A thousand kilometers from the North Pole, this territory twice the size of Belgium, sometimes considered the “NATO’s Achilles heel in the Arctic“, offers powers like Russia and China a unique opportunity to expand their footprint in a strategically important and economically promising region.
The reason for this? An atypical treaty, concluded in 1920 in Paris, which recognizes the sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard but also guarantees the nationals of the signatory States (today 46) the freedom to exploit the natural resources there “on a footing of perfect equality“.
It is in this capacity that, for decades, Russia – the USSR before it – has been extracting coal on these lands inhabited by less than 3,000 people of around fifty nationalities.
Here, almost everything is freezing: nature with its snow-capped peaks, glaciers and sea ice battered by climate change, temperatures that often drop to -20°C in winter, but also the decor shaped by men.
Anachronistic with its giant sculpture proclaiming “Our goal – communism” and its other Soviet vestiges, the village of Barentsburg perpetuates the Russian presence on the archipelago.
Some 370 Russians and Ukrainians from the Donbass still live there around a seam of poor quality coal. Plunged into total darkness in winter, with no road to reach the capital Longyearbyen (inhabited mainly by Norwegians), they depend on the sea for supplies.
On the heights, sits the Russian consulate, modern and protected by high gates. Sergueï Gouchtchine welcomes in a marble entrance brightened up by a winter garden, a luxury that clashes with the decrepit look of the surrounding buildings.
“Spitsbergen has been covered in the sweat and blood of the Russian people for centuries“says the consul.”I do not dispute that it is Norwegian territory but it is (also) part of Russian history“.
To the official toponymy – “Svalbard” – chosen by Norway to establish its grip on the archipelago, the Russians systematically prefer the historical name of “Spitsbergen” (Where “Spitsbergen“), a dissonance that is not symbolically innocent.
Arguing that its fishermen and hunters came to these latitudes as early as the 16th century to hunt whales, seals and polar bears and that it is there today, apart from Norway, the only economic player of any importance, Russia wants have a say in the governance of Svalbard.
– The environmental weapon –
Incidentally, the archipelago, in particular the southernmost island, Bjørnøya (Bear Island), is stationed near the waters that the Russian nuclear submarines of the powerful Northern Fleet must borrow 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“, analyzes Arild Moe, researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo.
“To do this, they will maintain a reasonable presence there and will also be very attentive to what is happening there.“, he says.
After having pleaded, in vain, for co-management at the end of the Second World War, Russia is now calling, without more success, for “bilateral consultations“to lift the restrictions which, she says, curb her activities in the archipelago.
Its coal seam running for a long time at a loss, Barentsburg has added strings to its bow by diversifying into scientific research and tourism. People come here by snowmobile or boat, depending on the season, to admire what was for decades a showcase of the USSR on the western side of the Iron Curtain.
All these remnants of the past, “we keep them here not because we still aspire to communism but because we care about our heritage and also because tourists like to take pictures with them“, slips the guide and historian Natalia Maximichina.
But Moscow accuses the Norwegian authorities of hindering the expansion of its activities by invoking the protection of nature, an imperative contained in the founding treaty. Russian helicopter flights, for example, are very strictly supervised.
“Nature reserves have begun to be set up around Russian settlements“, acknowledges former diplomat Sverre Jervell, architect of Norwegian policy in the Barents Sea region.
“Especially after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, when Barentsburg was struggling to stay afloat“.
To curb Russian ambitions? “Not officially, but in reality, yes“, he said. “Of course, we had good arguments: it is a very fragile nature. But we have in particular protected the areas around the Russian settlements“.
In addition to Barentsburg, Russia has long maintained other mining communities (Pyramiden, Grumant) on the archipelago, to such an extent that the number of Russians there greatly exceeded that of Norwegians at the end of the Cold War.
Regularly, Russia raises its voice and accuses Norway of violating an important provision of the treaty which, de facto, makes Svalbard a demilitarized space.
Each stopover by a Norwegian frigate or visit by NATO parliamentarians gives rise to official protests.
Ditto for the gigantic Svalsat satellite station, near Longyearbyen, the largest installation of its type in the world.
On a windy plateau, very close to the World Seed Vault (the famous “Vegetal Noah’s Ark“), some 130 antennas sheltered by white radomes that look like giant golf balls communicate with space. And download military data, criticizes Moscow.
In January, one of the two fiber optic cables connecting Svalsat to the mainland was mysteriously damaged.
Critics fly both ways. Russia is also accused of taking liberties with the treaty.
Like when his Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, yet on the European sanctions list after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, made an impromptu appearance in Svalbard in 2015.
Or when Chechen special forces on their way to an exercise near the North Pole stopped there the following year.
If the experts exclude the repetition of the Crimean scenario in the archipelago, they say to expect to observe new passes of arms there because of the new cold snap caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
“Svalbard is sensitive to the international situation“, analyzes Arild Moe. “It is a place where Russia can easily express its displeasure and put pressure on Norway. We will probably see it in the future“.
– “Achilles heel of NATO“-
For James Wither, a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the archipelago is the “NATO’s Achilles heel in the Arctic“because its”remoteness from mainland Norway and its special legal status make it politically and militarily vulnerable to Russian adventurism“.
“Although the danger of direct military confrontation remains low“Moscow might be tempted to advance there in a way that would divide the Western camp, the former British officer wrote in 2018.
Norway seeks to play down Russian grievances, arguing that they have been known for a long time and that Norway enjoys the same sovereignty over these islands as over any other part of its territory.
Hailed for having managed to forge close ties with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov when he was foreign minister between 2005 and 2012, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre wants to be the apostle of the adage “Far North, low voltages“.
“I wouldn’t say we are being tested, but there is growing interest in the Arctic from neighboring and more distant countries“, he says.
“We want to see communities grow in Svalbard (…) and this will be done in a transparent way“, he adds.
As a precaution, the Norwegian state still spent 300 million crowns (33.5 million euros) in 2016 to buy a huge land estate in the immediate vicinity of Longyearbyen, the only one still in private hands on the archipelago. .
Faced with the supposed interest of foreign investors, particularly Chinese, the government of the time justified the purchase of these 217.6 km2 by its “wish these lands were norwegian“.
The possible arrival of new powers raises the fear of destabilization, a fear on which Russia does not fail to play.
“If we left Spitsbergen, who would come to take our place?asks Consul Sergey Guchtchin.This could be China for example or the United States, or any other State party to the treaty“.
– “Diplomacy through Science“-
Like Greenland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands, Svalbard seems to be in the sights of China, which defines itself as a state “near arctic” and displays its desire to establish a “polar silk road“.
In an Arctic that is warming up three times faster than the planet, the retreat of the sea ice opens up economic opportunities, real or imagined: new fishing areas, new maritime trade routes, easier access to potential oil, gas and mineral resources. …
Everything is good to get your foot in the door.
Third locality of the archipelago, Ny-Ålesund is a former mining community now turned towards international scientific research.
Among the buildings occupied by institutions from a dozen countries, it is difficult not to see the one occupied by Chinese researchers.
Characteristic of Imperial China, two large marble guardian lions watch over the entrance to the venerable building, owned by the Norwegian state but renamed “yellow river resortby its tenants at the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC).
A blatant example of “plant flag“, of “diplomacy through science“whose significance should not be underestimated, according to Torbjørn Pedersen, Norwegian professor of political science at Bodø University.
“Some foreign capitals have come to portray their presence there as national stations and strategic positions that could give them political influence on the islands and in the wider Arctic region.“, he wrote in the Polar Journal in 2021.
“Some of the scientific presence in Svalbard may seem driven by geopolitical motivations“, he added. She “could potentially embolden some state actors, including major powers, with regional aspirations – and become a real security challenge for host country Norway“.
The Norwegian authorities take a dim view of these postures, which have more place in Antarctica than in a sovereign country.
In 2019, they launched a new official strategy which aims to weaken this logic of autonomous stations over which each nation would fly its flag. Emphasis must henceforth be placed on joint research by theme within shared infrastructures.
The Franco-German scientific mission (AWIPEV) seems to bear the brunt of this recovery. Since 2014, France and Germany have wanted to bring together their resources, which are currently dispersed over several sites, in a single building, but the file is not progressing.
Behind the scenes, it is rumored that the Norwegians fear setting a precedent.
“We cannot do something for the French and deny the same to the Chinese“, summarizes Sverre Jervell. “The principle of the Svalbard Treaty is not to discriminate“.