A Case Study of Russia’s Arctic Posture

Alex Kostin
Monday, February 14, 2022, 9:01 AM

Russian attempts to gain access to Svalbard’s continental shelf are an example of President Putin’s domination game in the Arctic.

Lenin statue in Barentsburg, Svalbard (Taver, https://www.flickr.com/photos/taver/35355904510; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/)

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The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, known as Spitzbergen in Russia, is a group of inhospitable, desolate Arctic islands. The nearest city, Tromsø, is 1.5 hours away by plane. In Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s center, reindeer share the road with 2,600 residents, and people do not venture out of town without rifles for fear of bear encounters. In Barentsburg, a former Russian coal mining town, Russian barracks-style buildings crowd around the square where a huge bust of Lenin, a relic from Soviet times, stares blankly at the ice-covered bay. 

It is unlikely that Russia has any interest in Svalbard’s almost depleted coal, its Northern Lights snowmobile tours or Longyearbyen’s brewery. It has a keen interest, however, in drilling in Svalbard’s continental shelf, with its tremendous untapped deposits of copper, zinc, gold, rare metals, oil and gas. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Arctic 2035 strategy road map shows that, in the short run, Russia is not giving up its attempts to get access to Svalbard’s continental shelf. In the long run, it appears that Russia might even be entertaining the idea of annexing the islands for military and economic purposes. Yet, Norway and NATO have the tools at their disposal to resist Russian encroachment. More importantly, Russia’s aggressive actions and rhetoric targeting Svalbard in early 2020 and the subsequent response from Norway and NATO offer lessons for policymakers looking to maintain strategic stability in the Arctic.

To accomplish its short-term goal of accessing the shelf, Russia currently uses what I describe as an infolawfare strategy, a term that I coined based on my analysis of Russian actions. Essentially, infolawfare involves aspects of both lawfare, using the law to attempt to gain an operational or strategic advantage over an adversary, and infofare or information operations, often in the form of propaganda, to shape an adversary’s actions and public opinion at home and abroad. In terms of lawfare, Russia uses a combination of high-stakes diplomatic and legal challenges to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, which formed the current legal landscape of the islands. Russia also engages in infofare with coordinated propaganda and official statements challenging Norway’s jurisdiction. Russia asserts that Norway’s policies violate the treaty and discriminate against Russia. Russia further cites its historical claims to the islands, and the Kremlin’s propaganda even hints that Russia might take the islands by force if Norway does not agree to accede to its treaty-based claims.

To understand the unique characteristics of Svalbard’s legal status, it is necessary to briefly review the Svalbard Treaty’s tenets. Signed by 46 parties, including Norway and Russia, the treaty unambiguously confirms that Norway has “full and absolute sovereignty” over Svalbard, subject to narrow stipulations. Norway is obligated to ensure equal fishing and hunting rights for all the signatories’ nationals. Per the treaty, Norway has single authority to maintain and preserve the environment on the archipelago and in its territorial waters. Such environmental measures must also apply equally to the signatories’ nationals. Subject to Norwegian laws, the signatories’ citizens have equal rights to access the islands. Also subject to Norwegian laws, they may, on an equal basis, conduct maritime, industrial, mining, and commercial operations on land and in the territorial waters of Svalbard. Norway is also obligated to provide its mining regulations for the signatories’ nationals based on the equality principle. Additionally, Norway agreed not to allow the establishment of any naval bases or the construction of any fortifications on Svalbard, which may never be used “for warlike purposes.” The treaty does not cover or mention Svalbard’s continental shelf or economic activities there, nor does it address whether Svalbard’s shelf is a continuation of Norway’s mainland shelf. Consequently, considering its absolute sovereignty over Svalbard, Norway considers Svalbard’s shelf a continuation of its mainland continental shelf with the corresponding prohibitions against foreign activities there.

Norway’s reasonable position is that, per the treaty’s terms, its sovereignty over Svalbard is undisputed, and Svalbard is “as Norwegian as any region on the mainland.” As a result, Norway refuses to consult with other countries about issues that are not enumerated in the treaty. Norway emphasizes that it abides by the treaty’s obligations to treat the signatories’ citizens equally in regard to hunting and fishing within Svalbard’s 12-mile zone of territorial waters, while allowing them to access the archipelago to conduct certain business activities. Its position is that, under the treaty, the right to equal treatment is not equivalent to the right of access, and per well-established maritime law, equal treatment applies only to territorial waters and not to the continental shelf.

In sharp opposition to the Norwegian position, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s executive orders show that Russia wishes to obtain access to the mineral- and oil-rich Svalbard continental shelf. A reading of Putin’s Arctic road map demonstrates that, at a minimum, getting access to lucrative mineral deposits in Svalbard’s continental shelf is one of his priorities. Moreover, the road map directly addresses perceived international encroachment on Russia’s economic activities. Putin’s March 5, 2020, Order No. 164, “On the Foundations of the Russian Federation’s State Policies in the Arctic for the Period Until 2035,” lists the following as the top Russian national security challenges in the Arctic:

Attempts by a number of foreign countries to revise the foundations of international treaties that regulate economic and other activities in the Arctic and create the system of national legal regulation without consideration of such agreements and regional formats of cooperation[,] … incompleteness of international legal maritime delimitations in the Arctic[,] … [and] obstruction to the realization of the Russian Federation’s lawful economic and other activities in the Arctic by foreign states and (or) international organizations[.]

Among Russia’s top international cooperation priorities, the executive order includes “ensuring Russian presence on Spitzbergen archipelago on conditions of mutually beneficial cooperation on equal terms with Norway and other participant countries of the 9 February 1920 Treaty on Spitzbergen” and “preservation of interaction with Arctic states regarding delimitation of the Arctic Ocean’s continental shelf, taking into consideration the national interests of the Russian Federation[.]”

The meaning of these statements becomes clearer when read in conjunction with Putin’s October 26, 2020, Order No. 645, “On the Russian Federation’s Arctic Zone Development Strategy and Ensuring National Security to 2035.” In its international cooperation section, Order No. 645 mirrors Order No. 164’s wording about the Russian presence on Svalbard and lists the following as key priorities: “international legal registration of the external border of the [Russian] continental shelf [and] … protection of national interests and realization of the rights provided by international acts [to Russia] as a coastal state in the Arctic, including exploration and resource development of the continental shelf[.]” (emphasis added)

In light of Russian attempts to gain access to Svalbard’s shelf in February 2020 (described below), the comparison of these two orders with other Russian and foreign open-source documents reveals Russia’s aggressive use of lawfare tactics to force Norway to cede access to the continental shelf. It strongly suggests that Putin’s plans include, in the short run, gaining unfettered access to Svalbard’s continental shelf. Norway would retain formal jurisdiction over the islands themselves, since Russia is not interested in this. Access to mineral resources, therefore, is the primary driving force behind these plans. Order No. 645 states that current Arctic drilling provides 81 percent of Russia’s gas and 17 percent of its oil. It also makes clear that Russia wants to dramatically increase its oil and gas production in the Arctic. Unsurprisingly, by the time Order 645 was published in October 2020, Russia had already launched an infolawfare attack to push Norway to hand over drilling rights in the continental shelf.

Certainly, valid legal arguments based on the treaty’s language and international maritime law can be made for or against Norway’s position that it has exclusive jurisdiction over Svalbard’s continental shelf. However, Russia has thus far chosen not to challenge Norway’s position in the international courts. It is possible that the Kremlin is concerned that its position would be found legally unsustainable. Yet, it is more likely that Russia simply wants quick results. The last time Russia proved willing to negotiate, the Kremlin signed a mutually beneficial treaty with Norway delimiting the two countries in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. But this process lasted for decades, and the end result has had no bearing on Svalbard’s continental shelf access. Therefore, ratcheting up pressure on Norway is a means to achieve Russia’s short-term goals while avoiding another round of prolonged negotiations.

In February 2020, just as Norway was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the treaty, Russia mounted an aggressive diplomatic assault on Norway. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed in his message to the Norwegian foreign minister that Russia has free access to Svalbard and can conduct “economic activities on conditions of full equality,” despite the treaty’s silence on the continental shelf, much less drilling into it. Lavrov told Norway to sit down to negotiate “removing limits on Russian activities”—an overture clearly aimed at allowing Russian continental shelf drilling. He stated that Russia had long-term plans of diversification and modernization and had no intention of cutting down its presence, a thinly veiled threat that Russia would drill with or without Norwegian permission. Norway’s refusal to discuss the drilling or to consult with other countries about how to govern its territories triggered the immediate infofare phase of Russia’s campaign for dominance in the Arctic.

It is not difficult to see how Norway’s insistence on its full sovereignty over Svalbard concomitant with full control of its shelf is, in Putin’s eyes, a major national security challenge to Russia. The Kremlin believes that Norway is “attempting to revise” the treaty and “obstruct” Russian “lawful economic activities” in Svalbard. Russian actions are rooted in the Kremlin’s general attitude that it is surrounded by aggressive NATO members whose goal is to diminish Russia’s ascent to the preeminent role in the Arctic.

Russia’s Federation Council—the Russian parliament upper house, which is completely beholden to the president—issued a report entitled “Challenges of Ensuring of Russian Federation’s Arctic Zone National Security” prior to Putin’s Orders Nos. 164 and 645. This report illustrates that Russia’s beliefs are based on false, unproven assumptions. The report alleges that Russia will be the world leader in the Arctic. It also claims that the U.S., Norway, Canada and Denmark are rapidly making additional continental shelf claims “to weaken and stop the growth of Russian influence in the Arctic”; Norway is seeking to change Svalbard’s demilitarized status, establish its unrestricted jurisdiction over Svalbard and include it in NATO’s operation zone by building dual purpose objects; and Norway wants to “completely push Russia off” Svalbard and relegate Russia by force out of fishing areas in the Barents and Norway Seas (all emphasis added).

Potential military use of Svalbard might be another unspoken reason for Russia’s actions. None of its government publications openly admit that Russia is at least thinking about the possibility of repeating the 2014 Crimean scenario on Svalbard (of course, Russia has a much higher threshold to take action in such a case since annexing Svalbard would be a direct challenge to Article V, while the Crimean annexation was a challenge to international norms). However, a careful reading of Russian semi-official sources and its propaganda provides indirect clues that this could be the case. The 2014 Crimean annexation demonstrated to the world that, when Russia wishes to annex its neighbor’s territory because of its perceived strategic importance, it starts pushing false narratives about its historical claims. For example, in an article published on the official site of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2020, Igor Khalevinsky, the chairman of the Russian diplomats’ association, acknowledges that Svalbard is of exceptional strategic military importance to Russia because it is “essentially the gates to the Arctic.” He also emphasizes that Svalbard’s position allows it to control navigation and air traffic in the Arctic Ocean, and he points out that, in the 20th century, the Soviet Union repeatedly asked Norway to allow its military forces on the islands.

Semi-official Kremlin sources and a review of Russian government-controlled propaganda outlets show that, more likely than not, Russia is considering such tactics. For example, the historical claim theme was developed in the aforementioned article, alleging it was Russia, not Norway, that was one of the first claimants to Svalbard, and asserting that Svalbard was designated as “Sacred Russian Islands” on old Russian maps. Following Lavrov’s unsuccessful diplomatic assault on Norway, Sergey Gushchin, Russian general consul in Svalbard, alleged in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, an official government paper, that Svalbard is Russian, as it is “covered by the blood and sweat of our ancestors.” Several other media outlets made threats that, in the future, Russia will have no option left except taking Svalbard by force, since its diplomatic efforts are not paying off.

In this case, after the unsuccessful diplomatic assault in early 2020, the propaganda phase commenced. The information war phase is applied by the Kremlin when it wishes to increase pressure and unsettle its opponent as well as shape public opinion at home and abroad. In this phase, aggressive statements and false allegations are made by Russian government officials and propaganda outlets. Such statements are generally made by officials of lower ranks when the Kremlin decides that heavyweights like Putin or Lavrov are to stay above the fray. Lower-ranking state officials are given wide leeway to come up with undiplomatic, threatening, disrespectful or false messages. The constant themes for such pronouncements are that (a) Russia is being pushed to defend itself as the victim of NATO massing on its borders; (b) Western countries are pursuing increasingly anti-Russian (“Russo-phobic”) policies cultivated by their governments, NATO, and the U.S.; and (c) Russia has historical rights to territories that it wants. Immediately following Norway’s rebuff, Maria Zakharova, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, alleged that Norway is “essentially” violating the treaty. On its social media accounts, the Russian Embassy in Norway claimed that Norway had violated the treaty by denying Russians access to shelf drilling and that Svalbard is not historically Norwegian and only became Norwegian per the treaty. An infamous Russian parliamentarian, Frants Klintsevich, stated in an interview that the Norwegian reaction was a “real provocation” and that “we [Russians] proved that Svalbard still belongs to Russia.”

Only days after Norway rebuffed Lavrov’s lawfare assault, the Russian government launched another assault through its controlled media outlets, using the same underlying themes. The Russian media response shows an interesting spectrum of what Russian media outlets are allowed to present, considering that almost all media is directly or indirectly controlled by the government or oligarchs close to the Kremlin. Russia’s foreign propaganda outlet RT published several articles immediately following Norway’s refusal to negotiate. For example, its “experts” falsely claimed that Norway is intentionally preventing Russia’s lawful economic activity (that is, continental shelf drilling). They also claimed that Norway is planning to rewrite the treaty, thereby purposefully limiting Russia’s activities when the treaty does not allow limits on the signatories. Moreover, they argued that Norway’s foreign policy is becoming increasingly anti-Russian and that Norway is planning to increase its military presence in the Arctic. Several Russian semi-official sources and news outlets, while not directly saying that, developed a theme of “Russia has historical claims to Svalbard that it might have to take by force if it has to”—a theme eerily similar to the statements of historical rights to Crimea that Russia made during and after the 2014 Crimea annexation.

The 2020 Svalbard case shows that careful analysis of the foundational assumptions and security priorities in Russian presidential strategies will help with planning for the occurrence of future Russian infolawfare attacks. Putin is sending a message via his Arctic strategy that Russia puts tremendous emphasis on the increase of oil, gas and mineral production in the Arctic. If its past actions predict its future actions, it will use a combination of diplomatic, informational, and legal tactics against NATO members in the Arctic again. Russia is likely to seek access to additional sources of gas and oil where treaties and international agreements are silent. In such cases, Russia sees an opportunity to make the first move with a lawfare assault, as it did with Norway using the language of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty.

The combined NATO and Norwegian response to Russian aggression in 2020 serves as an important lesson on how to respond to such assaults. Norway and NATO stood up to Moscow’s pressure. Norway responded firmly to Lavrov’s initial diplomatic assault, reiterating that since Svalbard is a part of Norway, it was not necessary for Norway to discuss its governance with other countries. Firm statements by Norway, in conjunction with NATO’s assurances of protection, most likely had a chilling effect on whatever flirtation the Kremlin might have had with repeating the Crimean scenario. At the same time, neither Norway nor NATO exhibited a strong reaction to Russia’s infofare phase. Instead, they ignored Russian propaganda noise and issued threats of military force.

Policymakers can also look to Russian pressure on Svalbard in 2020 as a case study in addressing Russia’s false claims and assumptions. Norway and NATO maintained open channels of communication and engaged in constant dialogue with Russia, while directly addressing the false assumptions. Moreover, both NATO and Norway demonstrated that they have none of the plans in place that the Kremlin alleges. This continued transparency might help lower the tension in the Arctic and prevent future infolawfare attacks from happening. Most importantly, both sides must come to the table. Otherwise, any move that Norway takes in furtherance of its position on Svalbard, or any move NATO takes to signal an increased presence to counter aggressive moves by Russia, will only become self-fulfilling prophecies for Russia.

The final lesson from the 2020 Svalbard case is the importance of identification and addressing Russia’s security concerns directly. In 2021, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to protect its vital interests in the Arctic. It is also important for NATO to consider legitimate Russian interests in the Arctic. For example, Putin’s strategy makes it clear that increasing the volume of goods shipped via the Northern Passage is a key priority for Russia’s Arctic development. In June 2021, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, delivered a speech emphasizing that Russia has “all necessary means to ensure the safety of the Northern Sea Route navigation.” Thus, as it did in 2020 in response to Russia’s diplomatic, informational, and legal assault, NATO should reassure Russia that it will protect its interests in the Arctic, while also making assurances that it has no plans to attack Russia’s Northern Sea Route. Another reasonable strategy would be to follow the suggestion of the authors of the May 2021 Moscow Carnegie Center report, “Russia in the Arctic—A Critical Examination.” This report recommends pursuing multinational agreements to prevent crises and conflicts that can be caused by human error. Such deescalation and crisis management steps could, as a November 2018 Kennan Institute article suggests, be critical in ensuring that “Moscow does not come to view [preemptive attack in the Arctic] as its best option.” This is particularly true in light of the Russian military leadership’s message to NATO that it recognizes and wants to minimize the risk of inadvertent military confrontation in the Arctic.

Alex Kostin is an attorney with the U.S. Army, National Security Law Division. The views expressed in this article are those of the author in his personal capacity and should not be understood as representing those of the Department of the Army or any other United States government entity.

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