Date: 13 February 2020
Russia Puts Pressure on Norway: Svalbard as the Bone of Contention
Moscow has accused Oslo of discriminating against Russian activity on the Svalbard archipelago. Sergey Lavrov has sent a letter to Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs regarding the matter and is awaiting a meeting. The Russians emphasise that they intend to intensify their activities on the islands located over 800 kilometres north of Scandinavia. Although the archipelago is not of great economic significance, for the Russian military it is an important point on the map of the Arctic, a region that is being heavily militarised by Moscow.
Despite the fact that Svalbard belongs to Norway, it has held specific status under the Spitsbergen Treaty for the last hundred years. According to the document, the archipelago is a demilitarised zone, to which all parties to the treaty have equal access to conduct economic activity. Russia is one of the signatory countries and is currently the only one actually present on Svalbard. A small Russian community is concentrated in the town of Barentsburg, where the last active coal mine on the archipelago also operates. Moscow is trying to use Svalbard’s status to increase its presence here. This would make it easier for Russia to take control of the islands in the event of an armed conflict with NATO. By installing radars and missile systems on the archipelago, the Russians would strengthen the anti-access zone and limit the room for manoeuvre of NATO forces in the Barents Sea, near the main bases of the Northern Fleet.
On February 4, Sergey Lavrov stated that Oslo has been trying to limit Russian activity in the archipelago area, which is in contradiction to the treaty guarantee of “equal liberty of access”. According to the head of Russian diplomacy, Norway’s anti-Russian activity includes, among other things, the creation of fishery protection zones and other pro-ecological activities limiting economic activity. According to Moscow, the Norwegians also hinder the flights of Russian helicopters over the region. Lavrov said that he had sent a letter to Oslo regarding the matter and that he expects a prompt reply. Russia wants to hold talks with Norway on Svalbard. Lavrov announced that Russia has long-term plans for strengthening, diversifying and modernising its presence on the archipelago. It is hard to guess what exactly this means. Coal deposits are running out, so perhaps it is all about wanting to exploit gas and oil resources in the Svalbard continental shelf. However, Norway strongly opposes this idea, highlighting that the treaty provisions on the economic activity of other countries refer only to Svalbard’s land area and territorial waters.
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Moscow’s diplomatic provocation has caused concern in Oslo. Norway is observing the expansion of Russia’s military potential in the Arctic with growing concern. The Russians fuel this concern by organising military provocations – for example, in autumn 2019, Spetsnaz troops, Russia’s Special Operations Forces, arrived under the cover of the night on Svalbard for a short period of time. As if that was not enough, Russia regularly conducts maritime exercises in the region. The tension may be further increased in March, as Norway is hosting NATO’s Cold Response exercise. In the past, the Russians tried to sabotage similar undertakings of the Alliance taking place in this Nordic country.
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