Politics / World News

The Arctic is the New Far West

From Ukraine to Svalbard, a history of tense Russian-Norwegian relations

by Marie Baleo


A member of the Norwegian Armed Forces watches over the Russian border. Image © Mats Grimsæth / Norwegian Armed Forces via Forsvaret.no.

What is the Arctic? Alternately pictured as a collection of monumental ice cubes floating around a very large pond or as the inhospitable scenery in Fridtjof Nansen’s adventures aboard the Fram, the Arctic is, most of all, an invaluable economic treasure. An oil-, gas-, and mineral-rich haven for energetic exploration, the Great North is home to 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil resources (90 billion barrels) and 30% of the undiscovered natural gas reserves. Global warming-induced melting of Arctic sea ice is now opening up access to previously unreachable deposits and creating invaluable new shipping routes. In a world increasingly desperate for fossil fuel, it is no wonder the Arctic is at the forefront of several countries’ geopolitical and security concerns. Among the prime players with stakes above the Arctic Circle are the proverbial frenemies: Norway and Russia.

A song of ice and ire: the ups and downs of Norwegian-Russian relations

Although Russia helped liberate Norwegian Finnmark from Nazi control, the two countries were not exactly on friendly terms during the Cold War decades, and their shared border was often plagued with quarrels regarding oil and gas exploration and fisheries.

After the collapse of the USSR, Norway extended a friendly hand to Russia, with a view to strengthen its ties to its powerful neighbor. Russia, on its end, regarded Norway as an example of a successful country, ripe with socialist ideas that had allowed its population to reap the benefits of its energy rent[1]. Russian media championed Norway’s oil and gas exploitation policies and lauded the Norwegian state’s sound authority over the energy sector. The asymmetric relationship between Norway (current population: 5 million) and Russia (current population: 28 times that) improved significantly in the post-Cold War years, as did the amity between Arctic nations.

Indeed, in a bid to promote orderly cooperation on issues as diverse as resource development, fishing, shipping, tourism, and environmental preservation, those eight states with territories in the Arctic (the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Denmark[2], and Iceland) came together with representatives of local indigenous populations in 1996 to establish an intergovernmental forum on Arctic issues. Thus, the Arctic Council was born, aiming to “provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic[3].

Meanwhile, Russia and Norway’s relations appeared to thrive throughout the 2000s, based on the implicit understanding that, as prominent energy providers on a global scale, both countries shared an interest in increased energetic exploitation of the Arctic.

The year 2010 marked the apex of the bilateral relations, as the two countries put an end to four decades of negotiation by ratifying the Treaty concerning Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Norway and Russia had long had overlapping claims over a 175,000km2-area. The providential 2010 treaty governs Russian-Norwegian cooperation in the area of cross-border oil and gas, as well as fishing.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov sign the 2010 Treaty. Image © Jonas Karlsbakk via The Barents Observer.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov sign the 2010 Treaty. Image © Jonas Karlsbakk via The Barents Observer.

For 30 years, Norway had refrained from exploiting oil and gas in the disputed area, a moratorium lifted by the treaty. “I believe this will open the way for many joint projects, especially in the area of energy,”commented Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, while then Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg[4] called the occasion “a historic day,” a “breakthrough in the most important outstanding issue between Norway and the Russian Federation”.

Medvedev’s premonition came true; to mention only one of several Russian-Norwegian projects, Norwegian company Statoil and Russian Rosneft entered into a joint venture agreement in May 2012 to exploit deposits in Norway’s Barents Sea, and launched joint onshore and offshore projects in Russia[5].

Despite the renewed comity between Russia and Norway and the Arctic Council’s supervision, the Arctic continues to arouse generalized feelings of envy and greed. As early as 2012, Norway and Denmark reported increased spying activity in the North. The Norwegian Police Security Services’ Martin Bernsen told Norwegian daily Aftenposten that he could “confirm that we, like our Danish sister organization, are seeing increased activity by intelligence agencies in this area. We see that certain countries are actively trying to gain a foothold in the north.”[6] States and companies with stakes and activities in the Great North, with its bustling oil, gas and shipping activity, are natural targets for economic espionage.

The melting of the Arctic and the ensuing new shipping routes have not escaped Russia’s attention. In order to take advantage of this change, Russia has been conducting a massive upgrade of its military capabilities (military ports, search and rescue stations, airstrips) in the Arctic. Russia has made a point of showing off its military might before the other Arctic States. The country, whose military budget has been multiplied by 10 in the past 15 years, also increased intelligence operations in the Arctic, while Russian armed forces in the Arctic are scheduled to receive 150,000 tons of military supplies before the end of this year.

Chart © the Heritage Foundation, via Business Insider.

Chart © the Heritage Foundation, via Business Insider.

To top it off, Russia has carried out numerous military exercises in dangerously close proximity to its fellow Arctic Council Member-States. A Russian aircraft almost collided with a Norwegian plane, while two Russian bombers darted down the Norwegian coastline, all transponders off, and into the English Channel, where they ignited panic among civilian traffic and caused the British RAF to scramble.

But the final blow to Russian-Norwegian relations was to come from south of the Arctic circle: in March 2014, Russia violated international law by invading Ukraine, an act of war to which Norway, along with its European allies, has not taken lightly.

The Ukrainian game changer

Interviewed by CNN, Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide declared:

“We are faced with a different Russia. I want to warn against the fact that some people see this as something that is going to pass. The situation has changed. And it has changed profoundly. (There is) no going back to some sort of normality or some sort of back to normal business. Because that normality does not exist. (…) That does not mean that we will not have a cooperation with Russia. Norway has had for decades. We have [had] both a practical and pragmatic cooperation, and we still have a lot of it.”

A few days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Norway suspended all planned bilateral military activity with Russia for three months, a ban that was renewed indefinitely, causing the Russian army chief’s visit to Norway and bilateral talks on naval cooperation to be canceled. Five months later, Norway announced, unsurprisingly, that it would align itself with the European Union’s decision to enact measures against Russia.

These measures include a ban on the import and export of weapons and defense products, and on the purchase or sale of financial instruments issued by Russian institutions. Norway also suspended all exports to Russia of items used for deep-water oil exploration and production, Arctic oil exploration and production, or shale oil projects[7].

Meanwhile, in the mere year 2014, Norway intercepted as many as 74 Russian military airplanes off its coast; in contrast, a decade prior, in 2004, Norway had only observed eleven aircrafts[8]. In April 2014, Vladimir Putin revealed Russia was working on a new fleet of submarines and combat ships to be permanently deployed in the Arctic.

Russia’s renewed ardors in the Arctic have given rise to a climate of mild suspicion in Scandinavia, with the mysterious case of the Stockholm harbor submarine[9] spurring conspiracy theories that would not be out of place in a Tom Clancy paperback.

In response to these growing concerns, the Ministers of Defense of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland announced their joint decision to

“[…] Enhance the possibilities to monitor the development in our region. This includes both air- and sea- surveillance. The aim is to share information on activities in our air space, improve pre-warning communication and reduce the risk of unexpected events and possible misunderstandings. Moreover, we decided to continue exchanging information and experiences on how to counter cyber-attacks. In order to effectively act together in a possible future crisis, it is essential to be prepared through training, education and exercises.[10]

The Kremlin was reportedly quite irked by the declaration, which entails reinforced coordination through common military exercises and intelligence-sharing, as well as cooperation in the field of cybersecurity.

A Cold War reboot

In recent months, the Norwegian government has openly displayed its growing distrust of Russia and its appraisal of the potential threat Russia now constitutes. In its Annual Threat Assessment, PST (Politiets Sikkerhetstjeneste, the Norwegian Police Security Service) writes that:

The two states with which Norway has no security policy co-operation, and which at the same time represent the greatest intelligence-gathering capacity, are Russia and China. Of these, we assess Russian intelligence as having a greater potential to inflict harm on Norwegian interests. (…) The Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and Russia’s involvement in the political process in Ukraine, have also demonstrated that Russian authorities are willing to use force to achieve their objectives. The situation demonstrates that geopolitical and security stability cannot be taken for granted even in these times.

And further adds that:

Russian intelligence services are looking for information on Norwegian defence, security and civil protection. Norway is a member of NATO and makes up NATO’s border with Russia in the north of the Kola Peninsula. It is a region of military strategic importance to Russia. Russian intelligence is seeking information on Norway’s and NATO’s military capacity, activity and strategies. The insight provided by intelligence activity can strengthen Russia militarily. At the same time it can compromise both Norwegian and allied geopolitical and security interests. This insight can potentially be used to carry out acts of sabotage against Norwegian civil and military infrastructure.

However, reassuring voices in Norway insist that Russia is not a threat to the country, arguing that although Russia is increasing its military capabilities, there is currently no rationale for malevolent intent towards Norway.

Russian infantry carries out drills in the Russian Arctic. Image © Vladimir Sverkalov via Examiner.

Russian infantry carries out drills in the Russian Arctic. Image © Vladimir Sverkalov via Examiner.

Barbora Padrtová, Programme Director for Transition and Research Fellow at the Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs, shares these observers’ view, as she writes[11] that Russia’s continued efforts, since 2007, to modernize and increase its military power in the Arctic are not necessarily intended as a provocation to other Arctic States, although the fact that they are perceived that way is, de facto, leading to increased securitization in the area.

Indeed, Russia has a vested interest in maintaining peace in the Arctic. According to Padrtová[12], Russia “needs stability in its Northern territories to guarantee the necessary level of industrial and economical development. (The) Kremlin plans to transform the Arctic as a principal source of natural resources, which will fully meet the Russian needs, by 2020.

Economically, Russia cannot afford to test its relations with the West, straining its rapport to Western corporations in the oil and gas sector and cutting itself off from Western capital.

Similarly, Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS) General Lieutenant Kjell Grandhagen has commented that “it is difficult for the time being to see a rational reason for Russian military activity against Norway in a short to medium-term perspective[13].

However, just like PST, General Lieutenant Grandhagen also highlighted that “intentions can change over time, (and) there is today considerable uncertainty about Russias long-term development.

The Norwegian government has tackled this uncertainty head first by announcing, in April 2015, its plan to increase military spending by 3.6 billion Norwegian kroner (approximately 450 million US dollars). This budget will allow Norway to increase its military capabilities in the North, inter alia through the modernization of its tank squadron and the construction of an anti-aircraft battery[14].

All eyes on Svalbard

In recent months, Norway has grown increasingly concerned about the islands of Svalbard, its northernmost, demilitarized, and autonomous territory.

The Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920, which granted Norway full sovereignty over Svalbard, also allowed any state to freely exploit the archipelago’s resources. The USSR was the only country to seize this opportunity. It established a colony in Barentsburg, on the western shore of Svalbard’s largest island, Spitzberg. Russian company Arktikugol Trust is the raison d’être for the foundation of Barentsburg, where it has been extracting coal since 1932. Russian presence in Svalbard is facilitated by the fact that the islands, which are not part of the Schengen Zone, can be visited without a visa.

Today, progressively abandoned by Moscow, which once considered it its vitrine in Norway, Barentsburg has lost most of its Soviet sheen. The town of 400 (Russian and Ukrainian) souls, heavily dependent on the Russian mainland for food and currency, does not exactly feel like the rest of Norway: it sports a Lenin statue and murals enjoining mine workers to “use their strong hands to create heat and light”.[15]

Barentsburg sports center mural. Image in the public domain via Wikicommons.

Barentsburg sports center mural. Image in the public domain via Wikicommons.

In April 2015, the Norwegian government summoned the Russian Ambassador in Oslo to complain about Dmitry Rogozin’s quick hop to Svalbard. Rogozin, Russia’s deputy Prime Minister and head of the State Commission for Arctic Development, is persona non grata in Norway. He has been blacklisted following his involvement in Russia’s violation of international law in Ukraine. Norway had unambiguously expressed that Rogozin is not welcome on its territory.

A cheerful Rogozin abundantly tweeted and instagrammed his visit, a statement of bravado which did not please Norway. A selfie taken in Svalbard’s largest town, Longyearbyen, did not garner any likes from the Norwegian government.

Russia, always prompt to see NATO’s imprint, regards the Norwegian Svalbard Environmental Protection Act of 2001 as a move to hinder Russian mining operations in the archipelago. Russia is also critical of Norway’s operation of satellite stations and radars in Svalbard, which it considers a violation of the demilitarization principle, since Norway is required by the 1920 Treaty’s Article 9 not to use the archipelago for “war-like purposes”.

Although Norway has never stationed troops on the islands, Russia views Norwegian operations in Svalbard as a possible military tool for the United States and its NATO allies. In other words, Moscow considers Svalbard the perfect platform for NATO to eavesdrop on the Arctic and on Russia, the same NATO which the Kremlin’s chief propagandist (and Norwegian speaker) Dmitry Konstantinovich Kyselyov has called a “cancerous tumor”.

Experts have pointed out the unique vulnerability of Svalbard in the current context. For Russia, maintaining a foothold in Svalbard is militarily crucial in order to hinder Western use of the islands for military purposes as well as to remain an influential player in the Russian Arctic. To follow the balance of power between players in the Arctic, one would do well to keep a close eye on Svalbard.

A view of Svalbard in the early 2000s. Image © Marie Baleo.

A view of Svalbard in the early 2000s. Image © Marie Baleo.


[1] As noted in this IFRI report from 2007.

[2] Through its sovereignty over Greenland, Denmark is an Arctic State.

[3] As stated on the Arctic Council website.

[4] As quoted in Geopolitics North.

[5] Read more on Statoil’s website.

[6] As quoted in the Barents Observer.

[7] Official source: Norwegian government.

[8] Read more in the New York Times

[9] Read more about the incident in The Guardian.

[10] See this joint statement released in April 2015.

[11] Barbora Padrtová, Russian Military Build-up in the Arctic: Strategic Shift in the Balance of Power or Bellicose Rhetoric Only?, Arctic Yearbook 2014, http://www.arcticyearbook.com/images/Arcticles_2014/Padrtova_AY_2014_FINAL.pdf         

[12] Barbora Padrtová, Russian Military Build-up in the Arctic: Strategic Shift in the Balance of Power or Bellicose Rhetoric Only?, Arctic Yearbook 2014, http://www.arcticyearbook.com/images/Arcticles_2014/Padrtova_AY_2014_FINAL.pdf         

[13] As quoted in the Barents Observer.

[14] Read more in The Local.

[15] As reported by N by Norwegian.


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