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POLITICS

NATO’s ‘Arctic Achilles heel’ in Norway eyed up by China and Russia

The Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is seen as a strategic and economic bridgehead not just for Moscow but also for Beijing.

Tourists visit Barentsburg.
In this file photo tourists walk on the snow as they visit the miners' town of Barentsburg, on the Svalbard Archipelago, northern Norway. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/ AFP.

Russian flags flap in the stiff polar breeze, a bust of Lenin looms out of the snow and a vast slogan declares, “Communism is our goal!”

No, this is not some time warp Soviet settlement lost in the Arctic wastes, but a corner of Norway where Moscow can — theoretically at least — mine, build, drill and fish what it likes.

Welcome to Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago and “NATO’s Achilles heel in the Arctic”.

These spectacular islands of glaciers and mountain peaks halfway between Norway and the North Pole are a strategic and economic bridgehead not just for Moscow but also for Beijing.

All because of one of the most bizarre and little-understood international treaties ever concluded, which gives Norway sovereignty but allows the citizens of 46 countries to exploit the islands’ potentially vast resources on an equal footing.

Which is why 370 Russians and Ukrainian miners from the Donbass work in Barentsburg, a cut-off corner of Spitsbergen where the Soviets dug coal for decades and where it is pitch dark for nearly three months of the year.

“Spitsbergen has been covered with Russian sweat and blood for centuries,” Moscow’s consul Sergey Gushchin said.

“I’m not arguing that it’s not Norwegian territory but it’s part of Russian history,” he added.

He makes no attempt to hide that some Ukrainians have left since the Russian invasion in February.

Moscow has long wanted a bigger say in the archipelago which has been a haunt of its hunters, whalers, fishermen since the 16th century

It also insists on calling the islands by the original Spitsbergen rather than the Norwegian Svalbard, the official name since shortly after the treaty handing them to Norway was signed in 1920 while Russia was otherwise engaged with the civil war between Reds and Whites.

This file photo taken shows a monument to Lenin in front of a building during a blizzard in the miners’ town of Barentsburg, on the Svalbard Archipelago, northern Norway. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP

Nuclear submarines

Nuclear submarines from Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet also have to pass close to Svalbard’s southernmost Bear Island to get into the North Atlantic.

Russia’s “main interest is to avoid a situation (where) others use (the islands) offensively,” said political scientist Arild Moe of Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

To make sure that happens they “maintain a reasonable presence and are very attentive to what is going on,” he added.

After failing to get joint authority of the islands at the end of World War II, Russia is now pushing — without much success — for “bilateral
consultations” to lift the brakes on its activities.

With its mines losing money for years, it has diversified into tourism and scientific research.

But with no road to the capital Longyearbyen, visitors have to come to Barentsburg by boat or snowmobile — depending on the season — to admire what was for decades a Soviet showpiece on the Western side of the Iron Curtain.

Barentsburg holds onto its Soviet relics “not because we still have hope for communism but because we value our heritage — and tourists also like taking pictures” of themselves with them, said Russian historian and tourist guide Natalia Maksimishina.

Ringfencing the Russians

Moscow accuses Norway of using environmental protection to hamstring its ambitions, with Russian helicopter flights for instance strictly controlled.

“We started to put nature reserves around Russian sites,” admitted former diplomat Sverre Jervell, the architect of Norwegian policy in the Barents Sea which separates the islands from Norway and Russia.

“Particularly after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR when Barentsburg struggled to stay afloat.”

This “wasn’t officially” done to curtail the Russians, Jervell said, but in reality that is what happened. “Of course we had good arguments, the environment is very fragile,” he said. And Norway was treaty-bound to protect the islands’ nature. “But we particularly protected the areas around Russian sites.”

With another Soviet mining operation at Pyramiden, there was actually more Russians than Norwegians on the islands at the end of the Cold War. Moscow regularly accuses Oslo of violating one of the most important articles of the 1920 treaty which effectively makes Svalbard a demilitarised zone.

It protests every time a Norwegian frigate docks or NATO lawmakers visit, and is particularly wary of the gigantic Svalsat satellite station near Longyearbyen.

On a windy plateau near the Global Seed Vault — a “Noah’s Ark” where 1,145,693 seed varieties are frozen in case of catastrophe — some 130 antennae covered by giant golf-ball domes communicate with space. They also download data from military satellites, Moscow suspects.

In January, one of two fibre optic cables linking Svalsat with the mainland was mysteriously damaged. Russia too has been accused of taking liberties with the treaty, like when its then deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin — who had been sanctioned by Europe over the annexation of Crimea — turned up unannounced in Svalbard in 2015.Or when Chechen special forces made a stopover there the following year on their way to a military exercise close to the North Pole.

Even if experts rule out any repeat of what happened in Crimea in Svalbard, they expect a reaction because of the chill caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Svalbard is sensitive to the general international climate,” said Norwegian analyst Moe. “It is somewhere where Russia can easily express its dissatisfaction by putting Norway under pressure.”

In this file photo a sign in Russian reading 'Communism is our goal' is pictured in front of a building with Russian flags flapping in the blizzard, in the miners' town of Barentsburg, on the Svalbard Archipelago, northern Norway.

In this file photo a sign in Russian reading ‘Communism is our goal’ is pictured in front of a building with Russian flags flapping in the blizzard, in the miners’ town of Barentsburg, on the Svalbard Archipelago, northern Norway. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP.

‘Neutralising NATO’

Svalbard is “the Achilles heel of NATO in the Arctic”, said James Wither, a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany, because its distance from mainland Norway and “peculiar legal status provides a range of possible pretexts for Russian intervention.

“Although the danger of a direct military confrontation remains low, Svalbard is particularly vulnerable to a Russian gamble that offers the strategic payoff of advancing Russia’s long-term objectives of dividing the West and neutralising NATO,” the former British Army officer wrote in 2018.

Norway tries to play down Russian grievances, saying that they are far from new and insists that its sovereignty over the islands is no different to any other part of its territory.

Praised for his rapport with his Russian opposite number Sergei Lavrov when he was foreign minister between 2005 and 2012, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store is an apostle of Oslo’s “High North, low tensions” doctrine.

“I would not say that we are being tested,” he said, “but there is growing interest in the Arctic from countries from there and from afar.”

“We wish to see the communities in Svalbard developed when it comes to new activities, research, (and) tourism… and that will be done in a transparent fashion,” he added.

Even so, Norway spent 300 million kroner (33.5 million euros) in 2016 buying a huge estate near Longyearbyen, the only one in private hands in the archipelago.

The government justified the expense saying they “wanted the land to be Norwegian” given the supposed interest of foreign, and notably Chinese, investors.

Russia has been quick to play on fears of the arrival of new powers like China.

“If we leave Spitsbergen, then who might come in our place?” said the Russian consul Gushchin from his impressive residence on a hill overlooking Barentsburg. “It might be China for example, or the United States or any member state of the Spitsbergen Treaty.”

China planting flag

Like its high-latitude neighbours Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, Svalbard seems to be in China’s sights. Indeed it now defines itself as a “near-Arctic” state and wants to establish a “Polar Silk Road”. 

With the region heating up three times faster than the planet, shrinking ice floes are opening up economic opportunities and maritime routes, although some are more theoretical than real.

With new fishing grounds and easier access to potential resources like oil and gas fields, everyone is trying to get a foot in the door.

It is hard to miss China’s Institute of Polar Research in Spitsbergen’s third biggest settlement Ny-Alesund, a former mining community now given over to international science.

Two marble lions — symbols of imperial China — guard the entrance of the Norwegian-owned building known as the Yellow River Station by its occupants.

It is a flagrant example of “flag showing”, according to Torbjorn Pedersen, a political scienctist from Norway’s Nord University in Bodo.

“Some foreign capitals… cast their presence there as national stations and strategic footholds, potentially entitling them to political power and influence on the islands and in the wider Arctic region,” he wrote in the Polar Journal last year.

“Some of the research presence in Svalbard may seem geopolitically motivated,” Pedersen added.

“If consolidated, the strategic presence could potentially embolden some… including great powers, with regional aspirations and become a real security challenge for host nation Norway.”

Oslo takes a dim view of “scientific diplomacy” more suited to Antarctica than a sovereign nation.

In 2019 it began trying to discourage the idea of national research stations from which countries could fly their flag in favour of sharing
research facilities.

The Franco-German station appears to be the first to feel the change. Since 2014 Paris and Berlin have been trying to centralise researchers scattered over several sites in one new building, but they have gotten nowhere.

Privately the Norwegians say they do not want to create a precedent.

“We cannot allow the French to do one thing and refuse the Chinese,” said Jervell. “The principle of the Svalbard Treaty is not to discriminate

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ENERGY

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 

Germany

Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.

France

France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.

Spain

Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.

Italy

Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.

Austria

The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.

Sweden

Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.

Switzerland

In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.

UK

Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.

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