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The Northern Flank: NATO's emerging role in the Arctic

The Northern Flank: NATO's emerging role in the Arctic

The Arctic arguably remains the most complicated legal landscape in the world, with eight states raising their own claims in the region. Unlike the Antarctic, it is too valuable to submit to international governance. This is an area in which every state has its own goals and still relies mostly on its own capabilities.

Recently, however, the Arctic has become more than just a frozen asset of resources, as climate change has raised concerns for both environmental activists and military leaders. As ice caps melt, a new front of transatlantic security is opening, where any concept of unilateral activity seems outdated at best. It is time to undertake collective action and give up national claims both for the sake of common security and environmental stability.

The purpose of this article is to discuss potential frameworks of cooperation within NATO in the Arctic, including joint defence investments and joint Arctic Command. NATO is the entity most capable of stepping up an effective defence initiative in the region. It is the best forum for Western countries to create a common stance on Arctic matters and firmly reply to foreign adversaries. The Arctic additionally creates an opportunity for NATO to show its modern, ecological approach to security. There is no other place where climate change interferes with security to such an extent, and if NATO genuinely wants to reinvent itself, the path to reinvention clearly leads north.


By Filip Walczak


Although the year 2020 will be remembered as the year of COVID-19, it has a lot of potential to be remembered as a year of important developments in the Arctic, as well. NATO’s winter exercise Cold Response 2020 was planned to be one of the Alliance’s largest undertakings in the polar region[i] until it was cancelled in March due to the pandemic.[ii] Later on, in early October, First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin of the Royal Navy remarked that new sea routes emerging between thawing ice caps might be used to sail from Asia quickly not only by merchant ships but also by Chinese warships, posing a direct threat to the security of NATO.[iii] This comment, although largely unnoticed and by no means groundbreaking in the eyes of specialists in Arctic security, is a major indicator that both climate change and the Arctic itself will remain an issue concerning transatlantic security for good. At the same time, Russian Atomflot commissioned its first Project 22220 nuclear-powered icebreaker, appropriately named Arktika—the 33,000-ton pride of the Russian shipping industry and a clear symbol of Russian ambitions in the Arctic.[iv] The scramble for the Arctic is in full swing, and it is no longer focused solely on resources. Rather, the direct security of all Arctic states and the European Union, together with environmental issues, are just as important in the struggle for control of the region. The purpose of this paper is to identify potential areas in which NATO should engage and draw up its agenda in the Arctic as well as imagine the best possible outcome of the Arctic struggle for transatlantic security.

The legal framework in the Arctic

The ice and water surrounding the North Pole is possibly the most complicated legal landscape in the world, made up almost entirely of unilateral claims without any general, universally binding treaty regime. The most important international body to administer the region is the Arctic Council, with its eight members being the main actors in the Arctic. Five of those states—Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the United States—are NATO members, with two others—Sweden and Finland—being the Alliance’s partners. The Arctic Council has no strong legal foundations, as it is based on the 1996 Ottawa Declaration instead of a binding treaty; but, nevertheless, it has succeeded in administering the region, with a focus on the sustainability of the Arctic and coordination of state activities. The Council has drafted three binding agreements that are crucial to administrating the area.[v] It is also notable for including six organisations representing indigenous peoples as Permanent Participants with full consultation rights. Currently, there is no perspective for a new regional arrangement that could replace the Arctic Council. However, the Council still fails to address the most important long-term issue of the Arctic—its jurisdictional disputes. Nowadays, the most important disputes in the region are related to continental shelf boundaries, with Canada, Denmark, and Russia making claims to some parts of the Lomonosov Ridge. Significant overlap occurs between American and Canadian claims as well, although this does not lead to any significant tensions between the two North American countries.

One very tempting, although practically impossible, solution would be to declare the Arctic a trust territory based on the long-forgotten Chapter XII of the UN Charter. Such a solution was considered for the Antarctic in the 1950s,[vi] yet nowadays this would clearly be a step backwards in search of
a permanent solution for the continent. In the case of the Antarctic, a treaty regime was applied instead, with the Antarctic Treaty entering into force in 1961. The treaty regime, although suitable for the Antarctic, is not enough for the Arctic, though. As the Antarctic is too distant to be relevant from a security perspective, it was relatively easy to fully demilitarise it.[vii] In the case of the Arctic, a ‘peaceful purposes only’ usage clause is impossible to establish for a region with both NORAD Canadian and American defence systems as well as Russian defence facilities. It would be unfeasible for European Allies of NATO, as well. The major weakness of the Antarctic Treaty is that it never led to the withdrawal of territorial claims in the Antarctic. Instead, it merely froze them for an undisclosed period, which would be completely counterproductive in the case of the Arctic, where the claims are already frozen in practice to allow for peaceful cooperation within the Arctic Council. A treaty regime that would enact the withdrawal of claims is currently impossible to implement. The only way in which the situation can be resolved is through negotiations and changes to the national policies of Arctic states.

It is difficult to imagine NATO as a major, formal actor in the struggle to clarify the legal situation of the Arctic. However, being the Alliance that unites all Western Arctic states, it might be a facilitator for settling claims between NATO members. Even though territorial disputes in the Arctic may seem marginal in the context of overall cooperation between Allies, these claims might prove just enough to undermine the unity of the Alliance in times of crisis, ultimately hampering the Alliance’s deterrence capabilities and sowing doubts about the unity and reliability of NATO. Unity within the Alliance is crucial from a purely defensive perspective, and any diplomatic activities undertaken by the Secretary General to build unity in terms of Arctic territories would be perfectly appropriate.

Environmental concerns in the Arctic

Territorial disputes in the Arctic largely prevail due to the abundance of natural resources in the region, mainly oil and gas. It is estimated that the Arctic may contain 13% of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil resources, 30% of its undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of its undiscovered hydrocarbon resources.[viii] These numbers themselves are clearly impressive, and they were understandably the main incentive for bold territorial claims in the Arctic in past decades. It is now time, however, to question the actual feasibility and ethical aspects of the exploitation of Arctic resources. The competitiveness and availability of oil and gas in the Arctic is debatable at best[ix]; economic feasibility is just one aspect that may make us wonder if the scramble for the Arctic makes sense at all.

Despite all the ecological undertakings of the global community, the Arctic is still suffering heavily from climate change. The Arctic’s annual surface air temperatures in the past five years exceeded those of any year since 1900, radically altering the polar landscape and impacting all forms of life.[x] Glaciers in the Arctic are melting so rapidly that they are already considered the most important contribution to global sea-level rise.[xi] Both polar continents are already heavily affected by climate change and the exploitation of resources elsewhere. Regardless of its purely economic profitability, dealing a final blow to Arctic ecosystems is excessive and morally wrong from a 21st century perspective. More radical environmentalists could even consider such actions a violation of the right to the environment, which remains uncodified in international law but is nevertheless often referred to by international courts, most notably by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).[xii] The ECHR obviously has no jurisdiction over some NATO Allies, but it is nevertheless a leading international body in terms of the development of the right to the environment. Careful examination of its rulings may in fact hint at how the perception of such rights will develop globally. The pro-environmental approach and legal obligation to protect the environment is certain to influence the EU’s future Arctic policies. Therefore, NATO and its non-European member states must also take this into consideration when building a coherent response to Arctic challenges. Modern environmental law requires states to weigh their national economic interests through predicting the impact on the investment environment in question. With this perspective in mind, the struggle for Arctic mineral resources might even be considered illegal. States are additionally expected to take into consideration the most recent scientific findings on the environmental impact of their actions.[xiii] Thus, as the climate crisis is already reshaping the Arctic in a dangerous manner, this is something that must be taken into consideration in the national policymaking of all countries in the region.

Some Arctic states that are busy with territorial disputes in the Arctic, such as Canada and Denmark, are world leaders and prime examples of ambitious climate neutrality goals.[xiv] However, this appears to be in contradiction to these states’ staunch positions on their exclusive economic zones, which allow them to retrieve natural resources in the Arctic. When it comes to other methods of exploitation in the Arctic, such as fisheries, caution still must be taken. Both from the security perspective and the environmental perspective, the best option would be to protect central areas of the Arctic from any exploitation at all, in a manner similar to the legal protection offered in the Antarctic. It might seem idealistic, but this is what NATO Allies should strive for if they want to stay in line with states’ environmentalist agendas. For young leaders, to which NATO tries to appear more and more as a modern and attractive security alliance, environmental issues are often crucial—and rightly so. As NATO tries to reinvent itself for the new century, it cannot defend environmentally dangerous activities, even if they are carried out by NATO Allies.

From the security perspective, another important aspect of the exploitation of natural resources is
the possible militarization of the region. Due to the great distance between infrastructure and safe, easily accessible territorial waters, the region is prone to both conventional and hybrid threats. Consequently, equipment and personnel used during combat would have to be protected from hostile activities by a significant military presence. The prospect of a heavily exploited Arctic with warships and oil companies’ ships cruising the area extensively is contradictory to the idea of preserving the Arctic as a region with low tensions.

Procurement and presence

Regardless of whether we perceive the Arctic as a potential source of fuel or a field in which transport and tourism could possibly thrive, we must notice that virtually every polar state, except for Russia, is incapable of making good use of Arctic opportunities due to the lack of necessary resources and capabilities. While Russia, with its massive coastline along the Arctic, has a perfectly good reason for maintaining a large fleet of icebreakers and other specialised vehicles, Western Arctic actors still seem drastically unprepared to conquer the High North. In particular, Allies lack icebreakers and search and rescue (SAR) capabilities. Even though their capacities are suitable for now, Western Arctic states may find themselves largely unprepared for the expansion of shipping in the Arctic and protection of states’ national interests in this regard.[xv] SAR responsibility zones are surprisingly strictly divided among the Arctic states by the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, which entered into force in 2013 and has been one of the great achievements of the Arctic Council. The treaty makes an explicit provision that the delimitation of SAR regions shall not be used to delimitate states’ sovereign rights, which is both legally interesting and politically impressive. As a document dating back to 2011, the Treaty does consider the growth of Arctic shipping in the future, but still, it may not be enough with the shrinking of ice caps and increase in shipping tonnage. Well-equipped SAR services should be considered valuable for every state potentially taking profits from Arctic shipping. Therefore, NATO Allies should be ready to contribute to SAR service in the Arctic and provide a multinational SAR through the Security and Procurement Agency or other body. The benefit for safety of navigation is obvious; furthermore, such a service with rotating national crews could be a great source for building new capabilities for national SAR services. As national fleets seem unprepared for large-scale operations in the Arctic, it would additionally seem feasible to form an icebreaker fleet administered by NATO. Such vessels, apart from icebreaking, should also possess SAR and spill recovery capabilities in order to aid all Arctic states and the international community using the Arctic as a maritime route.

Apart from that, it should be a permanent part of NATO’s agenda to develop polar capabilities via joint exercises, such as Cold Response. Given the future role of the Arctic as a transit route, the Alliance Maritime Strategy should be updated to include regular training activities in the High North. Eventually, the growing role of the Arctic might even lay grounds for the establishment of a new Standing NATO Maritime Group, focusing specifically on the Arctic waters. Thus, the naval component will prove the most important component of the Alliance and its forces in the region.

United for a new Arctic era

On December 3, 2020, NATO Secretary General presented the analysis and recommendations of the reflection group appointed by the NATO Secretary General, “NATO 2030 – United for a New Era”. This document touches upon numerous valid and relevant topics that should be addressed by NATO in the coming decade. In the context of this article, the most important part of NATO’s report is a short recommendation on NATO Policy in the Arctic. According to the document, “NATO should enhance its situational awareness across the High North and the Arctic, and […] develop a strategy that takes into account broader deterrence and deference plans”[xvi]. Additionally, the Alliance should be prepared to address aggressive moves undertaken by state actors and prepare for actions aimed at ensuring freedom of navigation in the region. The recommendation itself might seem nothing more than a minor hint at developing Arctic ambitions, but it is still a welcome addition to reflections that will eventually lead to a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance. One could hope that future Strategic Concepts will take the Arctic into further consideration, unlike the 2010 Concept, which fails to address the Arctic even once. NATO’s stance in the Arctic should in fact be reinforced in line with the remarks of the reflection group noted in other recommendations: NATO is tasked with monitoring and assessing climate change security and undertaking broad actions related to the changes in the geopolitical situation resulting from climate change. This calls first and foremost for the development of a broader policy in the Arctic, which would stress the importance of peace and international cooperation in the region for the sake of maintaining a sustainable environment.

Perhaps the most resounding part of the recommendations is the experts’ opinion on China, declaring the country a long-term, major challenge to the security of the Alliance and democratic societies in general. Even though the recommendations regarding China do not mention the Arctic policy explicitly, the developing presence of China in the region makes it imperative to create a policy for dealing with China in the Arctic, too. The growing influence of China is best reflected by its Observer State status in the Arctic Council as well as through the development of scientific projects, such as the Yellow River Arctic Station in Svalbard launched as early as 2003.

China’s stance on the Arctic is outlined in a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy”, first released in 2018. In the paper, China declares itself a ‘responsible power’, recognising a global role of Arctic and the need for international cooperation in the region.[xvii] Chinese claims are obviously not about national jurisdiction—conversely, Chinese policy stresses the role of international governance as well as freedom of scientific and commercial activities. Still, China is clearly motivated by national interests, as the Arctic is perceived as a potential trade route for China, the so-called “Arctic Silk Route”.  Considering such an approach, Chinese interests are surprisingly in line with NATO’s goals of ensuring freedom of navigation and peaceful dispute resolution in the region. The Arctic may in fact become one area for valuable dialogue and cooperation with China, at least in the near future. Nevertheless, the strategic importance of Arctic routes as outlined by Admiral Radakin cannot be overlooked within the 360-Defence structure of NATO.

Another aspect stressed in the document is the need for political cohesion and unity. All Allies are recommended to consult “on all major issues of Euro-Atlantic security, including in advance of military operations affecting Allied interests (where operationally possible), or when the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of an Ally is threatened or undermined.”[xviii] The Arctic issue clearly constitutes such a major issue. With the region becoming increasingly important for stakeholders both in its direct proximity and in other regions of the world—including among the broader group of Observer States of the Arctic Council, which ranges from Italy and Switzerland to Singapore, India, and China—NATO cannot afford internal inconsistency in its Arctic policy. In line with the recommendations published in the “NATO 2030 – United for a New Era”, the Alliance should strive for a common view on the Arctic, unobstructed by mutual territorial disputes and conflicting interests that are of secondary nature in comparison to environmental threats and the rising global role of the Arctic.


It is encouraging to see the Arctic brought up in the latest NATO 2030 document, which will serve as the basis for the new Strategic Concept of the Alliance. As the recommendations are likely to become the cornerstone of the NATO 2030 initiative, it is safe to assume that an Arctic agenda of some sort will soon become a permanent part of the Alliance’s defence structure. This might indeed be considered a turning point in the history of the Arctic. The 2030 Review already achieved one considerable success, as it managed to stimulate a debate on the future of the Alliance in member states. However, given the current legal situation, it is mostly up to individual Allies to build a secure environment in the Arctic. NATO can and should act as a facilitator of disputes between its Allies, even if the disputes, such as those between the United States and Canada, seem marginal. Only after the disputes are settled will NATO be able to develop a coherent Arctic policy, which could then be promoted as the basis for future international cooperation in the region. Such a document would take into account states’ economic profits, the sustainability of the environment, and military security resulting from peaceful administration and exploration of the continent. A prime example that such an outcome is possible is the agreement between Russia and Norway, which ended a 40-year dispute over the Barents Sea. Even though the 2010 agreement is not a perfect solution, leaving open the issue of maritime zones around Svalbard[xix] and causing concerns in the states in question,[xx] it may still be a source of inspiration to strive toward bilateral, amicable solutions in the Arctic. Interestingly, the agreement was accepted on Norway’s behalf by the government of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg before he became the NATO Secretary General.

The development of a common policy, linked with the actual presence of NATO in the Arctic, be it through the creation of an Allied SAR unit, activity of new icebreaker vessels, or simply putting greater emphasis on military exercises in the Far North, will be yet another test of the unity and strength of the Alliance—perhaps one of the most complicated. NATO does indeed have all the tools to secure its goals in the Arctic, but what it still needs is both political will and a formal basis for its work in the region. The ongoing discussions around a new Strategic Concept indicate that there are chances to secure both those needs in the near future.

About the Author

Filip Walczak is the NATO Youth Delegate of Poland and a lawyer graduating from the Faculty of Law and Administration of the University of Gdańsk. A member of Polish Geopolitical Society, his main fields of interest include human rights law, maritime law, and maritime security, as well as youth engagement in NATO. Apart from his academic and professional activities, he is an avid NGO activist, supporting young people and his local community with legal knowledge as an experienced member of the Independent Students’ Association.



[i] Cold Response exercises have been held regularly since 2006 as a countermeasure against Russian displays of strength in the North. The exercise is open to Partnership for Peace countries, with  Sweden and Finland in particular being frequent participants. This year’s Cold Response was planned to include some 16,000 soldiers from 10 countries, combining elements of amphibious warfare with winter conditions in the northernmost part of Norway.

[ii] “Cold Response 2020 Cancelled”, High North News, March 11, 2020, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/cold-response-2020-cancelled.

[iii] “China May Pose Threat to UK as Northern Sea Route Clears, Says Navy Chief”, The Guardian, October 8, 2020, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/08/china-strategic-threat-t....

[iv] “Russia’s Imposing Arktika Icebreaker Heads North”, Asia Times, September 24, 2020, accessed December 10, 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2020/09/russias-troubled-arktika-icebreaker-heads-....

[v] These are: Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic signed in 2011, Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic signed in 2013, and Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation signed in 2017.

[vi] John Hannesian, “The Antarctic Treaty 1959”, The International and Comparative Law Quarterly 9, no. 3, Cambridge University Press (1960): 437–438.

[vii] “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, inter alia, any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, as well as the testing of any type of weapon.” Article I Para. 1. of the Antarctic Treaty (1959), https://www.ats.aq/e/antarctictreaty.html.

[viii] “The High North: Emerging Challenges and Opportunities”, NATO Parliamentary Assembly Science and Technology Committee Report, October 2015: 3.

[ix] Sebastian Petrick, et al., “Climate Change, Future Arctic Sea Ice, and the Competitiveness of European Arctic Offshore Oil and Gas Production on World Markets”, Ambio 46, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (2017).

[x] “Arctic Climate Change Update 2019”, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, 2019: 6, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.amap.no/documents/doc/AMAP-Climate-Change-Update-2019/1761.

[xi] Ibid., 8

[xii] As early as in 1972, a Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment proclaimed, that “Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.” For ECHR judgements touching upon the right to environment, see, inter alia, judgments: L.C.B. v. the United Kingdom, no. 23413/94, 9 June 1998, Budayeva and others v. Russia, no. 48939/02, 21166/02, 20058/02, 11673/02, 15343/02, 20 March 2008, as well as D. Kania v. Poland, no. 44436/13, 4 November 2016.

[xiii] See, in particular, the judgement D. Kania v. Poland, no. 44436/13, 4 November 2016, which deals with state’s misconduct in the area of noise pollution.

[xiv] “Danish Climate Policies”, accessed December 10, 2020, https://ens.dk/en/our-responsibilities/energy-climate-politics/danish-cl....

[xv] For a detailed comparison of national capacities of each Arctic state, see “Military Capabilities in the Arctic: A New Cold War in the High North?” SIPRI Background Paper, October 2016.

[xvi] “NATO 2030: United for a New Era. Analysis and Recommendations of the Reflection Group Appointed by the NATO Secretary General”, November 2020: 41, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2020/12/pdf/201201-Re....

[xvii] “Chinese Arctic Policy”, The People’s Republic of China, accessed December 29, 2020, http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2018/01/26/content_2814760....

[xviii] Ibid., 51.

[xix] Michał Jan Filipek and Dzmitry Hruzdou, “Maritime Delimitation in the Barents Sea and International Practice in Maritime Delimitation”, XXXI Polish Yearbook of International Law, 2011: 227.

[xx] Vyacheslav K. Zilanov, “Delimitation Between Russia and Norway in the Arctic: New Challenges and Cooperation”, Arctic and North, no. 29 (2017): 32–40.


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