An upcoming meeting by NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in Longyearbyen is triggering a sharp reaction from Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
In a very direct-worded statement the foreign ministry says NATO is not needed in the Arctic.
“We strongly believe that there are no problems in the Arctic region that require NATO participation to solve, let alone militarily,” the statement reads.
NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly consists of delegated from the 28 NATO member countries. The Assembly holds different activities bringing together members of parliaments in various formats.
In May, one meeting will take place at Svalbard. Norway has the sovereignty at Svalbard, but the Svalbard Treaty puts certain stipulations, like demilitarisation of the archipelago.
Article 9 prohibits naval bases and fortifications and also the use of Svalbard for war-like purposes.
“Unprecedented military preparations”
“Russia operates based on the premise that all the states that are party to the Spitsbergen [Svalbard] Treaty of 1920 should be interested in ensuring that Spitsbergen remains an archipelago of peace and neighbourliness,” the foreign ministry says.
Moscow claims that the meeting is at odds with the spirit of the Svalbard Treaty.
“In the context of NATO’s current policy of “containing” Russia, accompanied by unprecedented military preparations near the border of our country, the attempts to bring Spitsbergen under the wing of this military-political bloc and to hold its meetings there are at odds with the spirit of the 1920 Treaty. We consider this to be a provocative policy.”
One thing is the location of the meeting; another thing Moscow reacts on is the items to be discussed “the agenda of the seminar includes, among other things, discussing how geopolitics and future of the Arctic are interconnected.”
“Escalation of tension”
“The escalation of tension is not in the long-term interests of the countries of Northern Europe and weakens, rather than strengthens, their security.”
Moscow’s statement comes just ahead of the Norwegian Government’s presentation of its renewed Strategy of the High North, to be made public in Bodø on Friday by Prime Minister Erna Solberg together with Foreign Minister Børge Brende.
Norway, Russia tension over Svalbard has escalated in recent years after Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin made a stop-over at Svalbard in 2015 on his way to Camp Barneo, an annual Russian temporary base on the sea-ice near the North Pole. The visit created an outcry from Norway. Rogozin is on the EU’s and Norway’s sanction list because of conflict involvement in Eastern Ukraine, and is consequently barred entry to Norwegian territory. Svalbard, however, is visa-free zone and Moscow protested Norway’s attempt to restrict any Russian citizens an undisputed right to visit the archipelago.
Chechen Special Forces
Last year, Chechen Special Forces used Longyearbyen airport for transportation of personnel and equipment for an airborne drill near Camp Barneo.
Cargo and other personnel were brought to Camp Barneo by a Russian plane from Longyearbyen. The Chechen delegation was lead by Ramzan Kadyrov’s aide on law enforcement issues Daniil Martynov.
The Norwegian Government in its White paper on Svalbard explains that “All foreign military activity in Svalbard is prohibited and would entail a gross infringement of sovereignty.”
Climate change on agenda
NATO Parliamentary Assembly writes in a note that the Svalbard meeting, to take place on May 9-10, aims at discuss impact of climate changes, maritime cooperation and trade and business opportunities in the High North. The seminar is organized in cooperation with the Norwegian Parliament (Storting), and is part of the Parliamentary Assembly’s ongoing focus on environmental security and developments in the High North.
“The potential for an ice-free Arctic Ocean this century will open the region to shorter global transit routes. As such, the Seminar will focus on new challenges and opportunities for the region, as well as the existing good international cooperation within maritime and environmental affairs, joint search and rescue efforts, and the high North as an area for constructive international cooperation in general.”
Some 100 participants, including 58 parliamentarians from 18 NATO member states and partner countries will participate at Svalbard.
NATO Parliamentary Assembly underlines that it is independent from NATO and has no direct role in NATO policies or operations.
2012 NATO meeting
Next month’s meeting is, however, not the first time a delegation from NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly visits Svalbard. In May 2012, 26 NATO parliamentarians spent four days on the archipelago to learn more about how strategic changes are affecting the Arctic region.
The visit to this Arctic Archipelago provided a unique opportunity for the parliamentarians to meet with Norwegian and international experts working on a wide range of Arctic challenges,” the parliamentarians reported after the tour.
Questions Norway’s historic rights
The NATO meeting this spring now triggers widespread coverage in Russian media.
Analysing the meeting, RIA Novosti commentator Aleksandr Khrolenko points to historic Russian population on Svalbard “these islands were populated by Russian Pomor settles,” he writes in a text that in-between the lines questions Norway’s historic rights. Since the Russian settlers, according to a 1569 map, were on the archipelago, it “has been controlled by the Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, Sweden and finally, independent Norway.”
RIA Novosti is a news agency operating under the purview of the Russian Ministry of Communications and Mass Media. Under a presidential decree signed by Putin in December 2013, the news agency became a part of Rossiya Segodnya. According to the decree, the mandate of Rossiya Segodnya is to “Provide information on Russian state policy and Russian life and society for audiences abroad.”
Sputnik News, another arm of Rossiya Segodnya, on Thursday published an English version of the statements questioning Norway’s historic rights over Svalbard.
Military base at Fraz Josef Land
Further northeast of Svalbard in the Barents Sea is Russia’s Franz Josef Land. Here, the world’s northernmost military complex was recently opened at the Nagurskoye base on Aleksandra Island. Visited by President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu last month, the complex provide living and working conditions for up to 150 soldiers. A nearby military airfield is upgraded.
When construction work at the base started in 2014, Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu said one of the prioritized areas for the military is development of military infrastructure in the Arctic.
«A constant military presence in the Arctic and a possibility to protect the state’s interest by military means are regarded as an integral part of the general policy to guarantee national security,» Shoygu said as previously reported by the Barents Observer.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Do Russian bomber patrols in the Arctic threaten Canada’s security and sovereignty?, Radio Canada International
Finland: Poll: Finnish support for Nato membership still low, Yle News
France: French explorer challenges Norwegian authorities on fjord access, The Independent Barents Observer
North Korea: North Korea signs Svalbard Treaty, The Independent Barents Observer
Norway: Russia expands studies of Svalbard archipelago shelf, The Independent Barents Observer
Sweden: Sweden joins NATO strategic communications centre to combat disinformation, Radio Sweden
Russia: FSB infiltrated political party Parnas in attempt to discredit Norway : former party leader, The Independent Barents Observer
United States: Russian bombers spotted outside Alaska…again, Alaska Public Media