Given Russia’s renewed strategic emphasis on the military and economic development of the Arctic, the newest area of confrontation between NATO and Russia might not be in continental Europe - it might be in the Arctic.


The Russian polar explorers, who traveled to the Arctic to set up a new drifting station SP-40. Photo: RIA Novosti

The Russians have big plans for the Arctic in 2015. Vladimir Putin’s newly created Northern Fleet-Unified Strategic Command is a specialized Arctic military force that will be fully prepared to meet “unwanted guests” by 2015, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic

By the end of 2014, Russia expects to complete the development of its Arctic military structure. A closed, Soviet-era base on Kotelny Island has reopened to safeguard Arctic shipping, and is intended to be the first in a chain of similar airbases that will open along Russia’s northern coastline. Radar installations at new military camps on Cape Schmidt and Wrangel Island have just begun operation in order to have full radar coverage of the Arctic by the end of this year.

It is clear that Russia is prioritizing the replacement of its aging infrastructure in the High North and establishing a strong presence there as quickly as possible. In total, the country is building 10 radar stations, 13 airfields, a new Arctic combat training center in the Far East, and an air-ground firing range in the far north. In 2015, Russia is planning an airdrop operation with paratroopers in the Arctic and is projected to finish construction on five new icebreaking ships.

While it makes sense that Russia wants to protect its economic interests as thousands of miles of Arctic coastline become accessible for longer periods each year, it is potentially counterproductive for Russia to increase tension and hostility in the area. Given Russia’s controversial actions elsewhere, and the rapid buildup of capabilities, other countries with interests in the Arctic need to focus more attention on the changing dynamics of the High North.

Russia’s increasing militarization of the Arctic comes at an interesting time. In April, the United States will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a forum that focuses on environmental preservation, climate change, and the welfare of indigenous populations. This will place the United States in the unique position of promoting and facilitating cooperation with all Arctic nations while monitoring Russia’s northern military expansion with its NATO partners.

NATO is ready to respond to the militarization of the Arctic

A NATO official in Brussels, speaking anonymously, emphasized the importance of the Arctic Council, rather than defense forces, as the primary facilitator of dialogue in the Arctic, explaining that, “The countries of the Arctic Council have built a strong relationship based on cooperation, rather than confrontation. We trust that that will continue.” However, the official continued, “NATO is responsible for the security of all its members. We have taken a number of important decisions aimed to ensure that NATO can defend its Allies against any security threat, wherever it comes from.”

On more than one occasion, NATO has stated its intention not to militarize the Arctic, despite increasing provocations from Russia. In a speech delivered in May 2013, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made it clear that, “The Arctic… rewards cooperation, not confrontation.”

Magnus Nordenman, Deputy Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, explains that, “There is no consensus on (a direct Arctic presence) among the Allies. While Norway would very much like to see a NATO role in the Arctic, Canada is more skeptical of that approach. Denmark finds itself somewhere in between. The argument whether NATO in the Arctic would provide additional stability, or become an additional irritant, in the NATO-Russia relationship is not yet settled.”

In late October, NATO intercepted 26 Russian jets in the space of two days. This prompted General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, to come to the Pentagon to request an increase in air and ground troops in Eastern Europe. Breedlove explained that the Russians are “messaging us that they are a great power and that they have the ability to exert these kinds of influences in our thinking” and warned that NATO and Russia had reached a “strategic inflection point.”


New NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway arrives to chair his first meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels October 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s new Secretary General, remarked that, “We are investing in high readiness, high capabilities… increasing air policing as an answer to the increased air activity that we are seeing from Russia.”

Norway has led other NATO countries in developing its defense capacity in the Arctic, and has been advocating for a long time to establish a direct military presence in the north. In an address at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. this June, Norway’s Minister of Defense, Ine Eriksen Søreide, explained her nation’s current thinking on the Arctic.  She raises eyebrows at the idea of cooperation in the Arctic, because “there are some side effects which we as an Arctic nation cannot overlook.”

“After the unacceptable Russian aggression in Ukraine, when Russia crossed vital red lines of international law, we suspended all bilateral military activities until the end of 2014,” she claims in her address. “Stability in our area and in the High North is best secured through the Alliance.”

What is NATO’s vision of the Arctic

However, NATO’s Vision 2020, an outline of the organization’s most important strategic concepts, does not mention the Arctic. NATO also does not have an Arctic strategy. There is a wide discrepancy in the amount that Arctic nations prioritize the formulation of a unified strategy: Norway wrote its first High North Strategy in 2006, while the United States did not develop a national strategy until 2013.

(The U.S. developed a comprehensive Arctic Policy in 2009, but the 2013 strategy and 2014 implementation plan for the strategy committed resources and action, whereas the 2009 policy did not).

According to Nordenman, “NATO needs to at least start thinking about the Arctic, and integrate it into other efforts already underway, such as the operationalization of its maritime strategy. It would be impossible for the Alliance to devise a full-fledged Arctic strategy when all NATO members are not on board with NATO having a more direct role there. NATO should watch this space closely, but not overhype it. The Arctic does not need to be another friction point between Russia and the West.”

NATO’s lack of an Arctic strategy means that member nations are continuing to develop their own northern defense policies. Canadian Forces are constructing a series of Northern Operations Hubs that will allow them to stockpile equipment and facilitate rapid troop movement, and is forging agreements with foreign governments to create an international system of hubs.

Denmark has had a specialized military command for its Arctic territories since 2012, and the United States has more than 22,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines stationed in Alaska.  Iceland’s President, Ólafur Grímsson, has emphasized the importance of Arctic security in several international speeches. And Finland and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding with NATO in the September NATO summit in Wales, allowing for a closer partnership between the Arctic countries. Finland’s shipbuilding expertise could assist NATO countries in the future with oil spills, emergency response, and defense in Arctic waters.

Like Russia, NATO countries have carried out several exercises in the Arctic in the past few years. The biannual, Norwegian-led Exercise Cold Response in March 2014 brought 16,000 soldiers from 16 countries to Harstad, North Norway to practice high-intensity operations in extreme conditions. American and Danish forces have also cooperated in Canada’s annual Operation Nanook since 2010. Exercise Arctic Zephyr, a search and rescue exercise held alternately between the United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and U.S. European Command (EUCOM), will take place in 2015.

Coast Guard Commander Richter Tipton of EUCOM explains the need for this exercise, “[The exercise] is intended to help develop an international community of interest among emergency response organizations in the Arctic and assist participating nations in the operational implementation of the (2012 Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic). The purpose of Arctic Zephyr is to strengthen Arctic nation partnerships by advancing mutual understanding of Arctic Search and Rescue capabilities and by supporting information sharing.”

NATO is not planning any exercises in the Arctic in 2015. The organization is instead looking south to plan Trident Juncture, the largest military exercise in the last 20 years, which will involve 40,000 troops in large-scale maneuvers across Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Such a massive show of force will almost certainly prompt a response by Russia. And because the Arctic is such a unique operational environment, exercising in the region is important for understanding what is needed to improve capabilities.

How Russia and NATO can find common ground despite Ukraine’s crisis

Despite NATO’s intentions to protect the Arctic from conflict, it is important to formulate a formal strategy for response in the context of the Ukraine crisis and the militarization of Russia’s north. EUCOM has determined that, “The majority of Arctic NATO nations are interested in increasing NATO participation in the Arctic.”

However, an increased NATO presence in the North would likely antagonize Russia. There is therefore an opportunity for a new partnership structure that could allow militaries of the region to better communicate with one another.

In an address at the Halifax International Security Forum in 2013, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel conveyed a message of hope that the U. S. and NATO will “strengthen our military-to-military ties with other Arctic nations. This includes Russia, with whom the United States and Canada share common interests in the Arctic, creating the opportunity to pursue practical cooperation between our militaries and our nations and promote greater transparency.”

The creation of a joint task force on the Arctic could both formalize the sharing of information and increase transparency to the Russians without appearing confrontational, and could provide maritime assistance in emergency situations. Individual Allies such as Denmark, Norway, and Canada are more active with their militaries in the Arctic and provide situational awareness to the rest of the Allies through briefings and information sharing.

NATO members could also invest in a long-range intelligence and surveillance system that would provide more information across the expanse of the Arctic. And the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, an informal, semi-annual meeting of military officials from Arctic and Allied countries, could evolve into a more formal and structured way for Arctic militaries to coordinate.

Related: Four dangerous myths about Russia's plans for the Arctic.

The icebreaker "Murmansk" leading the ship "Pushlakhta" through ice in the Yenisei Bay of the Arctic Ocean. Event date - 1973. Photo: RIA Novosti