Photo of the KNM Thor Heyerdahl docked in Longyearbyen in late October by the Norwegian Navy
Norwegian military ships visiting Svalbard are a regular, if not frequent, occurrence and legal as long as it’s for “non-war” purposes. But Russia is calling a voyage by a Navy vessel in October part of Norway’s ongoing efforts to develop military infrastructure in the archipelago in violation of the Svalbard Treaty’s intent.
Norway maintains the voyage is just business as usual – and Russia has faced plenty of accusations of illegal and/or provocative military activities in Svalbard and elsewhere in the Arctic.
The KNM Thor Heyerdahl visited Longyearbyen and Isfjorden in late October in what Svalbardposten called a “rare sight” and “peaceful visit.”
“It is important to be able to train in demanding conditions and for us to be able to defend Norwegian sovereignty in Svalbard,” Frode Røte, the ship’s commander, told the newspaper. “We have not only a right, but also a duty to safeguard sovereignty in the territorial waters of Spitsbergen, Hopen, and Bjørnøya.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring “the port call to the archipelago by a Norwegian warship is Oslo’s next step in a series of successive actions to include this territory into its sphere of national military development.”
Additional and more harshly worded attacks were made Friday by Maria Zakharova, a ministry spokesperson who “is known for her confrontational stance on key international issues” including attacks on Norway’s Arctic policies, according to The Independent Barents Observer. Among her statements on the foreign ministry’s portal, she asserted Norway’s extending several laws on ports and fairways for Svalbard “implies the use of the archipelago’s infrastructure in the military planning of the defense of Norway, including the reception of reinforcement from NATO allies.”
Zakharova also accused Norway of discrimination in limiting foreign access to Svalbard’s seabed resources and claimed the SvalSat installations on a mountaintop above Longyearbyen serve a “dual-purpose use” (implying military as well as scientific, an accusation previously made by various high-profile individuals and denied by Norway).
But Russia’s actions have hardly been passive. Its skirmishes with Norway and other countries claiming stakes in the Arctic date back decades, and have been increasing in recent years as climate change makes natural resources in the far north such as oil more readily available.
A group of Russian warships, for example, suddenly broke off from exercises in Franz Josef Land suddenly broke off from exercises in Franz Josef Land in August and passed within 20 kilometers of Svalbard’s coastlines. Earlier this year Norway admonished Russia for test firing multiple missiles in international waters just south of Bjørnøya in retaliation for the United States deploying bombers to Norway.