since the early 1950s been included in the area of responsibility of NATO.

However, some commentators have speculated that allied support might not be forthcoming in such a scenario. They argue that precisely because an occupation can be completed so fast there is good chance that NATO members would accept a new status quo and hesitate to escalate a conflict because of such a peripheral part of the alliance’s area.

Even if there was some logic to this reasoning, it was extremely hypothetical, and paradoxically, with the increased tension and heightened attention to Russian offensive schemes following the invasion of Ukraine, it seems even more unlikely that Svalbard would be written off by the alliance.

In any case, it is hard to see what Russia would gain from an occupation. Svalbard does not have much direct military value for Russia. The over-arching security interests of Russia is to protect the bases of the Northern Fleet and the secure the passage into the Atlantic, thus it wants to preclude military use of the islands by hostile powers which can harm these interests. From a Norwegian point of view, Russia’s interests are already secured by the Treaty and Norway’s observance of it – a low-cost solution for Russia in both political and economic terms.  But since Russia does not fully trust Norway, a continuous presence on the islands and access to areas of activity there, to verify Norway’s observance and its peaceful declarations, is essential for Russia. Russia has little to risk, except perhaps some tension in the relationship to Norway, by constantly reminding of its interest, criticizing Norway based on a very expansive interpretation of the Treaty’s provisions.

In the event of a major conflict between Russia and NATO, the calculation would be different, and Svalbard would be very vulnerable. But in such a drastic scenario all parties involved would have many other concerns too.

Even if a military action against Svalbard – as a result of Russian ambitions in this area – is quite unlikely, other Russian attempts to change the situation on the islands are possible. Continued diplomatic pressure to ensure maximum freedom of maneuver for Russian organizations on Svalbard will probably continue. Bi-lateralization of governance and acceptance for special rights, if not formally then practically, almost certainly remains a Russian ideal, and it contributes to a form of strategic uncertainty in the area. However, Russian policies and actions are constrained by Russia’s over-arching objectives, namely, to prevent other countries, notably the United States, becoming more active on Svalbard. Therefore, it should not be in the Russian interest to draw attention to Svalbard by directing very far-reaching demands at Norway.  

The gist of the discussion in this article is that from a security perspective, Russia has reason to be satisfied with the current situation on the islands. The treaty regime, particularly Norway’s adherence to Article 9, serves Russian interests well. Russian policies which undermine the treaty regime could open for unpleasant scenarios for Russia. In the waters around Svalbard, Russian economic interests are protected by the Fisheries Protection Zone arrangement.

Nevertheless, it can be questioned if such a calm assessment of Russian interests adequately reflects the thinking among Russian decision-makers. The current situation on the islands as well as at sea are far from Russia’s maximalist positions. In the narrative of Russian media, as well as in many scholarly works, it is constantly referred to the early history of the archipelago and claimed that it was discovered by Russians. Moreover, it is argued that the outcome of the negotiations about the Svalbard Treaty would have been different if Russia had been included in the talks. The fact that USSR/Russia is the only country besides Norway that has had continuous presence on the islands in modern times is by many in Russia also seen as a justification for special rights. Even if official Russian statements and declarations mostly refer to alleged breaches of Treaty by Norway, the broader understanding of Russia’s historical role also influences Russian attitudes. For Norway, of course, the jurisdictional issues were settled once and for all by the Treaty, and what happened before then has no relevance for rights on Svalbard.    

A major lesson from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that the Russian leadership has been willing to embark on a policy which went counter to Russian economic and political interests, as understood by most outside observers. The perceived unpredictability of Russian actions is likely to become part of the calculation by western countries, leading to military posturing that increase Russian unease. For Norway it is important that all actors in the Svalbard area act with utmost care in this delicate situation.

But even if Russian policy in the North should be guided by realistic assessments of the situation, there is still a risk that ’activists’ lower down in the chain of command could take actions that provoke a major crisis. As seen in statements from Russian politicians about relations with the West, there is no lack of extreme ideas. Such elements would have few reservations against escalating a small dispute – typically the arrest of a Russian trawler in the fisheries protection zone – into something much bigger. Until now such episodes have been calmed down by central authorities in Moscow who have not wanted such episodes spiraling out of control. Only time will show how well preserved the Russian chain of command remains in the aftermath of the Ukraine war. At the same time, the severed contacts between Norwegian and Russian agencies – both military and civilian – make it difficult to contain a conflict if something happens.

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