Risk Factors for Svalbard Conflict between Russia and Norway

Risk Factors for Svalbard Conflict between Russia and Norway

Source: “High Arctic protection” by Neil. Moralee is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The unique provisions of the Treaty of Svalbard, NATO ambiguity on the status of Svalbard, and mounting geopolitical tensions between Russia and Norway signify a realistic probability of outright violation of Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard in the medium to long-term.

Svalbard is an archipelago the size of Croatia located approximately 1000 km due north of Tromsø, Norway and roughly 1000 km northwest of Murmansk, Russia. This landmass is perhaps best known for its “doomsday seed vault” or the fact that it has more polar bears than people. Recently, there has been extensive reporting on Svalbard’s new oil and gas stores and the Barents sea more broadly, but little on potential geostrategic issues. However, as the Arctic continues to thaw at an increasing rate, Svalbard is quickly becoming a region of lasting geopolitical importance. While the newly revealed oil and gas reserves around Svalbard complicate Oslo-Moscow relations, the geopolitical underpinnings largely remain under-examined in the media. 

Svalbard's position in the Barents Sea

Figure 1: Svalbard’s position in the Barents Sea
Source: https://www.csis.org/analysis/geopolitics-and-neglected-arctic-spaces

Russian geostrategic concerns remain at odds with Norwegian controlled Svalbard

Murmansk is home to Russia’s largest fleet and some of its most advanced infantry and air contingents. Murmansk is doubly vital as a nuclear submarine port with access to the Atlantic. The Baltic Sea Fleet remains severely limited by the Danish Straits chokepoint and the Black Sea Fleet faces at least two choke points to reach the Atlantic. Moreover, it is limited by the Montreux Convention which restricts nuclear submarine operations in the Black Sea. Thus, Murmansk remains the only large warm water port with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean (albeit through the GIUK Gap). Besides the GIUK Gap, a Norwegian/NATO-controlled Svalbard Archipelago is the largest hindrance to Russia’s Northern fleet operations, and by extension its Atlantic naval power projection. Svalbard also presents a threat to Russian missile and air operations in the High North. Russia’s northernmost military base, Nagurskoye Airbase lies only 260 km west of Svalbard. Svalbard’s potential as a reconnaissance and surveillance post nullifies Naguroyske’s attractiveness as a forward staging base and ballistic missile hub.

Russia views the Spitzbergen Treaty as illegitimate

In addition to the strategic utility of Svalbard, there is much historical baggage stemming from the 1920 Spitzbergen treaty, which provides Norway with its shaky claim to sovereignty over the archipelago. Moscow did not partake in the Paris treaty negotiations because of the ongoing civil-war and early exit from WWI resulting in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Thus, Oslo was able to persuade the allied delegation to grant Norway sovereignty over Svalbard and Bear Island (the southernmost island of Svalbard) with the concession of maritime activities to any of the signatories. While they signed the treaty in 1935, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov made his objections clear. He famously stated that the treaty should be “thrown in the trash and that Bear Island unequivocally belonged to Russia.”

In the modern era, the Russian state bolsters irredentist claims with historical narratives to legitimize violations of sovereignty. Righting alleged historical wrongs, which placed ethnic Russians outside of the Russian state, underpinned both the 2007 cyber-attacks on Estonia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Even more recently in Ukraine, the Kremlin demonstrated its willingness to use force to achieve political goals based upon alternative historical interpretations.  Similarly, the Svalbard narrative centers on Moscow’s perceived unfair exclusion from the 1920 Spitzbergen Treaty which has led to mistreatment of the 10-20% of ethnic Russians who make up Svalbard’s population.

More than a war of words

Though Moscow will criticize other countries for not complying with treaty requirements, Russia’s core interests are weakly protected by the Spitzbergen Treaty, making asymmetric bilateral negotiations with Oslo the most appealing path to Moscow. While Professor David Sobek of LSU demonstrates that most modern asymmetric dyadic relations merely involve economic and diplomatic coercion, Russia is a European outlier in its embrace of military coercion. 

University of Southern California Professor Jonathan Markowitz empirically demonstrates the link between the power projection of the Russian military force and territorial negotiations with Norway. As Oslo and Moscow began the 2007 negotiations on overlapping claims in the Barents Sea, Russia increased its bomber patrols of the Norwegian coast by 500% or equivalent to the past 15 years combined. Russian air forces also buzzed Norwegian air defense systems and conducted a mock bombing exercise of Bodo (the new Norwegian command center). Ultimately, Russia settled the dispute in 2010 with a successful concession of the Barents Sea equivalent to three Crimeas. One cannot know how effective the Russian power projection was on the Norwegian delegation, but it seems like an effective and low-cost strategy. 

NATO protection?

One might assume that NATO’s Article V clause would provide the ultimate stopgap between military posturing and military conflict and Norwegian leadership would like that to be the case. However, NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg’s assertion that a potential conflict limited to Svalbard would trigger Article V is a nebulous claim that ignores the inter-alliance friction and lack of consensus among NATO members on the status of Svalbard. The US, among others, has failed to maintain a clear position and still has reservations about Norway’s economic rights around Svalbard. This internal division in the alliance presents a perfect opportunity for Russia to pressure Norway into concessions, or even to undertake a fait acompli as successfully orchestrated in Crimea. 

It is important to note that there is a range of coercive actions available to Moscow that fall short of annexation. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s visit to Svalbard exemplifies such unconventional gray-zone action. Mr. Rogozin is best known as the architect of the Crimea annexation which led to his blacklisting by the EU and Norway. Thus, his trip to Barrentsburg demonstrated that Svalbard is not part of Norway proper as the travel restriction did not apply to his visit.

Future actions that Russia undertakes will likely continue to live within the gray-zone and play on the uneasy relationship between NATO members over Svalbard’s jurisdiction. Will Russia try to sever the link between Norway and Svalbard? Will Russia settle more civilians to try to shift the demographics of Svalbard? Will little blue men appear on the archipelago? These are all possibilities in the long-term. In the short-term, we can expect Russia to continue its military power projection in the region, though it may exercise a more cautious approach until the summer of 2023 when it gives up its rotating seat as chair of the Arctic Council.  Thus, a military conflict or outright violation of sovereignty remains a realistic probability in the medium to long-term but not in the short-term.

Categories: Europe, Security

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