On Sept. 2, the Russian government approved a permanent research center in Barentsburg with up to 100 employees. Jørgen Holten Jørgensen has studied Russian politics at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute and refers to the Russian Government Commission for securing its presence in Svalbard, which was established in 2007. In 2008, a strategy was adopted that involves targeting several fields such as research, tourism and fisheries.
Svalbardposten wrote during the past winter about Barentsburg undergoing an extensive modernization in order to, among other things, become more attractive. Jørgensen said he believes Russia has no other choice.
"We often talk with anxiety about how much the Russians in recent years have spent on their defense," he said. "Yes, they are using much more than the first ten to 15 years after the Soviet collapse, but a modern state cannot have a defense system that is literally rusting up. The same applies to Barentsburg, which was about to fall apart."
Major Norwegian investment
But Norway is also investing heavily in Svalbard. Minister of Local Government and Regional Development Jan Tore Sanner (H) visited Ny-Ålesund last weekend to mark the start of construction of a new Earth observatory expected to cost 300 million kroner. He also suggested the Russians' initiative is good.
"Basically, it is positive," he said, referring to the forthcoming Russian research efforts. "It is good that many countries are focusing on Svalbard – it's the United Nations in miniature. In Ny-Ålesund you have researchers from around the world. It is a unique network."
During 2014, Norway strengthened its helicopter preparedness, built a new hangar, delivered a new service vessel to The Governor of Svalbard, increased its number of employees and constructed a larger administration building. In addition, a new housing complex for students at The University Centre in Svalbard opened and there are now plans for a probable extension of UNIS. Sanner said at the same time the new observatory will help strengthen the Norwegian presence in the north.
"I think there is political consensus that we should focus on Svalbard and we will follow up," he said.
Jørgensen said he doubts Russia has ambitions to become a new Ny-Ålesund, but instead thinks the motivation is a mix of politics and a desire for more independent research in the northern region.
"It is obvious that is the policy," he said. "Being in Svalbard is important for the Russians, both because of Svalbard and shelf around it, but also in light of the opening of the Arctic Ocean."
Jørgensen said he also thinks Russian investments in coal on Svalbard will diminish in the future and plans for extracting the coal in Colesbukta are being shelved because it is too expensive. Instead, coal mining in Barentsburg will be run at a minimum level to sustain the mine as long as possible.
"The lifetime of the mine in Barentsburg is increasingly becoming advertised as extended," Jørgensen said. "Previously, operations there were scheduled until 2015 Now it's 2030. When mining ceases, there also ceases to exist the Mining Code and the Mining Code provides the basis for the Russian presence as it is today. Therefore, in addition to mining ensuring year-round jobs, it is important to nurture the mine."
He does not rule out the Russians establishing a "cargo port" for the Northeast Passage, or a terminal in connection with the exploration for oil and gas.
"It would be odd if you have not been considering the idea," he said. "I have not seen anything specific that relates to it, but it would surprise me if one does not have plans in the tank."