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Walking on thin ice: NATO, climate change and the Arctic

Walking on thin ice: NATO, climate change and the Arctic


After the end of the Cold War, the Arctic shifted from a heavily militarised area to a hub of peaceful cooperation under the premises of the Arctic Council; but today, climate change threatens to change the High North's equilibrium, again. Rising temperatures and melting ice have opened new commercial routes and disclosed natural resources previously unavailable. As a consequence, Arctic and non-Arctic countries are directing their strategic focus to the North Pole. Russia, in particular, is renovating its military assets and enhancing its economic presence. NATO faces a security dilemma: ignore Moscow’s Arctic stance and let member states handle the situation or militarise the Arctic with the risk of escalation. This paper examines this dilemma in order to answer the following question: how can NATO play a role in the Arctic by balancing climate and security implications? This article proceeds as follows: after analysing the impact of climate change on the Arctic, it scrutinises Russia and China's interests in the region to assess the margins of collaboration on military topics through the current cooperative frameworks. The conclusions find that the Alliance is walking on thin ice: whereas militarisation is not an option, the fora to discuss military issues are limited. While NATO Arctic members should continue participating in regional cooperative mechanisms, like the Arctic Council, the Alliance should increase its situational awareness in the High North. In this way, NATO would find its place in the Arctic by balancing climate and security considerations.


By Alessio Cartosio


NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s words perfectly sum up the intertwined relationship between climate change and security in the Arctic: “The melting of Arctic ice [...] is a strategic issue, and it reflects something which is very dangerous: that actually climate change is taking place now”.[i]  After being one of the most militarised areas during the Cold War, the Arctic became a hub for depoliticised cooperation in the post-Cold War era, removed from Great Power competition.[ii] Now, climate change is stripping the region of this unique attribute. Rising temperatures and melting ice have opened new commercial routes and disclosed natural resources previously unavailable.[iii] Attracted by new opportunities, Arctic and non-Arctic countries are starting to drive their strategic focus toward the North Pole. The assertiveness of Russia, in particular, risks turning the region into a geopolitical hotspot.[iv]

In this heated scenario, NATO faces a security dilemma: ignoring the assertiveness of Russia, and to a lesser extent China, may give NATO rivals a strategic advantage in the long term, but engaging in the Arctic may exacerbate tensions with Moscow and Beijing and lead to potential escalations.[v] Given that four out of five Arctic littoral states are NATO members, what role can the Alliance play in the region that balances security and environmental implications? This article aims at answering this question by analysing the impact of climate change on the Arctic region. It then assesses the Arctic policies of Russia, China, and NATO.  After that, it highlights the existing fora for cooperation among Arctic countries.


Climate change and the Arctic

The Arctic was of strategic relevance during the Cold War as it was the area where American and Soviet soil were closest to each other. This proximity implied that the shortest trajectory for nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union crossed the Arctic. The situation changed at the end of the 1980s. As part of the perestroika process, USSR Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev launched the Murmansk Initiative, a series of confidence-building measures encompassing military, economic, and environmental issues.[vi] The goal of this initiative was to foster East-West disarmament dialogue on the Arctic. The Murmansk Initiative was successful in non-military sectors while progress was weak in the military domain. Nevertheless, the initiative contributed to the building of trust among East and West and led to the creation of a series of cooperative mechanisms such as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation.[vii]

Among the organisations resulting from the Murmansk Initiative, the Arctic Council is by far the most relevant in the region. Founded with the Ottawa Declaration in 1996, the Arctic Council gathers officials from the eight Arctic littoral states and representatives of indigenous people. The lack of strategic relevance combined with the Arctic’s peculiar geography has facilitated collaboration between Arctic Council members on a wide variety of topics. However, this equilibrium started to crack at the beginning of the century, when the effects of climate change on the High North became visible. 

The Arctic is affected by the Arctic amplification process, a series of environmental mechanisms linked to the peculiar geography of the region that results in temperatures rising at a faster pace. The amplification process, coupled with the warming of waters, the acidification of oceans, and the release of greenhouse gases, has made the Arctic a vulnerable area.[viii] The year 2020 broke a new record: it was the warmest Arctic summer on record, and the ice coverage reduced to its second lowest level.[ix]

If, on the one side, climate change is endangering ecosystems and liveability, on the other side, receding ice and rising temperatures have opened new commercial routes and disclosed natural resources previously unavailable.[x] The Arctic seabed is rich in oil, natural gas, and rare earth elements, and Arctic states are competing to extend their exclusive economic zones.[xi]

Enticed by these new possibilities, Arctic and non-Arctic states are increasing their strategic focus on the region. The United States, China, Russia, Norway, the UK, and the EU and its member states have drafted strategies and policy documents that set objectives and guidelines to exploit the Arctic’s potential.[xii] Moreover, all countries recognise the security implications of the intensification of activities in the North Pole.[xiii] Russia, above all, adopted an assertive approach, based on the renovation of its military fleet and investments in the energy sector.

The race to the Arctic confirms the intertwined relationship between climate change and security. As in many other areas of the world, climate change acts as an amplifier of security issues.[xiv] Moreover, climate change reverses the classic paradigms of security. While usually militaries face traditional security threats, civil society deals with the effects of wars and conflicts; in the case of climate change, societies face the threats of global warming, while the militaries cope with its consequences.[xv]

In the Arctic case, climate change has brought a depoliticised and forgotten region back into the geopolitical spotlight. This return to Great Power competition is clearly visible in Russia’s Arctic stance.

Russia in the Arctic

In 2007, two mini submarines installed a Russian flag in the Lomonosov Ridge, a disputed underwater area. Observers saw the episode as proof of increasing competition into which the Arctic is sinking.[xvi]

The foundations of Russia’s Arctic policy lay on two interlinked and conflicting pillars: economy and security. After the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the resulting Western sanctions, the Arctic, with its natural resources and new trade routes, has been a natural way out for the Russian economy. Russia’s energy policy has heavily invested in Siberia and the Russian Far East, with the Yamal LNG plant displaying its main achievements. In addition, the accessibility of the Northern Sea Route has halved the navigation time for goods directed to Asia.[xvii] This new route also gives Moscow the power to impose taxes, levies, or even block traffic, leveraging the five chokepoints present along the sealine.[xviii]

Given their economic relevance, the protection of the Yamal Peninsula and the control over the Northern Sea Route are an integral part of Russian security calculations. The principle that guides Russia is the Arctic bastion concept. The bastion concept is a Cold War strategy that aims at protecting ballistic missile submarines concentrated in circumscribed maritime areas and defended through a diffuse system of sensors, mines, coastal and surface-to-air missiles (SAM), and maritime and air capabilities.[xix] The Arctic bastion concept centres around the defence of the Kola Peninsula, the home of Russian sea-based nuclear assets and the Northern Fleet, and aims at area control of the Barents Sea, the Norwegian Sea, and the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, a Cold War moniker for the North Atlantic passages.[xx] As the principal chokepoint between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, the GIUK Gap is crucial for NATO and Russia’s strategic interests.


The GIUK Gap – Source: Finnish Institute of International Affairs


While in the bipolar world, the bastion had a merely defensive nature, aiming at the creation of a space for sea control and sea denial activities, today it also serves power projection and offensive purposes as it ensures the access of the Northern Fleet to the North Atlantic through the GIUK gap. [xxi] The Arctic bastion concept has led to the build-up and modernisation of the Russian Northern Fleet and the reopening of Cold War military installations.

The two pillars of Russia’s Arctic stance are conflicting. If economic affairs require peace and cooperation, other countries may perceive the military build-up as aggressive behaviour. Nevertheless, the new Russian Arctic Strategy signed by President Putin last October confirms the pathway followed so far in the region. The new document focuses primarily on social and economic development and national security.[xxii] The strategy leaves aside climate change and environmental issues and provides a strong focus on the economic benefits of the region, namely oil, natural gas, and shipping through the Northern Sea Route.[xxiii] In the security chapter, the document recognises the growing conflict potential in the region and highlights the central role played by the Northern Fleet.


China in the High North

Beijing has adopted a different tactic in the Arctic. China has justified its involvement in the High North on the basis of climate change: as the warming of our planet affects all countries without distinction, China believes to have a legitimate right to intervene in the Arctic.[xxiv] Unlike Russia, China’s Arctic approach pivots exclusively around economic and commercial interests. The new Arctic sea lanes are part of the Polar Silk Road. Moreover, China is interested in obtaining access to mineral and fishing resources. For this reason, it has concluded a free trade agreement with Iceland and heavily invested in the mineral sector in Greenland.[xxv]

Even if its behaviour in the North Pole is still inoffensive for the moment, China may soon underpin its growing economic influence with military hard power.[xxvi]


NATO and its member states in the Arctic

Until now, NATO has not elaborated on a comprehensive Arctic policy. Despite five Arctic states being members of the Alliance, NATO has recurred to a hands-off approach. The lack of an official doctrine for the High North is due to two reasons. First, the region was at the margins of world politics after the end of the Cold War; and second, some NATO Arctic members have always rejected the Alliance’s direct involvement in order to safeguard their sovereignty and pursue national interests.[xxvii]

Canada is a good example of how national interests prevail over NATO’s direct involvement. In its Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, Canada stresses its enduring sovereignty in the Arctic and the need to enhance its military presence and domain awareness.[xxviii] NATO is not even mentioned in the Strategy: there are just some generic references to bilateral cooperation.[xxix] Moreover, Ottawa has always had conflicting views with Washington over the Northwest Passage, a sea route that links the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean along the Northern Coast of North America and through the Canadian Arctic archipelago. While for Canada the passage is part of Canadian waters, the United States labels this sea route as international and claims the right to transit American vessels.


The Northwest Passage – Source: The Economist


Apart from sovereignty claims, one may also imagine that Southern and Eastern NATO members would welcome an Arctic doctrine with scepticism, as they traditionally fear a drain of time and resources from other crises and scenarios.

NATO held its first seminar on the security prospects in the High North in 2009.[xxx] Since then, NATO’s involvement in the Arctic has progressively grown: a series of exercises have been conducted in partnership with the Alliance’s members and with Sweden and Finland, which are part of the Partnership for Peace programme.[xxxi] The last action to support this growing engagement is the reopening of NATO North Atlantic Command, in Norfolk, Virginia, with responsibilities to defend the GIUK gap.[xxxii] Nevertheless, an official Arctic Policy is still missing.

Even if the NATO Arctic states refuse to concede a formal role to the Alliance, they acknowledge the increasing security threats in the region. Norway’s recent Artic policy paper is a good example. The chapter on security, placed first in the document, highlights the increasing assertiveness of Russia and the build-up and the modernization of its military assets.[xxxiii] Despite describing cooperation with Russia as good on a wide variety of topics, from fisheries to nuclear security, Norway’s current Arctic policy is a radical departure from the 2011 Artic paper that described Moscow as a ‘reliable partner’.[xxxiv]

The United States is following the same path. At the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in April 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out Russia and China for intensifying their activities in the Arctic.[xxxv] Pompeo also reproached Canada for its sovereignty claims over the Northwest Passage, which he labelled as illegitimate.[xxxvi] Furthermore, several US military agencies have been publishing strategies about the security situation in the Arctic.[xxxvii]

Even if NATO manages to overcome the vetoes imposed by its Arctic members, the Alliance will find itself in a security dilemma. On one side, ignoring Russia’s assertive behaviour may give its rival a strategic advantage. On the other side, establishing an Arctic policy may cause retaliation from Moscow and Beijing and lead to a military escalation in the region. Bilateral cooperation and multilateral dialogue seem to be the only ways to overcome this deadlock, but discussions on military issues with Moscow have been blocked since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014. Given the impossibility of a Russia-NATO dialogue, the only viable solution is cooperation between Arctic NATO members and Moscow within a cooperative regional framework.


Cooperative governance of the Arctic

Governance of the Arctic rests on international law, intergovernmental organisations, and informal fora to create a solid framework of bilateral and multilateral cooperation.[xxxviii] The Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Barents Regional Council, and the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea have proved capable of fostering dialogue in a depoliticised Arctic. Despite increasing areas of confrontation, this system, rooted in the 1990s and the Murmansk Initiative, is still fruitful today.

The UN Commission on the Delimitation of Maritime Shelves has solved most of the disputes over continental shelf delimitation. Arctic countries have signed a Polar Code covering civilian traffic in the Arctic and concluded a moratorium on fishing activities in the Central Arctic Ocean.[xxxix] Despite the stalemate reached in 2019 due to American scepticism on climate change, the Arctic Council and the fora for cooperation in the region will continue functioning in the years to come.

The return of geopolitics caused by climate change has brought security and military issues to the top of the Arctic agenda. Security in the Arctic has traditionally been discussed through non-military lenses. The priorities of existing mechanisms for cooperation have always been environmental degradation and its spillover effects in the realm of security, such as oil spills or incidents at sea. However, due to the increasing assertiveness of Russia, hard security issues cannot be neglected anymore.

In the last couple of years, Arctic governance has expanded and enhanced its scope on soft security issues deriving from environmental degradation. The Arctic Council, through its Working Group Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group, concluded a series of binding conventions. These documents address soft security issues like the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in 2011 and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in 2013.

In 2016, the eight Arctic countries also created the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF). The ACGF is an independent, informal, operationally driven organisation aimed at fostering secure and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic. The chairmanship of this forum rotates every two years in concert with the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. So far, the ACGF has organised two combined Search and Rescue and Mass Rescue Operation Exercises: one in 2017 in Reykjavik, Iceland, and one in 2019, in the sea area outside Uusikaupunki, Finland.

Despite these efforts to cover soft security issues, Arctic governance is still missing a key piece in its architecture: a forum or an organisation to discuss military-to-military issues. In this regard, how can NATO find its place in the Arctic given that militarisation is not an option and dialogue on military issues is not possible?


Walking on thin ice: Recommendations for NATO

When it comes to the Arctic, NATO is walking on thin ice. An official NATO posture, through a dedicated strategy or a regional command, is not possible. As demonstrated in the previous paragraphs, several NATO Arctic members wish to maintain their sovereignty and room for manoeuvre in the High North. Even if the Alliance would manage to overcome the opposition of its members, an official NATO Arctic policy should be avoided due to the High North security dilemma.

However, the Alliance should not neglect its Arctic dimension. To avoid giving its rivals a strategic edge and, at the same time, prevent militarisation, NATO Arctic members should engage in more frequent and deeper unilateral and bilateral cooperation focused on cold-weather training, military exercises, and rotational force deployments.[xl] Given that individual member states would carry out these activities, Russia will not be scared by the NATO moniker. In this way, NATO Arctic states would improve their capabilities and readiness, and indirectly, also the capacity of the Alliance to act in the High North. The Alliance should also increase its situational awareness in the region by improving its coverage through radar and satellites.[xli]

The involvement of NATO Arctic members in the regional cooperative framework should continue as it helps to mitigate the impact of climate change and its spillover effects in the realm of security. Continued cooperation can contribute to confidence building among Arctic actors and build the right conditions to discuss military issues.

Security in the Arctic will certainly stay high on the international agenda in the coming years. Russia, which will chair the Arctic Council from April 2021, has already made clear that security will be a priority of its presidency. Therefore, the Alliance should be ready for whatever scenario the future holds.


About the Author

Alessio Cartosio is junior policy officer at ERGaR and GIE. He concluded his studies in international relations and European studies with high honours at the University of Genova in 2019. The same year, he won a scholarship from the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry to attend the College of Europe. In the MA programme on EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies, he wrote a thesis on capability development at the EU level under the supervision of former HR/VP Federica Mogherini. His main interests include security and defence issues as well as climate and energy policies. 



[i] Jens Stoltenberg, NATO and the security implications of climate change, Virtual speech held on 28 September 2020.

[ii] Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv and Kara K. Hodgson, “Arctic Exceptionalism” or “comprehensive security”? Understanding security in the Arctic”, in Arctic Yearbook 2019.

[iii] NATO Parliamentary Assembly, NATO and Security in the Arctic, Political Committee, 2017, pp. 4–5.

[iv] Margaret Blunden, “The New Problem of Arctic Stability”, Survival 51, no. 5 (2009).

[v] Kristian Atland, “Interstate relations in the Arctic: An Emerging Security Dilemma?” Comparative Strategy 33, no. 2 (2014): 8.

[vi] Kristian Atland, “Mikhail Gorbachev, the Murmansk Initiative, and the Desecurization of Interstate Relations in the Arctic”, Cooperation and Conflict 43, no. 3: 290.

[vii] Ibid., p. 308.

[viii] Bram De Botselier, Sofía López Piqueres, and Simon Schunz, “Addressing the ‘Arctic Paradox’: Environmental Policy Integration in the European Union’s Emerging Arctic Policy”, EU Diplomacy Paper, no. 3 (2018): 4–6.

[ix] Malte Humpert, “Arctic Sea Ice Shrinks to Second-Lowest Extent Amid Record High Temperatures”, High North News, September 22, 2020, https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/arctic-sea-ice-shrinks-second-lowest-ex....

[x] De Botselier, López Piqueres, and Schunz, “Addressing the ‘Arctic Paradox’”.

[xi] Kristian Atland, “The Arctic: rising temperatures, rising tensions?”, Atlantic Community, July 19, 2019, https://atlantic-community.org/the-arctic-rising-temperatures-rising-ten....

[xii] Marc Lanteigne, “The changing shape of Arctic security”, NATO Review, June 28, 2019, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2019/06/28/the-changing-shape-....

[xiii] Andrea Charron, “NATO and the Geopolitical Future of the Arctic”, in Arctic Yearbook 2020.

[xiv] Alexander Verbeek, “Planetary Security: the security implications of climate change”, NATO Review, December 10, 2019, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2019/12/10/planetary-security-....

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Tom Parfitt, “Russian plants flag on North Pole seabed”, The Guardian, August 2, 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/aug/02/russia.arctic.

[xvii] William Booth and Amie Ferris-Rotman, “Russia’s Suez Canal? Ships start plying a less-icy Arctic, thanks to climate change”, The Washington Post, September 8, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russias-suez-canal-ships-sta....

[xviii] 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....

[xix] James Lacey, “Battle of the Bastions”, War on the Rocks, January 9, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/01/battle-of-the-bastions/.

[xx] Harri Mikkola, “Geostrategic Arctic: Hard security in the High North”, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, April 11, 2019, https://www.fiia.fi/sv/publikation/the-geostrategic-arctic?read.

[xxi] Mathieu Boulègue, “Russia’s Military Posture in the Arctic Managing Hard Power in a ‘Low Tensions’ Environment”, Chatam House, London, 2019, pp. 6–7.

[xxii] Elizabeth Buchanan, “The overhaul of Russian strategic planning for the Arctic Zone to 2035”, Russian Studies Series, 3, no. 20 (2020): 4.

[xxiii] Atle Staalesen, “Behind Putin’s new Arctic Strategy lies a rude quest for natural resources”, The Barendt Observer, October 30, 2020, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/climate-crisis/2020/10/behind-putins-n....

[xxiv] Thomas Nilsen, “China seeks a more active role in the Arctic”, The Barents Observer, May 11, 2019, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2019/05/china-seeks-more-active....

[xxv] David Auerswald, “China’s Multifaceted Arctic Strategy”, War on the Rocks, May 29, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/05/chinas-multifaceted-arctic-strategy/.

[xxvi] NATO Parliamentary Assembly, NATO and Security in the Arctic, 8.

[xxvii] 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....

[xxviii] Government of Canada, Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1560523306861/1560523330587#s8.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] NATO, NATO discusses security prospects in the High North, January 29, 2009, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/news_49745.htm.

[xxxi] Olena Podvorna and Taras Zhovtenko, “NATO Arctic Policy in Statu Nascendi”, Romanian Political Science Review, XIX, no. 2 (2019): 176.

[xxxii] Levon Sevunts, “NATO’s new Atlantic command to keep watch over the European Arctic”, The Barents Observer, September 18, 2020, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2020/09/natos-new-atlantic-co....

[xxxiii] Atle Staalesen, “Erna Solberg’s new Arctic Policy outlines dramatic shift in regional security”, The Barendt Observer, December 1, 2020, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic-arctic-lng-arctic-mining-covid-....

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Michael R. Pompeo, “Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus”, Speech at the 2019 Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, May 6, 2019, https://www.state.gov/looking-north-sharpening-americas-arctic-focus/.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Marc Lanteigne, “Damage Control: Arctic Policy after the US Election”, Over the Circle, October 22, 2020, https://overthecircle.com.

[xxxviii] Annika Bergman Rosamond, “Perspectives on Security in the Arctic Area”, DIIS Report, Copenhagen, 2011, pp. 17–20.

[xxxix] Auerswald, “NATO in the Arctic: Keep its role limited, for now”.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] Boulègue, “Russia’s Military Posture in the Arctic”, 33.

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

Saturday, 2 January, 2021 - 13:00