The Norwegian demarche over Rogozin's visit must have been at least a three-pronged trial to test the strength of Russia's approach to Spitsbergen, to show determination in defending its sovereignty to the electorate, and to confirm its commitment to Russia sanctions imposed by the EU and NATO partners. The Western appeal seems most interesting – should they express solidarity with Norway on its dissatisfaction about Rogozin's stopover, they would automatically support the Norwegian broad interpretation of the 1920 Treaty.
The Russia-Norway relationship has recently seen a surprising development.
According to media reports, on April 18, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin flew to the central Arctic to commission drifting station North Pole-2015 with a brief stopover on Norwegian archipelago Spitsbergen. The next day, Frode Andersen, Head of Communication at Norwegian Foreign Ministry called the event "regrettable", since Norway has warned Russia that individuals on the Crimea sanctions list are not welcome. The following day, Russia's ambassador in Oslo was called in to the local Foreign Ministry to provide an explanation.
Alexander Lukashevich from the Russian Foreign Ministry prudently responded that "under international law the Norwegian reaction was inexplicable and absurd", because neither the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty nor Norwegian legislation were violated, to which Oslo responded by saying that it was not interested in aggravating relations with Moscow, and the incident appeared settled, with no mention of the case on the Norwegian Foreign Ministry website.
In fact, Norway obtained sovereignty over Spitsbergen from the victorious states in World War One on special terms. Citizens of the states that signed the 1920 Treaty signee have the right to freely enter the archipelago for any commercial, scientific and other nonmilitary activities. As a result, at times the USSR Consulate in Spitsbergen has been manned by persons non grata in NATO or other U.S.-allied countries, because the Norwegians were powerless under law to turn them down.
Hence, the legal aspect of this case seems quite clear. But this is exactly why questions arise about the Norwegian Foreign Ministry’s motives and possible follow-up.
To this end, it would be an apt moment to describe the three diverse groups of motives driving Norway in its Arctic and Spitsbergen policies.
The first relates to Norway’s global positioning and its defense of traditional political and economic interests in the Far North.
Over the past decade, Oslo has been much more active in the Arctic than other countries. The Northern pivot first appeared under Kjell Olsson Bondevik’s right-of-center coalition in 2005 and was continued in 2005-2013 by the red-and-green cabinet of Jens Stoltenberg, who proclaimed the Subarctic the key priority of his domestic and foreign policies. During the past 18 months, the Erna Solberg’s right-wing coalition seems decisively set on the same track, with published documents pointing to a firm interparty consensus among the Norwegian leadership on the development and governance of the Arctic.
As far as Spitsbergen is concerned, all this means a hardening of the 1974 course toward the systemic expansion of Norway's jurisdiction over the archipelago and adjacent waters, to the considerable detriment of Russia's interests. Oslo's dynamism seems even greater given today’s heightened overall attention to the Arctic, as more countries reach out to Spitsbergen, such as the Chinese who have recently opened their own polar station.
At the same time, alongside national interests, there also are common concerns shared by Norway and Russia, who have been good neighbors in the preservation of the Barents Sea ecosystem and the rational development of its huge fish and hydrocarbon reserves. Working along these lines, even during the Cold War, the two countries established effective mechanisms for joint management of the fisheries, while in 2010 they peacefully resolved the 40-year-long territorial dispute through the delimitation of a 175-square-kilometer area.
Norway is right to care about this unique heritage. On April 10, Norway’s Foreign Minister Borge Brende wrote in the Verdens Gang daily: "The political environment notwithstanding, Russia will remain our neighbor. This is why we will keep cooperating with Russia in many areas, which is important for neighborly relations. We attach heightened importance to effective management of northern fisheries, nuclear security, protection of environment and search and rescue at sea."
But he also noted that the resumption of full-scale contact would "require changes in Russia's policies." In fact, Norway also has a Western-oriented third set of interests, which has driven the country to joining the anti-Russian sanctions. The underlying reasons not only lie in the longstanding NATO-based alliance with the United States and close economic ties with the European Union, but also in the natural fear of facing Russia in the North all alone, largely because of the 1944-1947 crisis, when Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov demanded a separate revision of the Spitsbergen Treaty.
During the Cold War, Norway and Turkey enjoyed the prestigious status of a NATO "flank country." The situation brought Norway enormous investments from the NATO infrastructure programs, which were effectively used both for military and civilian purposes. Hence, Norway suffers damages from the North’s reduced importance for NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union and would prefer to fuel controllable tensions with Russia in the Arctic.
Oslo has long found itself balancing between these often-mismatched interests, with the optimal scenario appearing to lie in free operation in the North, primarily in Spitsbergen and adjacent waters, or jointly with Russia, with overall support from its major NATO allies. However, this hardly seems suitable for others. It is not only Russia, but also Spain, Great Britain and self-governed Greenland that do not recognize the fishery zone around Spitsbergen Norway established in 1977. Several years ago, Britain’s Foreign Office convened an international conference on the issue, to which the Norwegians remained demonstratively uninvited.
Hence, the Norwegian demarche over Rogozin's visit must have been at least a three-pronged trial to test the strength of Russia's approach to Spitsbergen, to show determination in defending its sovereignty to the electorate, and to confirm its commitment to Russia sanctions imposed by the EU and NATO partners. The Western appeal seems most interesting – should they express solidarity with Norway on its dissatisfaction about Rogozin's stopover, they would automatically support the Norwegian broad interpretation of the 1920 Treaty.
Oslo appears to regard the statement of a principled position as being more important than practical results (although allied support may have been insufficient), which materialized in a change of attitude and easing tensions. To this end, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s reserved and distinct response was most appropriate both in substance and scope.
At the same time, it is worth recalling how Andersen said that Norway would consider ways to harden overall entry rules including Spitsbergen, meaning that the issue is far from being settled and that Norwegian steps toward the archipelago will continue to require close attention.