A Brief Overview of Russian-Italian Relations in the Arctic

in the Arctic

On the 23rd of May, I had the great opportunity to speak at the First Interregional Forum ‘The Arctic: Our Global Neighbourhood’, giving a talk on the Arctic policy of Italy, my homeland.

Italy, a Mediterranean country with maybe an unexpected presence in the Arctic, is anyway present there, as I stressed in Petrozavodsk, primarily through scientific research. In Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, and Thule, Greenland, there are permanent research bases of the Italian National Research Council through the Institute of Polar Science. Italy is also noticed in the North through various research campaigns, either in a European context or funded through the national Arctic Research Programme.

While acknowledging the important Italian economic and military presence in the region, I would still say that the scientific aspect is the primary one in which our country engages at these latitudes. And it is on this aspect that Italy (but also the whole of Europe) must work alongside Russia, an Arctic giant that cannot rationally be excluded from any form of scientific cooperation that aims to achieve any true objective. Science is by its very nature cooperative, not competitive.

The history of Italian-Russian cooperation in the Arctic is rather long, dating back to when Russia was part of the Soviet Union. We can first point to the Svalbard Treaty, signed in 1920. This treaty recognised the unique geographic status of the Svalbard Islands, granting Norway sovereignty while allowing citizens from all signatory states to live there and conduct any economic activities. Italy was one of the first countries to sign, with the Soviet Union following shortly after. This early collaboration demonstrates both nations’ recognition of the Arctic’s special status and their willingness to cooperate from the start.

Another significant moment came in 1928, following the tragic accident of the airship Italia, commanded by the general and aviator Umberto Nobile. Due to its geographic proximity to the presumed crash site, the Soviet Union was among the countries most actively involved in searching for survivors from the Italian mission, deploying aircraft and icebreakers in this effort. This dramatic event was later portrayed in the film ‘The Red Tent’, a joint Italian-Soviet production, further symbolising the cooperation between the two nations.

This collaborative spirit has continued into recent times. In 2013, Italy joined the Arctic Council as an observer member, further solidifying its commitment to Arctic affairs and its partnership with Russia in this region.

History demonstrates the specificity of the Arctic, not only on an environmental level but also on a political level. I believe that Russia is too big an actor to ignore in terms of international relations and that cooperation will resume, sooner or later. And there is no better place to restart than the Arctic, where Europe and Russia must unite and return to sharing, as was the case until just two years ago, valuable data on oceanic, atmospheric and glaciological research, among other fields, to protect the Arctic environment and wildlife.

I cannot promise that Italy-Russia relations will ever return to the way they were before, but an opening on a scientific level would mark an excellent starting point.

Tommaso Bontempi