Svalbard and disaster diplomacy

Will the Russian bear bite?

Svalbard disaster diplomacy

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Longyearbyen, Svalbard, during the polar night. Norwegians and Russians have long coexisted on Svalbard in separate communities.

Agder, Norway

Russia is often presented as the big bad bear of the Arctic. Without denying Moscow’s power ambitions and the ever-present geopolitical dances over territory and resources around the region, what does it mean for the people living there?

We looked at this question regarding disasters. The Svalbard archipelago, namely the main island of Spitsbergen in the high Arctic, is a Norwegian territory that is home to many Russians. The territory is governed by the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, which permits the citizens of countries who have signed it to live and work in Svalbard, even though Norway has sovereignty over it.

Norwegians and Russians have long coexisted on Svalbard, even if generally in separate communities. The main settlement of Longyearbyen, with around 2,500 people, and the tiny outpost of Ny-Ålesund, with a permanent population of perhaps three dozen, have typically been labeled as Norwegian, although it has many nationalities. Svalbard’s other main settlement is Barentsburg, populated by several hundred Russians and Ukrainians.

Other Russian settlements were effectively abandoned long ago. Many scientific stations maintained by countries around the world dot the archipelago.

Svalbard, as with all locations, is subject to disasters. The lethal history includes aviation crashes, mining fires, polar bear attacks, and severe weather. Challenging scenarios include a freshwater or electricity outage, an oil or chemical spill, and the main airport in Longyearbyen closed for a long period.

Cruise ships carrying more people than Svalbard’s population dock in Longyearbyen. If the ship experienced a Norovirus outbreak, then current resources might not be able to cope. Rescuers have severe nightmares about a ship sinking in or near Svalbard’s waters.

In these situations, should Norway or the Norwegian residents trust Russia or the Russian residents—and vice versa? The obvious response is, “Why ever not?” Surely people come together to help each other in times of crisis.

The sad reality is that this so-called “disaster diplomacy” rarely works. In fact, no examples have yet been proved in which new and lasting diplomacy has emerged from preventing or responding to disasters.

Do Norway and Russia even need new diplomacy regarding Svalbard? They might continue to be political poles apart, as they were during the Cold War, but are they really enemies or even frenemies?

In any case, the Svalbard Treaty is reasonably clear regarding duties and responsibilities, although the world is politically very different than in 1920. Svalbard has also changed substantially, and treaty-related disputes and confusions arise.

Norway has been improving environmental regulations over the years, and there are rising concerns about the Svalbard Treaty’s scope. Russia has asked for its own search-and-rescue facilities at Barentsburg, with Norway claiming sole responsibility for these activities. Since Arctic environmental conditions rarely arrange themselves to support people in trouble, disaster-related activities for Svalbard need everyone helping. No matter the disagreements, could this mean disaster diplomacy for Norway and Russia?

In talking to people in Svalbard and looking at disasters and efforts to prevent disasters there, we can summarize that Svalbard does not contribute to disaster diplomacy between Norway and Russia at the Oslo-Moscow levels, but plenty happens with the people. They feel that they are all living in the same place—a fairly isolated place—and it is about helping each other.

On the ground, nationalities matter less than humanity. Residents rely on each other, trusting that disaster-related information will be given in good faith and that they can work together for the common good. When an avalanche happens, word spreads quickly and people come out to help. If a snowmobile crashes, everyone supports the rescue.

Major gaps remain for large-scale incidents. If almost every person on Svalbard is directly affected, or if an aircraft or ship with a large number of passengers needs assistance, it is not clear that the available disaster-related resources would suffice. Much more is needed to plan and prepare for Arctic humanitarianism.

So, for Svalbard disasters, does the Russian bear bite? Perhaps that is merely the image that Moscow wishes to be seen or what Oslo wishes to see.

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.