By Arab News
By Luke Coffey
During a conference on Arctic issues hosted this week by the Russian Geographical Society, Russian officials spoke of the need to increase scientific and educational cooperation “between Russia and friendly countries” in the High North.
To accomplish this, they proposed a new scientific center be established in the Arctic at the former Russian settlement of Pyramiden, on the Svalbard archipelago.
Ever since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, cooperation between the eight Arctic states has all but ceased, as the US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland have suspended cooperation with Russia. The main international forum for Arctic cooperation, the Arctic Council, has not met since then. With cooperation frozen, and no thaw insight, Russia has decided to pursue its own scientific program in the region.
The Svalbard archipelago is located well above the Arctic Circle, off the coast of Norway and about 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole. It has a small population of about 2,000 and is home to the northernmost permanently inhabited human settlement in the world.
As part of the series of international agreements that followed the First World War, Norway was granted sovereignty over the islands as part of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. However, the terms of the treaty allow any of its signatories to have nondiscriminatory access to the islands’ fishing, hunting and other natural resources. Those signatories can also use Svalbard for scientific and research purposes.
Since the 1920s, Russia has taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by the treaty. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained three settlements on Svalbard. One of them, Grumant, was abandoned in the 1960s. Another, Pyramiden, closed in 1998.
The only remaining active Russian settlement on Svalbard is a small coal-mining village called Barentsburg. Incredibly remote and home only to a few hundred people, it produces enough coal to sustain itself and no more. The main motivation for Moscow to maintain its settlement there is for reasons of national prestige; while the main activity of Barentsburg is coal mining, it also has a small scientific research center.
Russian officials have now proposed the establishment of a new scientific research center at the older settlement of Pyramiden, which is currently a ghost town. They say the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and Sauth Africa), are interested in participating in such an initiative, as are Turkiye and Thailand.
Unsurprisingly, Russia is not the only country conducting scientific research on the archipelago. In Longyearbyen, its capital, the Norwegian-funded University Centre in Svalbard caters to hundreds of students from dozens of countries who are carrying out Arctic research.
As a signatory to the Svalbard Treaty, China has conducted scientific research on Svalbard since 2004, at its Arctic Yellow River Station in Ny-Alesund. The US, too, has carried out scientific research on Svalbard but is not currently doing so.
It is unsurprising that Russia is attempting to step up its involvement in the Arctic. Emotionally, historically, culturally and economically, the region holds a very special spot in the hearts and minds of Russians. This dates back to the Great Northern Expeditions conceived by Russian Emperor Peter the Great in the first half of the 18th century, during which vast sums of money were allocated for massive scientific research expeditions across eastern Siberia.
In the more recent past, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the Arctic region as a low-risk way to promote Russian nationalism. In 2007, Artur Chilingarov, then a member of the Russian Duma, led a submarine exploration to the North Pole and planted a Russian flag on the seabed. Later he said: “The Arctic is Russian.” This is a sentiment shared by many in the country today.
Russia’s use of Svalbard to advance geopolitical aims is also no surprise. The military use of Svalbard is limited in peacetime due to restrictions placed on the region under the Svalbard Treaty, which demilitarized the islands. Even so, Russia and Norway regularly accuse each other of violating this demilitarization.
In 2015, just a year after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin paid a surprise visit to Svalbard’s airport in Longyearbyen and then traveled to Barentsburg, even though he was listed as being under sanctions and banned from entering Norway.
In 2016, Chechen special forces briefly landed at Longyearbyen airport on their way to military training exercises in the Arctic. The Norwegian government lodged an official protest about the stopover.
Last year, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Norway of “build(ing) up its military presence in the Svalbard archipelago,” after Norwegian coastguard ships were spotted off the coast.
The prospect of conducting scientific research in the Arctic is appealing for countries that are not located in the region. However, before teaming up with Russia it would be wise for such countries to consider other options. Any of the 46 countries — including faraway nations such as Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Afghanistan — that signed 1920 Svalbard Treaty have the right to conduct scientific research there.
As a recently published Arab News Research and Studies report on the Arctic stated: “It remains to be seen whether the Gulf states want to be a part of the Arctic debate. If they choose to, working though … the 1920 Svalbard Treaty (offers) opportunities.”
In this era of heightened tensions between Russia and the West, a place like Svalbard is one piece of a complex geopolitical puzzle. Russia’s recent announcement about plans to open a new research center there is just the latest example of this.
As other nations devote resources to securing their national interests in the Arctic region, globally minded Gulf states might not want to be left behind.
• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey