The weak points of good relations in Svalbard | Polarjournal
Pyramiden is a former Russian mining community where mining stopped in 1998. Russian communities are still established in Svalbard, in Barentsburg for example, and more than 40 nationalities are represented on the archipelago. Image: Michael Wenger

Everything converges so that the Svalbard archipelago is considered an epicenter of tension in the Arctic between the West and the great Asian powers, but also between the European Union and Norway. NATO would be well advised to resolve differences within its coalition. Pauline Baudu, an expert on the subject, tells us about it.

Last January, Pauline Baudu, a specialist in security issues related to climate change and other emerging threats in the Arctic, published an analysis on the place of Svalbard in NATO’s strategic thinking on the Arctic. For the researcher: “NATO should take into account the particularities of this territory, where many points of tension converge, for its strategic approach and its operational developments in the Arctic.” She makes recommendations, the article was published in Arctic Review on Law and Politics.

As a reminder, the archipelago has been under Norwegian sovereignty since the Svalbard Treaty came into force in 1925. Article 2 of the Treaty establishes equality between the signatory countries and Norwegian citizens in the use of land and territorial waters. This, together with Article 3, allows them to set up there to carry out scientific missions or to exploit resources.

Even though they are no longer really profitable for Russia, the coal mines allowed the Russians to settle in Barentsburg. According to the Treaty, the signatory states may enjoy freedom of access to the territory of Svalbard. In July 2022, Norway applied economic sanctions against Russia by closing its continental borders to Russian tankers. “The cargo ships could then take another route to reach Svalbard, albeit a more expensive one. Russia then denounced a breach of Article 3, regulating access to the territory of Svalbard, accusing Norway of flouting the human rights of Russian residents and preventing them from receiving their food parcels, and at the same time threatened to call into question the validity of the entire Svalbard Treaty, and therefore Norwegian sovereignty”, explains the researcher. The aim of this kind of communication campaign is to destabilize public opinion and sow confusion, particularly within NATO countries.

For Russia, there is no duality between peace and conflict, it feels permanently threatened by the West, and thinks about hybrid strategies of attack. “I do not think that Svalbard is the Achilles heel of NATO, there are publications that are more alarmist indeed, which speak of a possible Russian invasion, she agrees. I think we have to take into account Moscow’s sensitivities towards certain points of the Treaty, to avoid that Russia takes advantage of it to rise up against Norway,” she adds. Russia’s historical fear is that Svalbard will become an outpost for NATO. “Today, we do not know how to estimate the fears of Russia, if they are real or if it instrumentalizes to justify a more offensive posture.

Pauline Baudu is an expert on the close links between climate, security and other threats in the Arctic for the Washington-based Center for Climate and Security, the Canadian think tank Arctic360, and the Strategic Analysis Network. She also provides advice to the Canadian company Arctic Security Consultants. Image: Strategic Analysis Network

The Treaty is one hundred years old, “that’s the problem! The security environment is changing, and Article 9, which states that Norway shall not build any naval base or fortification that could be used for war purposes, is no longer interpreted in the same way a hundred years later. Could a frigate be perceived as a naval base today? The words used are out of step with the current realities of climate, fishing or energy,” warns the specialist.

Today, climate change is freeing up navigable space around the Svalbard archipelago, and fish populations are migrating to these territories. The presence of hydrocarbons is known. Deposits of critical minerals in the seabed of the archipelago have just been inventoried. “Its position halfway between northern Europe and the North Pole, on the one hand, and its proximity to the Kola Peninsula, home to Russia’s strategic nuclear fleet, on the other, places the archipelago on a strategic axis. It is a gateway to the Barents Sea and the Russian Arctic. This convergence of interests in the current changes makes it a point of tension in the Arctic”, describes the expert.

In the West, this region also crystallizes tensions too. There was the snow crab case that since 2016 has strained relations between Norway and the EU. Europe has authorized sixteen vessels to fish for crab around the archipelago. Norway has intervened several times and is pursuing negotiations with the EU. “At the root of the problem is the interpretation of Article 2 of the Treaty regarding the concept of territorial waters,” she explains. The waters and the bottom do not belong to the same legal category. But Norway fears that the exploitation of crabs on the seabed could one day become a precedent applicable to the exploitation of mineral resources on the seabed. At the risk that the latter will be shared equally among the signatories of the Treaty.

To avoid countries instrumentalizing Norway’s sovereign status in Svalbard and undermining NATO’s unity, Pauline Baudu mentions, for example, the need to “work on resolving the maritime dispute between the EU and Norway to ensure that existing divisions do not become a critical vulnerability.”

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to study : Pauline Baudu, Debates on Arctic Law and Politics, 2023, Minding the Archipelago: What Svalbard Means to NATO,

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