Norway asserts its Arctic sovereignty in annual voyage


The Royal Norwegian Navy frigate Thor Heyerdahl affirmed the nation’s territorial sovereignty on a recent Arctic voyage.

The HNoMS Heyerdahl sailed October 23 to the Svalbard archipelago, about 400 miles north of the Norwegian mainland. The ship visited the waters around Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago, and docked at Longyearbyen, which is one of the world’s northernmost settlements.

(Pictured: The HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl is underway in the Norwegian Sea during a 2019 NATO deployment)

Although Norway was granted “full and absolute sovereignty” over the archipelago in the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, some of the agreement’s provisions are at the center of current disputes between Norway and neighbor Russia over issues such as fishing rights and the boundaries of territorial waters. The treaty’s 46 signatory states include Russia and the United States. The agreement restricts Oslo from establishing naval bases in the archipelago or using it for “warlike purposes” but does not ban a Norwegian military presence. There are two tiny settlements in the archipelago that are mostly populated by Russians and Ukrainians.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson claimed November 12, 2021, that the Heyerdahl’s visit to Svalbard was a step by Oslo to militarize the archipelago, according to The Barents Observer newspaper.

The annual voyage by a frigate is an example of the increasing presence of the Royal Norwegian Navy (RNoN) in the region, according to an October 29 summary analysis by The Arctic Institute.

“We don’t only have a right, but also a duty to safeguard sovereignty in the territorial water of Spitsbergen, Hopen and Bear Island,” the RNoN said in a news release, according to The Barents Observer. The newspaper noted that those three islands have mostly ice-free waters.

As reporter Thomas Nilsen observed in The Barents Observer story, the annual sailings to Longyearbyen serve to underline Norway’s sovereignty during times of “international tensions also affecting the High North.”

Russia has also increased its presence in the region, according to The Arctic Institute, which noted that a Russian anti-submarine destroyer sailed off Spitsbergen in August while remaining in international waters.

“This annual [RnoN] visit is a symbolic challenge to Russian geostrategic interests in the contested area, and part of what Russia reads as a Norwegian attempt to establish absolute national jurisdiction in the area,” The Arctic Institute wrote.

Russia also has rebuilt the Nagurskoye air base at its Franz Josef Land archipelago, east of the Svalbard archipelago. In April 2020, Moscow declared the base operational. The Associated Press (AP) said the installation had once been little more than a runway and weather station.

In a May 18, 2021, story, the AP described the new Nagurskoye, Russia’s northernmost military base, as “bristling with missiles and radar, and its extended runway can handle all types of aircraft, including nuclear-capable strategic bombers.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pointed out that the changes brought by the rapidly warming Arctic have emboldened Moscow.

“Russia is exploiting this change to try to exert control over new spaces,” Blinken said in April 2021, according to the AP. “It is modernizing its bases in the Arctic and building new ones.”