Norway´s challenge in the Arctic with Russia and China

High North, low tension: Norway´s challenge in the Arctic with Russia and China


12 | 07 | 2022


The Spitsbergen Island is under Norway’s jurisdiction, but it is claimed by Moscow, which is entitled to conduct some economic operation on it

En la imagen

The new Arctic shipping routes. Inside a red circle is Spitsbergen Island, in the Arctic Sea [a modified map taken from Wikipedia]

Tensions over the Arctic between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization member Norway are bound to rise in the upcoming months. With Sweden and Finland´s accession as potential destabilizer for Russia in the region, China and Russia are now looking to the Spitsbergen Island, in the Svalbard archipelago.

Of immense glaciers and high mountains, Spitsbergen is the biggest of the islands in the Svalbard archipelago. A region of special interest that has been particularly forgotten in international politics, it is currently under the jurisdiction of Norway, and has remained as such for over a century. Nevertheless, Russian claims now heat up the situation, and tensions over the region seem like they will certainly go beyond traditional environmental concerns and economic interests.

Thus, Norway faces now potential destabilizers around its Arctic territories. The specialties of the Treaty ruling over the Svalbard archipelago, together with the ambiguity shown by NATO on the issue and the tensions between Norway and Russia have led some to believe that Norwegian sovereignty over the region as laid out in the provisions of the Treaty could eventually be violated in the long-term. In addition, China now seems to be joining the party looking for economic and geostrategic benefits.

The Svalbard Treaty and NATO´s Achilles Heel

The dilemma faced by the Alliance in regards to the island dates back to 1920. That year, a multilateral treaty signed in Paris and ratified in 1925 by 14 countries, recognizing Norway´s sovereignty over the archipelago in question. To date, a total of 39 countries have signed it, but two of them are now posing considerable demands and problems to the established terms in the treaty: China and, specially, Russia. According to the stipulations agreed by all signatories, all members are given equal rights so as to engage in commercial activities on the island. The most popular one included in the term is mining and was prominently used by the Soviets during a long part of the 20th century.

Originally, one of the main goals of the Treaty was to secure the economic interests of national people from other countries that were already living in the region. This prevented Norway from treating such people less favorably than its own local citizens in the islands. An additional consideration on the Treaty is that the islands cannot be used by the Scandinavian nation for “warlike” movements.

The reason for which the region is considered as NATO´s Achilles heel is simple; it has the potential to be a neutralizer for Russia against the Alliance. The distance of the island from the mainland of Norway and the ambiguity of the legal status the territories are held in, could give Moscow a series a range of possible pretexts to intervene in the area. Any threat of direct confrontation is still considered to be quite low, but yet the Russians have in Spitsbergen a strategic location to advance their interest and divide the West.

Furthermore, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has stated that a potential conflict limited to the islands would trigger Article V; an assertion ignoring the lack of consensus between member´s positions on the status of the region. The US, for instance, still has some reservations on Norway´s economic rights.

So, for now, whatever may happen in the future with the position of the island and the Svalbard Archipelago, it is another example of the growing interests that countries from the Arctic area as well as from afar have over the region. And the islands will indeed keep gaining central stage in a conflict with considerable grey areas.

Russian and Chinese operations

Following the conditions set up in the mentioned treaty, Russia is now claiming that Spitsbergen “has been covered with Russian sweat and blood for centuries”, as said by the Consul of Moscow, Sergey Gushchin. Aside from Norway, Russia has been the only other nation to make use of the exclusive right to mine and carry out commercial activities in the island as member of the treaty. An old, abandoned mining settlement remains in the island as a silent witness of the Soviet presence in the past. A bust of Vladimir Lenin, a bank or flags, and the sentence “Communism is our goal” are still at the place.

Historically, the Soviet Union publicly criticized the Treaty arguing it should be thrown in the trash because the island ‘unequivocally’ belonged to Russia. Now, in spite of the argument that such mining activities are the base for Russian presence in the area, Russia has different strategic interests in the region. Probably its main interest is to avoid a situation where other countries could use the archipelago offensively. Moscow has accused Norway of limiting its activity under the premises of environmental protection (for example, controlling helicopter flights).

According to the Global Economic Forum, the Arctic has approximately the 13% of undiscovered global oil reserves, and around 30% of undiscovered gas deposits; and it is well known that both the economic and political interests in the region are being defined the changing climate in the area. Russia has been pushing for increased militarization in the area out of the fears of potential threats against Russian territory. With 53% of the Arctic coastline being Russian, the melting ices are leaving what was once natural barrier that protected from any attack. The situation is used by Moscow as the driving pretext to augment its overall military presence in the Arctic area, taking advantage of the current division among NATO members on the issue (which could enable the Kremlin to push Norway for concessions).

But action is not exclusively Russian. China is now increasing efforts to get a slice as well, threatening both Norway and Russia. The higher temperatures heating up the region increasingly faster have now opened potential new routes and rich economic resources (namely, oil and gas), and consequently many are attempting to get their presence established, with China being no exception. With an established institute in the island as well, many argue it has a strong geopolitical motivation.

In sum, few lines remain clear. Norway´s interests in the Arctic mainly focus on keeping peaceful relations in the area and dispelling the idea of Svalbard as a shared international space. The Arctic is gaining attraction, and other actors aside from Russia are claiming their role in the game. The fact that Sweden and Finland are joining NATO will not contribute particularly to easing such tensions, and thus the alliance must carefully deal with the issue promptly.

Many have argued that the Arctic is of crucial importance for NATO in the current geopolitical context, and the recent Cold Response exercises, where allied forces trained together in cold weather to develop expertise and enhance cooperation, was demonstrate this. Thus, the upcoming Strategic Concept to be signed in Madrid should deal with it appropriately in order to carefully safeguard all of the alliance interests and avoid as much as possible any confrontation with Russia.