Photo from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov firing a test missile Saturday just east of Bjornøya from video by the Russian Defense Ministry
Among Russia’s many military maneuvers while preparing to invade Ukraine this week was testing a new hypersonic missile in waters bordering southeast Svalbard, whose residents are long-familiar with Vladimir Putin’s provocations and aggressions in trying to expand his zone of influence in the Arctic.
And similar to the rest of the world watching Russia’s rush to war in dismay, the sizeable population of Svalbard’s Russian and Ukrainian residents – many of whom have permanent homes in the Ukrainian provinces Putin is declaring “liberated” – are expressing concern mixed with a hopelessness that such feelings from afar can have any impact.
Russia test on Saturday of its new hypersonic Tsirkon missile was conducted for the first-time ever in waters near Svalbard, as the missile was launched from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov just east of Bjørnøya – in international waters, but inside Norwegian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The missile, which has a 1,000-kilometer range, has been tested several times during the past years elsewhere in the Barents Sea and White Sea regions.
The most recent test, according to Russia’s defense ministry, included all three legs of the nuclear triad with a land-launched nuclear missile, a nuclear-missile-armed submarine and nuclear-capable strategic aircraft.
“The tasks envisaged during the exercise of the strategic deterrence forces were completed in full, all missiles hit their targets, confirming the specified characteristics,” a statement from the Kremlin posted Saturday noted.
Norwegian officials, who have monitored Russia’s numerous military tests and other movements in areas near Svalbard with varying levels of concern – and a lack of concrete policy actions – are taking much the same approach with Saturday’s test.
“The Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile system falls into the category of ‘modern and sophisticated’ weapon systems,” Kristian Åtland, a senior research fellow with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, told The Independent Barents Observer. “If it has now been launched from Norway’s EEZ, this may indicate the beginning of a policy change with regard to the choice of test area. Whether this becomes a part of ‘the new normal’ in the High North remains to be seen.”
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an abstract political topic – and perhaps economic one, for those pondering the impacts of sanctions – the issue is far more personal for the Ukrainians and Russians who represent virtually all of the more then 400 residents of Svalbard’s Russian settlements (along with a relative few doing most tourism-oriented work in Longyearbyen).
But while many of those residents have families and homes in Donetsk and Luhansk regions – and remember how they were affected by Putin’s incursion into those areas in 2014 – they’re unable to do more than voice many of the same abstract opinions from afar as the rest of the world.
“The last two days my feed, probably, like many people, 90 percent consists of emotions about what is happening,” wrote Timofey Rogozhin, a longtime director of tourism operations in Barentsburg before recently starting a tourism company in Longyearbyen. He said he knows people from all over Russia as well as the two “liberated” Ukrainian regions and “they are all different. And they also have different views on the situation.”
But ultimately, Rogozhin added, “it doesn’t matter who I agree with, who I disagree with. And yes, alas, I’m powerless to change anything. And yes, I am ashamed of it.”
There are potential impacts on the Russian settlements and residents in Svalbard, depending on the form sanctions from the West take. Svalbardposten noted Gov. Lars Farse plans to ask questions during visits to Barentsburg this week and next about issues such as whether the ATM will be closed in Barentsburg, and whether it will be difficult to travel between Svalbard and Russia.
But he emphasized the plan for now is to “keep calm and carry on” as Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others track how the invasion and Russia’s other provocations in the north affect the archipelago.
As for how Russia’s leaders might respond to being personally targeted by sanctions from the West, Svalbard got a “viral” lesson in the spring 2015 when Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin made a controversial two-day trip to Svalbard and the North Pole – thumbing his nose at being banned from Western countries – during which he issued a multitude of taunting social media posts and declared “the Arctic is Russian Mecca.”
Svalbard’s 2,900 residents come from more than 50 countries and on Thursday scores of locals – including notables such as Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen – added Ukrainian flags to their Facebook and other social media profiles.
Among them was Anna Ivonina, a Longyearbyen tourism worker from Perm, Russia, who noted in her updated photo this is “the moment when you regret having a Russian passport.” In response to those who observed the invasion isn’t her fault or that of many other “normal” Russians, she wrote “I would rather not talk about normal or abnormal Russians, but about the feeling of involvement and impossibility to influence anything.”