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Russia and China see NATO’s ‘Arctic Achilles heel’ – International News News – Report by AFR

Russian flags flutter in the stiff polar breeze, a bust of Lenin juts out of the snow, and a huge slogan declares, “Communism is our goal!”

No, this is not a Soviet settlement lost in the Arctic, but a corner of Norway where Moscow can — in theory, at least — mine, build, drill and fish whatever it wants.

Welcome to Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago and “NATO’s Achilles heel in the Arctic”.

These spectacular islands of glaciers and mountain peaks, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, are a strategic and economic bridgehead not only for Moscow but also for Beijing.

All because of one of the most bizarre and least understood international agreements ever concluded, which gives Norway sovereignty but allows the citizens of 46 countries to exploit the islands’ potentially vast resources on an equal footing.

That’s why 370 Russian and Ukrainian miners from the Donbass work in Barentsburg, a remote corner of Svalbard where the Soviets have been digging for coal for decades and where it’s pitch black for almost three months of the year.

“Spitsbergen has been covered in Russian sweat and blood for centuries,” Moscow Consul Sergei Gushchin said.

“I’m not saying it’s not Norwegian territory, but it’s part of Russian history,” he added.

He makes no attempt to hide that some Ukrainians have left since the Russian invasion in February.

Moscow has long wanted a greater say in the archipelago, which has been a meeting place for its hunters, whalers and fishermen since the 16th century.

It also insists on naming the islands by the original Spitsbergen rather than Norway’s Svalbard, the official name given shortly after the signing of the treaty that handed them over to Norway in 1920, while Russia was otherwise embroiled in the civil war between Reds and Whites was.

– nuclear submarines –

Nuclear submarines of the mighty Russian Northern Fleet also have to pass close to Svalbard’s southernmost Bear Island in order to reach the North Atlantic.

Russia’s “main interest is to avoid a situation where others use[the islands]offensively,” said political scientist Arild Moe of Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

To make sure that happens, “they maintain an appropriate presence and are watching what’s going on very closely,” he added.

After failing to obtain joint authority over the islands at the end of World War II, Russia is now – without much success – pushing for “bilateral consultations” to release the brakes on its activities.

As its mines lost money for years, it has specialized in tourism and scientific research.

But with no road to the capital, Longyearbyen, visitors must come to Barentsburg by boat or snowmobile, depending on the time of year, to admire what for decades was a Soviet showpiece on the western side of the Iron Curtain.

Barentsburg is clinging to its Soviet relics “not because we still have hope of communism, but because we value our heritage — and tourists like taking photos of themselves, too,” said Russian historian and tourist guide Natalia Maksimishina.

– Fencing off the Russians –

Moscow accuses Norway of paralyzing its environmental protection ambitions, for example with strictly controlled Russian helicopter flights.

“We have started to create nature reserves around Russian sites,” admitted former diplomat Sverre Jervell, the architect of Norway’s policy in the Barents Sea, which separates the islands from Norway and Russia.

“Especially after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, when Barentsburg was struggling to stay afloat.”

This “wasn’t officially done” to restrict the Russians, Jervell said, but in reality that’s exactly what happened. “Of course we had good arguments, the environment is very fragile,” he said.

And Norway was bound by treaty to protect the nature of the islands. “But we have specially protected the areas around Russian sites.”

With another Soviet mining operation at Pyramiden, there were actually more Russians than Norwegians living on the islands by the end of the Cold War.

Moscow regularly accuses Oslo of violating one of the key articles of the 1920 treaty, which effectively makes Svalbard a demilitarized zone.

It protests whenever a Norwegian frigate docks or visits NATO MPs, and is particularly suspicious of the giant Svalsat satellite station near Longyearbyen.

On a windswept plateau near the Global Seed Vault – a “Noah’s Ark” where 1,145,693 seed varieties are catastrophically frozen – about 130 antennas covered by giant golf ball domes communicate with space.

They also download data from military satellites, Moscow suspects.

In January, one of two fiber optic cables connecting Svalsat to the mainland was mysteriously damaged.

Russia was also accused of taking liberties with the treaty, for example when its then Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin – who had been sanctioned by Europe for annexing Crimea – showed up unannounced in Svalbard in 2015.

Or when Chechen special forces stopped there the following year on their way to a military exercise near the North Pole.

Even if experts rule out a repeat of what happened in Crimea in Svalbard, they expect a reaction because of the cold caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Spitsbergen is sensitive to the general international climate,” said Norwegian analyst Moe. “Here, Russia can easily express its dissatisfaction by pressuring Norway.”

– “Neutralization of NATO” –

Svalbard is “NATO’s Achilles’ heel in the Arctic,” said James Wither, a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany, because its distance from mainland Norway and “special legal status present a number of possible pretexts for Russian intervention .

“While the threat of direct military confrontation remains low, Svalbard is particularly vulnerable to a Russian venture that offers the strategic payoff of advancing Russia’s long-term goals of dividing the West and neutralizing NATO,” the former British army officer wrote in 2018.

Norway is trying to downplay the Russian grievances, saying they are far from new and insisting its sovereignty over the islands is no different from other parts of its territory.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store, who was praised for his relationship with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov when he was foreign minister between 2005 and 2012, is an apostle of the Oslo doctrine of “high north, low tensions”.

“I wouldn’t say we’re being tested,” he said, “but there’s growing interest in the Arctic from countries there and further afield.”

“We want the communities in Svalbard to develop in terms of new activities, research, (and) tourism… and that will happen in a transparent way,” he added.

Despite this, Norway spent 300 million kronor (33.5 million euros) in 2016 to buy a huge estate near Longyearbyen, the only privately owned property in the archipelago.

The government justified the cost by saying they “wanted the land to be Norwegian” given alleged interest from foreign, particularly Chinese, investors.

Russia has been quick to toy with fears of the arrival of new powers like China.

“If we leave Svalbard, who could come in our place?” said Russian Consul Gushchin from his impressive hilltop residence overlooking Barentsburg. “It could be China, for example, or the United States, or any member state of the Spitsbergen Treaty.”

– China plants flag –

Like its high-latitude neighbors Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, Svalbard appears to be in China’s sights. In fact, it now defines itself as a “near arctic” state and wants to build a “polar silk road”.

As the region warms three times faster than the planet, shrinking ice floes are opening up economic opportunities and sea routes, though some are more theoretical than real.

With new fishing grounds and easier access to potential resources like oil and gas fields, everyone is trying to get their foot in the door.

It’s hard to miss China’s Institute for Polar Research in Svalbard’s third-largest settlement of Ny-Alesund, a former mining community now dedicated to international science.

Two marble lions – symbols of Imperial China – guard the entrance of the Norwegian-owned building known to its residents as the Yellow River Station.

According to Torbjorn Pedersen, a political scientist at Norway’s Nord University in Bodo, this is a blatant example of “flag-waving”.

“Some foreign capitals … raise their presence there as national stations and strategic bases, potentially giving them claims to political power and influence in the islands and in the wider Arctic region,” he wrote in the Polar Journal last year.

“Some of the research presence in Svalbard may seem geopolitically motivated,” added Pedersen.

“If consolidated, the strategic presence could potentially embolden some… including major powers with regional aspirations and become a real security challenge for the host nation of Norway.”

Oslo takes a dim view of a “scientific diplomacy” more suited to Antarctica than a sovereign nation.

In 2019, she began discouraging the idea of ​​national research stations, from which countries could fly their flag in favor of sharing research facilities.

The Franco-German broadcaster seems to be the first to feel the change. Since 2014, Paris and Berlin have been trying to pool the researchers who are spread across several locations in a new building, but they are getting nowhere.

In private, the Norwegians say they don’t want to set a precedent.

“We cannot allow the French to do one thing and reject the Chinese,” Jervell said. “The principle of the Svalbard Treaty is non-discrimination.”

#Russia #China #NATOs #Arctic #Achilles #heel

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