February 17, 2020

Svalbard – Worth Keeping an Eye On

Svalbard Islands.
Svalbard Islands.

In recent months Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between continental Norway and the North Pole, has attracted more interest than usual.

In September 2019 the usually well-informed Norwegian security and defence portal Aldrimer.no reported that Russian Spetsnaz units had recently been operating on Svalbard. This development should be seen in the context of the strong Russian military build-up in the Arctic. It is also worth pointing out that Svalbard is Norwegian territory and no nation has the right to deploy its military there without the consent of Norwegian authorities.

In early February 2020, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov sent a letter to his Norwegian counterpart Ine Eriksen Søreide expressing dissatisfaction with how Norway implements the 100-year-old Svalbard Treaty. Minister Lavrov assured that Russia remains committed to the Treaty but listed a number of unfriendly Norwegian acts, including restrictions on the use of Russian helicopters, a deportation procedure adopted for Russian citizens etc. Lavrov also stated that Russia has long-term plans for strengthening, diversifying and modernising its presence in the Norwegian archipelago. He finished the letter by inviting the Norwegians to bilateral consultations to remove restrictions on Russian activities.

Lavrov did not have to wait long for the Norwegian reply. On 9 February, Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and the Minister of Justice and Public Security Monica Mæland published a short article in which they responded to Sergey Lavrov’s proposal to launch consultations. In their article, they stated that “Svalbard is part of Norway [and] it is not natural that we consult with other countries about the execution of powers in our own areas”.

There is reason to follow closely what happens next in this bilateral exchange. Russia is dismantling the rules-based global order bit by bit. If 9 February marked the 100th anniversary of the Svalbard Treaty, 2 February marked the 100th anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty signed by Estonia and Soviet Russia. According to the treaty, ‘Russia unreservedly recognizes the independence and sovereignty of the State of Estonia, and renounces voluntarily and forever all sovereign rights possessed by Russia over the Estonian people and territory’. As demonstrated only 20 years later, Russia ignored its own commitments by occupying the territory of Estonia and deporting and murdering tens of thousands of its citizens.

There are several lessons to be learned from the Tartu Peace Treaty. First, standing up militarily against an aggressive Russia may sometimes be the only means of achieving and maintaining sovereignty and freedom. Russia did not sign the peace treaty voluntarily. It simply had no other choice since its military was unable to gain anything more by waging a costly and protracted war against Estonia. Second, Moscow’s disrespect and breach of the treaty it had signed only 20 years earlier should serve as a warning to other nations that sign binding agreements with Russia.