Russia’s and China’s Interest in Cold Svalbard Heats Up

Luke Coffey

When security matters in the Arctic Ocean are discussed, especially in the context of NATO and Russia, it is normally Greenland and Iceland which get a mention. However, Svalbard, a non-militarized Norwegian archipelago some five hundred nautical miles off the northern coast of Norway, should not be ignored especially given how active Russia and China are in that remote area.

This week marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Svalbard Treaty in 1920. As part of the various peace settlements after World War I, this treaty granted Norway sovereignty over these islands.

Svalbard is located well above the Arctic Circle. Longyearbyen is its capital and largest city. It has a population of twenty-one hundred. Svalbard is also home to Ny Ålesund, the world’s northernmost permanently inhabited place (with a population of thirty-five).

Although Norway was awarded sovereignty, the terms of the Svalbard Treaty allowed any of the treaty’s signatories to have non-discriminatory access to the islands’ fishing, hunting, and natural resources. These countries included major powers, such as Russia, the United States, the UK, and China, as well as countries far from the Arctic, such as Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and even Afghanistan. In total, some forty-six countries enjoy equal access to Svalbard’s natural resources.

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