April 20, 2015 / 11:19 AM / 2 years ago

Russia defends visit to Norwegian island despite sanctions

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Monday its deputy prime minister had every right to visit a Norwegian island despite travel restrictions imposed on him over Ukraine, dismissing Oslo’s condemnation of the trip.

Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin attends a meeting with Venezuela's Foreign Minister Rafael Ramirez in Caracas December 15, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Oslo has demanded Moscow explain Dmitry Rogozin’s Saturday stopover on the island of Spitsbergen in the arctic Svalbard archipelago.

The European Union imposed travel bans and other penalties after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, strengthening them further after accusing Moscow of backing rebels in Ukraine’s east. Norway is not an EU member but has adopted the same sanctions.

The Ukraine crisis has triggered the worst stand-off between Russia and the West since the Cold War, with tensions particularly high in central-eastern Europe and the waters around Nordic region where Moscow has stepped up military drills.

“Norway’s voluntary endorsement of the European Union’s anti-Russian sanctions is regrettable,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “This reaction is puzzling,” it added, calling Oslo’s demand for an explanation “inexplicable and absurd”.

The Russian ministry said Rogozin’s visit was in line with a treaty regulating the Svalbard archipelago, which grants Norway sovereignty but allows other signatories, including Russia, residence and commercial rights.

The ministry added that Rogozin was on his way to Moscow’s drifting exploration station in the Arctic, which is believed to hold vast oil and gas reserves and where Moscow has stepped up campaign to claim territory, angering other capitals.

Nordic nations have agreed to boost defense ties and work more closely with the Baltic states to counter what they see as a Russian threat. Moscow says its moves are a response to increased NATO activity in the region.

Svalbard is about 850km (500 miles) north of the northern tip of mainland Norway and holds the world’s northernmost permanent settlements.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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