Luke Coffey is Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Some are having fun with Alan Duncan’s diary revelation that Tobias Ellwood suggested, back in 2017, that the United Kingdom purchase a piece of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago located well above the Arctic Circle.
In a diary entry dated Wednesday, February 1, Sir Alan writes “[Tobias] Ellwood has a nutty proposal that the UK should buy Svalbard, the archipelago between Norway and the North Pole — he wants it to become a UK spaceport. He’s bonkers.”
I have known Tobias Ellwood for almost most 15 years, and I consider him a friend. From 2006-11, I worked with him either directly or indirectl – first in the House of Commons, before the 2010 election; and then after it at the Ministry of Defence for a year, when Tobias was Liam Fox’s PPS and I was his Special Adviser.
I will say this about Tobias: although he may be unconventional in his thinking at times, he is one of the most creative and strategically thinking Members of Parliament with whom I ever worked or engaged.
The recent revelations that he suggested that the UK get a seat at the Arctic table by “purchasing” a piece of Svalbard is not as crazy as it might sound. The United Kingdom is the country closest in the world to the Arctic Circle that is not an Arctic country. The UK has been an observer state in the Arctic Council since 1998. Geographically and historically, the UK is a northern European country. It has a very close relationship with Norway and Denmark – both Arctic states. It makes perfect sense that the UK would want to increase this presence in the Arctic region.
As Defence Secretary, Liam was one of the most forward-thinking ministers when it came the importance of the Arctic. In 2010, I was in the room with him at a NATO meeting in Brussels when he came up with the idea of the Northern Group. The Northern Group consists of the five Nordic countries, the three Baltic States, the UK, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands. It serves as an important forum to coordinate and cooperate on shared geopolitical concerns. The Northern Group still meets to this day and the Arctic is a major focus.
In 2011, I accompanied Liam on a trip to Svalbard – the first for a UK cabinet minister in recent memory. The Russians protested. The Norwegians loved it. And because of this trip, the British government got a better understanding on many of the challenges and opportunities faced above the Arctic Circle.
Svalbard is located well above the Arctic Circle, and has a small population of 2,100. Although Norway enjoys sovereignty over the islands, the terms of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty allowed any of the treaty’s signatories to have non-discriminatory access to the islands’ fishing, hunting, and natural resources.
These countries include 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. Therefore, the premise of Tobias’s proposal is built on sound international law. As a signatory of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, the UK has the right to set up shop in Svalbard if it chooses to.
As we enter an era of great power competition it is worth pointing out that both Russia and China have taken advantage of their access to Svalbard. At the height of the Cold War, Russians accounted for two-thirds of Svalbard’s population, totaling two thousand people in the 1960s, a number that has declined to under five hundred today. Russia has been mining coal on Svalbard since 1913. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained three settlements on Svalbard. One at Grumant was closed in 1961. Another at Pyramiden was closed in 1998 but still holds the record of the northernmost statue of Lenin in the world.
The last remaining settlement, located in Barentsburg, is still active today. Curiously, considering the remoteness of its location, Barentsburg even boosts a Russian consulate. Travelers there find their mobile phone switches to a Russian carrier upon arrival. These settlements have always been more about national prestige for Russia and never produced that much coal. Even the settlement in Barentsburg today only produces enough coal to sustain itself.
As a signatory of the Svalbard Treaty, China conducted scientific research on Svalbard and has done so since 2004 at its Arctic Yellow River Station located in Ny Ålesund. This science center is one of several scientific research stations in the Arctic operated by China.
The military use of Svalbard is limited in peacetime due to the restrictions placed on the region under the Svalbard Treaty, which demilitarized the islands. Article 9 of the Svalbard Treaty states:
“Subject to the rights and duties resulting from the admission of Norway to the League of Nations, Norway undertakes not to create nor to allow the establishment of any naval base in the territories specified in Article 1 and not to construct any fortification in the said territories, which may never be used for warlike purposes. The non-militarized nature of the islands is under constant debate.”
During the Cold War, there was concern that the Soviets could use the settlements to preposition military hardware in violation of the terms laid out in the Svalbard Treaty.
Even in more recent times, Russia blurs the lines. In 2015, just after the Ukraine crisis got underway, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitry Rogozin, conducted a surprise visit to Svalbard’s main airport in Longyearbyen and then went on to Barentsburg, even though he was listed as being under sanctions and banned from entering Norway.
In 2016, Chechen special forces landed at Longyearbyen airport en route to Russia’s Barneo ice-base in the Arctic. At the time, the Norwegian government protested to show its displeasure.
The geostrategic location of Svalbard, especially in terms of its proximity to the Kola Peninsula, home of Russia’s Northern Fleet, is not lost on the Russians, either. In 2017, the Russian defense ministry reportedly highlighted Svalbard as a potential area of future conflict for the Russian navy. During a major Russian military exercise that same year, one of the scenarios reportedly played out by the Russian military was its invasion and capture of Svalbard.
At a minimum, the United Kingdom should consider the use of Svalbard for any required scientific needs. Due to its location in the Arctic region and its particular environmental conditions, Svalbard is very attractive for scientific research.
As the recently published Integrated Review stated about the UK and the Arctic: “We will also maintain a significant contribution to Arctic science, focused on understanding the implications of climate change. We are committed to working with our partners to ensure that increasing access to the region and its resources is managed safely, sustainably and responsibly.” What better place to do this than in Svalbard? This is an excellent way for the United Kingdom to “fly the flag” in a region with significant geopolitical importance.
Only the geopolitically inept would think that Tobias’s proposal for the UK to get more involved in Svalbard is crazy. British politicians should recognize the geostrategic importance of Svalbard’s location the growing importance of the Arctic region. The Russians are present in Svalbard. The Chinese are there too. Why not the British? Tobias has a point.