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NATO vs. Russia in the Arctic: How to prepare for the coming crisis

NATO vs. Russia in the Arctic: How to prepare for the coming crisis

 

The recent uptick of activity in the Arctic region shows the strong, strategic interest in the region for all parties involved. This interest goes back to the Cold War, when the Arctic was one of many theatres between the Soviet Union and NATO.

Over the past ten years, the Northern regions have become more attractive to Russian military troops. Russia’s interest in the Arctic can be easily explained: the region is developing more and more actively, and in the near future, if the melting of ice continues, it will certainly bring significant commercial benefits to the region’s ‘gatekeepers’. Thus, as the largest player in the Arctic, geographically speaking, Russia has pursued modernization there as well, upgrading runways and bases and opening new or refurbished facilities on nearby islands.

Today, with several Arctic littoral states as member of the Alliance, NATO has to demonstrate its credibility of access and operations in a potentially contested environment as well as improve maritime domain awareness. However, these efforts will possibly make Russia be uncomfortable and hostile. With due regard to the enhanced military presence of Russian troops in the region, NATO’s success will depend on its reliance on Allies as well as learning from the Alliance’s partners.

 

By Mikhail Zakharov

 

The recent uptick of activity in the Arctic region shows the strong, strategic interest in the region for all parties involved. This interest goes back to the Cold War, when the Arctic was one of many theatres between the Soviet Union and NATO. Now, 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union—a point at which tensions in the Arctic had seemingly faded—revitalized Russian forces and NATO military forces have increased their activity in the Arctic and are bolstering their presence in the region as a venue for Great Power competition.

The new iteration of confrontation is not only based on the global tensions between ‘frenemies’. The imperishable interest in Arctic resources has already led to competing claims of neighboring countries, similar to the situation in the 1970s–1980s when both the Soviet Union and Norway were encroaching on resources.[i] The recent interest in the Arctic can be easily explained in a similar way: the region is developing rapidly not least due to global warming, and in the near future, if the melting of ice and the rise of temperatures continues and makes the region more accessible, it will certainly bring significant commercial benefits for its ‘gatekeepers’. Russia’s far-ranging business interests concerning the Northern Sea Route and its desire to control this route is a clear case in point.[ii], [iii]

In general, over the past twenty years, interest in the northern regions has become more visible in Russian politics as one of the first signs of a resurrected Russia after coping with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the Arctic is a region where all expressions of Russia’s ambitions converge: from its interest in the Northern Sea Route, which is the shortest way between Russia’s eastern and western territories, to its desire to reinforce control over energy resources; from its attempts to magnify the country’s status on the world stage to its numerous efforts to increase the weight of its defense strategy in the region in light of its frosty relations with the West. In view of this, reestablishing Russian military troops in the Russian Arctic was practically unavoidable.

Both Russia and NATO are making sure they can fight in harsh Arctic conditions, especially as other conflicts continue in a number of other regions in light of strained NATO-Russia relations. Russia has pursued modernization of its capabilities in this region, upgrading runways and bases and opening new or refurbished facilities on nearby islands.[iv] This appears to be an attempt to ensure that it can engage in dialogue in the Arctic from a position of strength. Geographically, Russia is the largest player in the Arctic, and it facilitates the Kremlin’s presence and activities in the region, e.g., control over numerous gas and oil reserves and over the Northern Sea Route, thanks to its geographical advantage. Understandably, this state of affairs and Moscow’s rigorous behavior do not suit everyone—other global players also want to protect their assets and interests.

NATO’s interests and policy are met with skepticism in Russia—top Russian officials accuse NATO of continuing to attempt to limit Russia’s activities in the Arctic region in various ways. “To achieve its goals, the North Atlantic Alliance is building up its military presence in the Arctic region, exerting sanctions pressure on our country and using other levers”, said former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.[v] He emphasized that Moscow is committed to peaceful cooperation with other countries and blamed NATO for “trying to persistently limit our activities in the Arctic”.[vi] In ‘Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic to 2035’, approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the document discusses preserving the Arctic as a region of peace, with stable and mutually beneficial partnerships.[vii] At the same time, the goals for the military dimensions listed here indicate the continuity of the policy of maintaining operational capability and the readiness of the Russian armed forces to deter aggression against Russia in the Arctic and further developing Border Guard and Coast Guard forces in the Arctic.[viii] Thus, Russia’s rhetoric on the Arctic is two-fold: first, Moscow claims that it wishes to settle matters peacefully; second, it looks upon NATO’s actions as hostile behavior towards Russia that aims to sabotage the peaceful dialogue and enlarge its footprint in the Arctic. Such discourse makes Russia look like the peaceful party while also supporting the continuous securitization of the region without relinquishing Russian military forces.

Russian discourse on the Arctic is clear and should not confuse Western countries. As written in a RAND research report, “the Kremlin has shown consistent hostility to increased support for NATO in Sweden and Finland, and to a larger NATO influence in the region, suggesting that keeping NATO at bay is a solid, and permanent, tenet of its Arctic policy”.[ix] The West continues challenging Moscow’s interests in the High North and vice-versa, which unavoidably leads to the mutual self-perception as being under military threat. For example, in recent years, a US aircraft carrier flew above the Arctic Circle during the exercise Trident Juncture for the first time since the 1990s, and US and UK navy ships have traveled into the High North several times since then. Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow at the UK’s Chatham House think tank, said that these actions are “a show-and-tell game aimed at demonstrating credibility of access and operation in a potentially contested environment, as well as improving maritime domain awareness”.[x] The Kremlin perceived these actions as a conscious threat and immediately responded by conducting its own exercises in the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea.

The necessity to respond to Russia’s activity shows NATO’s delicate condition. On the one hand, it does not make sense for the Alliance to antagonize Russia in the Arctic, especially as there is still no consensus within NATO on actions in the region. Camille Grand, NATO’s assistant secretary general for defense investment, noted that “member nations that are party to the Arctic Council traditionally were a bit guarded on the fact that NATO should play a role [in the Arctic]”.[xi] Attempts to increase the level of control over the region, like prioritizing a collective NATO response to security challenges, can lead to risks of weakening NATO unity. NATO’s response in the Arctic would not only seemingly weaken the sovereign control of Canadian and the Danish territories in the region but also would possibly make Russia feel more uncomfortable and hostile.

On the other hand, today, NATO must advance its security interests and prepare for an increased regional role, e.g., to demonstrate its credibility of access and operations in a potentially contested environment, as well as to improve maritime domain awareness. Moreover, regardless of the obstacles already mentioned, the Alliance must work to develop a more cohesive and coherent set of steps that will include the following unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral actions.

Firstly, since NATO decisions depend on consensus, NATO’s success will stem from its reliance on and interaction with Allies as well as learning from the Alliance’s partners. A clear example of that would be the fact that not all NATO members are unified on an approach. While Canada is not very excited to see an enhanced allied military presence in the Arctic, regarding it as a possible threat to the country’s hegemony in its own Arctic territories, Norway is the most active of the local NATO members and wants Allies to be united and combat ready.[xii] The downside of consensus is that the lowest common denominator becomes the de facto policy—the desire of Canadians to protect only their own assets may hamper NATO’s development in the region, even without Russia’s interference. Thus, the Alliance must improve information exchange among NATO Allies, develop a more nuanced approach to planning operations, and engage Allies in more extensive political debates. The idea that the Arctic is a vital strategic region for Euro-Atlantic security has to become part of the wider conversation. Possibly, the Arctic should be included under NATO’s Article 5 defense treaty and in NATO strategic planning and doctrine more profoundly to ensure that access to this region is not threatened by other actors.[xiii]

This idea may exceed NATO’s capabilities, but the core idea is to make sure all Allies share common values and interests in the Arctic. As has already been stated, there have already been signs of diverging opinions from Allies like Canada or Norway concerning NATO’s potential defense of their Arctic territories. Canada has taken a more delicate approach towards Russia, intending to keep the region as a neutral area through recommencing bilateral dialogue on topics like scientific cooperation or environmental protection and insisting on its jurisdiction over the high latitudes waterway (that brings grist to a Russian mill).[xiv] Norway, however, having a direct border with Russia, places greater emphasis on multilateral military cooperation and collective security, hosting multiple NATO-led military exercises in the Arctic.[xv] As consensus is essential to the Alliance, what really matters is that every little loophole is fixed in order not to serve adversaries’ interests and play against developing a common security component. Thus, the current NATO policy and the policies of NATO’s Arctic members should be adjusted, and this will surely require a compromise among them.

Secondly, if Nordic members like Norway are already focused on the region within the NATO framework, the Alliance has to improve links to partners like Sweden and Finland, which will also play in favor of paying more attention to the Arctic. As Sweden and Finland are only partners of the Alliance, their lack of membership restricts NATO’s ability to represent the hoped-for “Western Arctic bloc”.[xvi] Although Sweden has recently approved a 40 percent increase in its defense budget for 2021–2025 with officials saying Russia is the main reason for the move, it is unlikely that Sweden will become a NATO member in order to avoid triggering a Russian response due to fear of encirclement.[xvii] Although Sweden has come closer to NATO over the last 30 years, it still has not decided to break with its path of neutrality. Finland joining NATO also appears unlikely in the near future because of the existing political risks and ambivalent public opinions on NATO.[xviii] However, this should not stop the Alliance from developing the Partnership for Peace program, conducting joint maneuvers and creating greater infrastructure to receive Alliance support in the future if needed. In another vein, developing the Alliance’s military capabilities in the region will stand to benefit from cooperation with Sweden and Finland as the countries are well aware of the numerous difficulties of operating in the High North.

Thirdly, with regard to Russia’s enhanced military presence in the region, NATO members and partners should focus on more robust training, exercises, and a rotational presence in the Arctic.[xix] The Alliance should continue and strengthen exercises on the Alliance’s Northern flank that would allow participating countries to become acquainted with operations in harsh climatic conditions.[xx] NATO exercises should focus on domain awareness and, instead of being traditionally land focused, should place more attention on maritime, air, space, and cyber domains, which are vital for the Arctic.[xxi]

Finally, on paper Russia still opposes militarization of the Arctic and claims to be in favor of joint development of the Northern Sea Route. However, Russia has strong reasons to object to a greater NATO role in the region and does not want to surrender without a fight. As the Russian Embassy in Norway has said, “increasing Norwegian military activity and pulling NATO to the region is a direct route to undermining existing peace, stability and spirit of cooperation”.[xxii] The inability to discuss military matters through dialogue and current reciprocal reproaches only increases the risk of miscalculation and tactical errors, which is risky for both sides.[xxiii]

The de-escalation of military tensions in the Arctic is still possible and desirable since the problem is accentuated by the fact that Russia and NATO members are in close proximity in the region. The creation of a new NATO-Russia forum to discuss Arctic security issues probably would not foster better communication but could at least help to define the red lines of military activities and avoid poor decision-making, e.g., possible accidents in the Barents Sea. Also, a forum of this kind could take pressure off existing non-security related Arctic forums, like the Arctic Council, to address military issues.[xxiv]

In 2021, the Arctic will definitely continue to be viewed as an arena for military competition. While the Arctic was once preserved from strategic competition and risks, today the interests of global players clash in the region with much more regularity. Unfortunately, NATO’s attempts to achieve a foothold in the region from 2016 to 2020 were often hamstrung by its poor relations with US President Donald Trump. There is a good probability that in the Biden years the Alliance will focus not on the current squabbles between contenders in the region but on a long-term strategy of protecting US and NATO interests in the Arctic. Today, we do not know for sure how different in detail Biden’s prospective stance will be from Trump’s existing position on the Arctic. The main wish we have to hope for is that the next US President and the Alliance will manage to build confidence in this sphere between Allies. If achieved, it will help the US to closely align with Arctic NATO members to reestablish a security equilibrium among Allies and work together to reduce tensions with Russia in the Arctic—the obvious aim is not to ignite a war.

Last but not the least, it will be better for everyone not to drag out these processes, not least because of rising temperatures in the region. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in September 2020, “In the Arctic where as the ice melts, geopolitical tensions heat up. […] Climate change threatens our security. So NATO must do more to fully understand and integrate climate change into our all aspects of our work, from our military planning to how we exercise and train our armed forces.”[xxv]

About the Author

Mikhail Zakharov is a Russian journalist and a writer for the think tank Institute for a Greater Europe. His writing focuses on the Baltic region and NATO-Russia relations. In his articles and interviews, he analyzes issues concerning regional and European security in light of the growing tensions in the region and the work of international organizations both in terms of ensuring the stability of the Baltic States and in terms of their interaction with Russia.




[i] Kristoffer Staburn, “The Grey Zone Agreement of 1978: Fishery Concerns, Security Challenges, and Territorial Interests,” FNI Report 13/2009, Fridtjof Nansens Institute, December 2009, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/112916/FNI-R1309.pdf.

[ii] Arild Moe, “A new Russia policy for the North sea route? State interests, key stakeholders and economic opportunities in changing times,” The Polar Journal, August 2020, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2154896X.2020.1799611.

[iii] Christopher Woody, “Record heat in the Arctic is setting the stage for a different kind of conflict,” Business Insider, June 25, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/record-heat-in-the-arctic-is-affecting-i....

[iv] David Auerswald, “Now is Not the time for a FONOP in the Arctic,” War on the Rocks, October 11, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/10/now-is-not-the-time-for-a-fonop-in-the....

[v] “Medvedev: NATO threatens Russia’s national security in the Arctic,” Top War, October 13, 2020, https://en.topwar.ru/176045-medvedev-nato-ugrozhaet-nacionalnoj-bezopasn....

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ekaterina Klimenko, “Russia’s new Arctic policy document signals continuity rather than change,” SIPRI commentary, April 6, 2020, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/essay/2020/russias-new-arctic-policy-do....

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Stephanie Pizard et al., Maintaining Arctic Cooperation with Russia: Planning for Regional Change in the Far North (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017),  https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1731.html.

[x] Christopher Woody, “Russian and NATO militaries are getting more active in the Arctic, but neither knows what the other is doing,” Business Insider, July 22, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-nato-increasing-military-activity....

[xi] Sebastian Springer, “NATO’s Camille Grand on the alliance’s Arctic tack,” Defense News, May 12, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2020/05/11/natos-camille-grand....

[xii] Tyler Cross, “The NATO’s Alliance’s Role in Arctic Security,” The Maritime Executive, July 19, 2019, https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/the-nato-alliance-s-role-i....

[xiii] Bert Chapman, “The Arctic’s Emerging Geopolitics: Recommendations for the U.S. and Its NATO Allies,” The Mackinder Forum, October 12, 2020, https://mackinderforum.org/the-arctics-emerging-geopolitics-recommendati....

[xiv] Dick Zandee, Kimberley Kruijver, and Adaja Stoetman, “The future of Arctic security: The geopolitical pressure cooker and consequences for the Netherlands,” Clingendael Report (The Hague: The Clingendael Institute, April 2020), https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/Report_The_Futur....

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Joshua Tallis, “NATO is the right forum for security dialogue in the High North,” Defense News, July 28, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/07/28/nato-is-the-ri....

[xvii] The Associated Press, “Sweden ups defense budget 40% due to regional tensions,” Defense News, December 15, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2020/12/15/sweden-ups-defense-....

[xviii] Pizard et al., Maintaining Arctic Cooperation with Russia.

[xix] David Auerswald, “NATO in the Arctic: Keep its role limited, for now,” War on the Rocks, October 12, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/10/nato-in-the-arctic-keep-its-role-limit....

[xx] NATO Parliamentary Assembly, “NATO and security in the Arctic,” October 7, 2017,  https://www.nato-pa.int/download-file?filename=%2Fsites%2Fdefault%2Ffile....

[xxi] Andrea Charron, “NATO and the Geopolitical Future of the Arctic,” Arctic Yearbook 2020, https://arcticyearbook.com/images/yearbook/2020/Briefing-Notes/2_Charron....

[xxii] Peter Danilov, “Russia warns against pulling NATO into the Arctic,” High North News, June 17, 2020, https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/russia-warns-against-pulling-nato-arctic.

[xxiii] Duncan Depledge et al., “Why we need to talk about military activity in the Arctic: Towards an Arctic Military Code of Conduct,” Arctic Yearbook 2019, https://arcticyearbook.com/arctic-yearbook/2019/2019-briefing-notes/328-....

[xxiv] Auerswald, “NATO in the Arctic.”

[xxv] Jens Stoltenberg, “NATO must combat climate change,” NATO, September 27, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_178334.htm?.

Image: https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2019/06/28/the-changing-shape-...

Saturday, 2 January, 2021 - 13:15