Minding the Archipelago: What Svalbard Means to NATO

Arctic Review on Law and Politics, Vol 14, 2023, pp. 76–82

Although the opportunity, form and level of NATO’s High North engagement have long been a matter of debate, the renewed invasion of Ukraine by Russia and its strategic implications at the global level have dragged a reunified NATO into the Arctic as a fait accompli. Yet, the Arctic is not one uniform bloc. When pondering its involvement, the Alliance should consider the particulars of each Arctic territory in its area of responsibility. The Svalbard archipelago, under the sovereignty of Norway -the most vocal advocate of NATO’s High North increased presence- is one of the Arctic areas falling under NATO’s responsibility. Global geopolitical trends, combined with Svalbard’s specific points of contention, may exacerbate the risk of conflict affecting the archipelago. This paper argues that NATO should consider the security concerns specific to Svalbard when pondering its High North involvement and highlights two elements that should be factored in the Alliance’s strategic and operational thinking over the archipelago. The first relates to the diverging interpretations of Article 9 of the Svalbard Treaty while the second lies in Svalbard’s vulnerability to gray-zone tactics due to its particular legal and geographical features. Bearing these particulars in mind, the paper provides key recommendations for NATO to adopt a tailored approach to the archipelago.