Russia threatens retaliation over Norway Arctic island goods ban

Russia has accused Norway of imposing restrictions that block goods destined for Russian-populated settlements on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, and has threatened unspecified “retaliatory measures” unless Oslo resolves the matter.

Svalbard, located midway between Norway’s north coast and the North Pole, is part of Norway, but Russia has the right to exploit the archipelago’s natural resources under a treaty signed in 1920, and some settlements on the archipelago are populated mainly by Russians.

Norway, which is not in the European Union but enforces EU sanctions against Russia, has said sanctions would not affect the transport of goods by ship to Svalbard. But much of the freight for the archipelago’s Russian settlements passes first through a checkpoint in mainland Norway, which is closed to sanctioned Russian goods.

“We demanded that the Norwegian side resolve the issue as soon as possible,” the Russian foreign ministry said on Wednesday after summoning Norway’s charge d’affaires in Moscow.

“We indicated that unfriendly actions against Russia will inevitably lead to appropriate retaliatory measures,” the ministry said.

A view across Yoldiabukta Bay towards Spitsbergen island, part of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway [File: Natalie Thomas/Reuters]

Norway’s restrictions have disrupted the work of the Russian consulate-general on Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, and a Russian coal mining settlement there, the ministry said.

Moscow has long wanted a bigger say in the archipelago, which it insists on calling Spitsbergen rather than the Norwegian Svalbard and has been a haunt of its hunters, whalers and fishermen since the 16th century.

Vehicles carrying food and medical supplies to Spitsbergen have been stuck on the border, the Russian foreign ministry said.

‘Norway does not violate’

Norway is not breaching the century-old treaty covering the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard by blocking Russian cargo to the islands, Norway’s foreign minister Anniken Huitfeldt told AFP on Wednesday.

“Norway does not violate the Svalbard Treaty,” the foreign minister said. “Norway does not try to put obstacles in the way of supplies” to a Russian coal mining settlement in the area, she said.

Huitfeldt argued the shipment that was stopped at the Norwegian-Russian border “has been stopped on the basis of the sanctions that prohibit Russian road transport companies from transporting goods on Norwegian territory”.

Goods transport “does not have to go via mainland Norway by Russian truck”, she said, suggesting other solutions could be found to supply the mining community. The situation in the town of Barentsburg, home to the Russian miners, was “normal”, she said.

“Residents have access to food and medicine,” Huitfeldt said.

“It is not Norwegian policy to try to force Russian companies or citizens away from Svalbard, or to put obstacles in the way of the business that takes place in accordance with Norwegian laws and regulations,” she said.

“At the same time, Norway’s necessary reaction to Russia’s war in Ukraine may also have practical consequences for Russian companies on Svalbard, as in Norway in general,” Huitfeldt added.

Since invading Ukraine in February, Russia has been hit with sanctions restricting the transit of its goods through Europe.

Earlier this month, Lithuania began enforcing restrictions on some goods shipped by rail to Russia’s Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad. Russia said the restrictions on goods by Lithuania amounted to a “blockade” and has promised unspecified retaliation.

Cyberattack

Also on Wednesday, Norwegian authorities said a cyberattack likely by Russian hackers had temporarily knocked out public and private websites in Norway in the past 24 hours.

The distributed-denial-of-service (DDOS) attack targeted a secure national data network forcing the temporary suspension of online services for several hours, the Norwegian National Security Authority said.

A criminal pro-Russian group seems to be behind the attacks, NSM head Sofie Nystrom said. She added that the attacks “give the impression that we are a piece in the current political situation in Europe”.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said that to his knowledge the cyberattack “has not caused any significant damage”.

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