Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Svalbard

Island archipelago located north of Norway, well above the Arctic Circle and adjacent to strategic North Atlantic sea-lanes. The Svalbard islands, including Bear Island, extend over an area of 38,470 square miles. The strategic importance of the Svalbard archipelago, a dependency of Norway, became readily apparent with the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. The Allies conducted military operations on the islands, despite a provision in the 1925 Svalbard Treaty, signed by Norway, Denmark, Sweden, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States. But Allied plans to build military installations there were soon scrapped for lack of adequate sites. Instead, the British evacuated the Soviet and Norwegian inhabitants there in 1941 and later destroyed the settlements.

Economic interests (chiefly coal) and national prestige contributed to Moscow's demands in 1944 for the nullification of the Svalbard Treaty that gave Norway sovereignty over the archipelago. But the archipelago's position adjacent to the passages leading to the North Atlantic from the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel was undoubtedly the most important consideration for Moscow in these demands. From the Soviet point of view, this issue had a clear parallel to maintaining secure passages through the Turkish and Danish straits from the Black and Baltic Seas.

Despite growing skepticism over the Soviet position on the Svalbard matter, the Norwegian government-in-exile in London during World War II initially did not flatly reject the Soviet demands. At the time, appeasing Moscow seemed an imperative, with Soviet troops fighting the Germans in northern Norway. On the other hand, accepting Soviet control—or even joint control—of the islands might tie Norway to the Soviet Union and damage its relations with the United States and Great Britain. The Norwegians initiated talks with the Soviets on the subject after the war in hopes of reaching a favorable outcome.

In 1947, Norway finally rejected the Soviets' repeated requests for joint control of the islands, arguing that discussing the defense of Norwegian territory with another state would be a breach of accepted policy. The expected Soviet protests never came, and the issue faded away. In the 1950s, the Norwegian government also rebuffed proposals from its own military for the construction of military installations on the Svalbards.

Despite its strategic position, the Svalbard archipelago never became a significant battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not wanting to risk a dispute over its own bases and radar surveillance systems on Greenland and Iceland, the United States did not push the Svalbard matter, and Norway managed to preserve its sovereignty over the archipelago without outside help.

Frode Lindgjerdet


Further Reading
Lundestad, Geir. America, Scandinavia and the Cold War. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1982.
 

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