Arne O. Holm says When the Arctic Conversation is Replaced By Loaded Weapons

Longyearbyen 10.10.22
Fall is slowly transitioning to winter in the Arctic, but the cold which accompanies this wonderful season is different this time. (Photo: Arne O. Holm).

(Commentary) Anchorage, Longyearbyen, Reykjavik: Fall is slowly transitioning to winter in the Arctic, but the cold which accompanies this wonderful season is different this time. The wind from the north is mild compared to the gust that hits us from Moscow and sends shivers down our spines. 

We who live in the north are used to dressing for cold and ice, but how do we protect ourselves from despots with blood on their hands?

Principles are tested

In Longyearbyen on Svalbard, principles are put to the test when the city's tourism industry takes a stand against the Russian state's tourism activities in the neighboring city of Barentsburg. A trip from Norway into Russia is the goal for most tourists who visit Svalbard.

It secures the economy of not only the internationally owned tourism groups such as Hurtigruten, which some still believe is Norwegian but also smaller, private companies that operate out of Longyearbyen.

Now, this unique shortcut between the East and the west will be closed. It is closed as a precise and necessary protest against the Russian state-owned mining company Trust Arktikugal.

Looking for a motive will only be speculative.

I have spent a few days with international researchers and experts in Longyearbyen. We have discussed Svalbard's place in the geopolitical powder keg which also hits the Arctic.

One of the questions is how strong the more than hundred-year-old Svalbard Treaty, which also grants rights to Russian citizens, is in a Europe at war.

Norwegian sovereignty

No one questions the Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago in the north. That is because of the Svalbard Treaty. However, researchers would not have been researchers if they did not explore the treaty's possible weaknesses.

And if such weaknesses in this historical construction exist, the next question will be how different nations might exploit them.

The question of a demilitarized Svalbard is central, i.a.

Without dialogue, fear grows.

Russia has claimed with irregular intervals that Norway is violating this prerequisite of the Svalbard Treaty. The claim was repeated as recently as this week. There is thus nothing new in Russia's accusations. Russia going to war against a neighboring country, however, is new.

A curious coincidence in time, perhaps, that Turkey, of all countries, simultaneously wants to sign the Svalbard Treaty, thereby triggering the right this grants the treaty countries.

A Turkey that flirts with Vladimir Putin and throws spanners into the works of Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO suddenly wants to play with the big boys, also in the Arctic.

North Korea and Turkey

The last time anyone signed the Svalbard Treaty, it was with the signature of North Korea's brutal dictator Kim Jong-un. In other words, democratic governance and beliefs are no common denominator for the heads of state who gather around the Svalbard Treaty.

Looking for a motive will only be speculative, but neither Kim Jong-un nor Recep Erdoğan are candidates for next year's peace prize.

Norway's answer to these and other challenges is to strengthen the control of the archipelago.

Too late, some say. Too much when it first comes, say others.

Foreigners in Longyearbyen, regardless of residence, are robbed of their right to vote. The state is buying up businesses and private property. The democracy that replaced the old mining town, The Company Town, as late as the 2000s, is being reversed at a rapid pace.

The society shall be Norwegianized. No one really knows if the experiment will be successful. There is no research that can tell us what happens when democratic rights are reversed and citizens are ranked according to nationality.

Ultimately, the question becomes who will remain on the island when the control mechanisms are tightened. Norwegians with the right to vote who no longer recognized their local community, or foreigners without the right to vote who do not care.

Lost the right to vote

When vacancies in the Svalbard tourism industry are advertised, the applicants almost solely have foreign passports in their pockets. Passports that according to the Svalbard Treaty grant them rights, but not the right to vote. 

About a week ago, I was in Alaska. Here, too, the war was the main topic of conversation. A strait, the Bering Strait, is all that separates Alaska from Russia. That and a lot of wilderness.

The other day, a couple of Russians crossed the strait in an open boat to find a safe harbor in America. The citizens of Alaska do not fear for their own safety. Each of them probably has more weapons in their private possession than a Russian soldier could ever carry.

But in the American administration, the Arctic strategy is being sharpened in step with Russia's military aggressiveness.

The Arctic cooperation has taken many steps back.

All dialogue between East and West, including the important talks that took place in the association of Arctic states, the Arctic Council, has broken down.

And without dialogue, fear grows, and thus also the militarization of Alaska. This applies to both the sea areas outside of the American state and the airspace above.

Weapons without dialogue

With their rational view of the world, the Finns have also put aside their Arctic strategy and quickly written a new one. A strategy with an ominous and dramatically rationale and conclusion:

"Stability (in the Arctic) will be based on military strength in the future. No dialogue," write the Finns, who also point to another visible drama in the Arctic:

Without cooperation with Russia, large parts of climate research will collapse.

I wrote that both Finland and the US have changed their Arctic strategies as a consequence of Russia's aggressiveness.

It is probably more correct to claim that they have put their Arctic strategies aside. They have put them in a drawer and replaced them with weapons.

The Arctic cooperation has taken many steps back, without anyone seeing an end to the total breakdown between East and West. 

Yesterday, I landed at the Keflavik airport a few miles outside of Reykjavik. It is a former American airbase, largely decommissioned as the Cold War faded into oblivion.

Now, the Americans are back on Iceland.

The rumbles are heard in the Arctic

In a few weeks or months, the sea ice in the fjords of Svalbard will freeze. There is often a slight crack in the tough ice when it struggles in the change between high tide and low tide.

Perhaps the fjords will not freeze this year because the Arctic is too warm.

The rumbles from the Russian bombs over Ukraine will not stop this winter anyhow.

And they can be heard all the way to the Arctic.

More from Arne O. Holm:

This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.