"Russia’s growing military assertiveness — in Ukraine, Syria, and beyond — has sparked fears over its intentions in the Arctic. The pace of Russian bomber patrols, submarine expeditions, and firing exercises in the Arctic are all at levels not seen since the depths of the Cold War. A growing chorus is calling for NATO to take on a greater role in the Arctic to counter Russian aggression."
"Economic changes are also taking place, although there is more anticipation than actual development: Russia, for example, has struggled to drive business along its Northern Sea Route (NSR). Economic transformation of the region is possible, but remains an open question tied to global market forces, technological developments, and continued environmental change. However, the Arctic remains one of the last relatively untapped resource reserves on the planet. This includes the growing and colorful business of iceberg water.
Changing physical characteristics and anticipated economic interests have seized the attention of political, military, and economic leaders from the eight Arctic states — Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States — as well as some non-Arctic states including China. While the Arctic has long been militarized, new technologies and new considerations are altering the composition and behavior of Arctic forces. Political change has also been occurring in the region, transforming the set of actors who shape debate and decisions. Increasing political participation by indigenous communities and organizations (given formal impetus by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007) has contributed to political change in the Arctic region at national, regional, and circumpolar levels.A Delicate Balance of Power
The intersection of change in the physical, economic, political, and military domains creates complexity and great uncertainty.
No single country dominates the Arctic. For decades, the United States and Russia maintained a delicate balance of power. But in the context of the changes now occurring, that balance of power is precarious. While a dominant regional hegemon would manage change and provide some type of stability, the Arctic lacks that center of gravity, and instead faces multiple possible outcomes (as flagged in the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment).
The two major Arctic powers — the United States and Russia — differ strongly on key issues that pertain to the future of the Arctic, including the legal status of the Northern Sea Route. Both identify as being in a competitive dyad: As part of that competition, Russia and the United States have been increasing their security presence in the Arctic. Russian fortifications on their Arctic islands have been widely analyzed: They include the construction of bases as well as installing advanced radar systems and missiles. The U.S. military will shortly be stationing F-35s at Eielson Air Force Base and work is underway to expand missile detection capabilities at Clear Air Force Station and ICBM interceptor missile defenses at Fort Greely — all in Alaska.
Therefore, in a region wracked by profound change and balanced between opposing great powers, there is potential for destabilization and a dangerous security dilemma. Where might stability and norm-setting emerge to counteract growing militarization? Could NATO serve as a source of stability?NATO in the Arctic: Pros and Cons
Given its role as the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security, it might seem natural to think that NATO involvement would stabilize the Arctic. While Russia understandably views NATO as a threat, the mechanism of collective defense and the structural process-based system built by NATO provide more predictability for Russia than ad hoc arrangements. NATO could therefore be seen as a stabilizing institution that might exert a beneficial influence on the Arctic region as it undergoes profound change. Some experts have, indeed, called for NATO to take on an expanded role in the Arctic, including bringing the Arctic into NATO’s holistic security approach and conducting a joint threat assessment, or by conducting surveillance and disaster-response operations.A Path Forward for NATO in the Arctic
However, two serious issues would complicate NATO’s ability to provide stability and norms in the Arctic. First, NATO’s involvement could dilute the influence of Arctic states. NATO is a large organization with a remit far larger than the Arctic region, and greater NATO involvement therefore risks drawing in outside states. This has traditionally been avoided by Arctic states, including both the United States and Russia. Arctic stability, and Arctic decision-making, may not benefit from the addition of the other 25 NATO states, especially those from eastern Europe, whose interests are quite different.
Second, greater NATO involvement in the region could contribute to escalation and security-dilemma dynamics. NATO is, after all, a military alliance. As NATO increases its capabilities to act in the Arctic, its capacity for interoperability, and its regional familiarity — for example, through exercises like last year’s TRIDENT JUNCTURE — it will signal that it is more of a threat to Russia. Russia is most likely to respond by stiffening its own military posture. Tit-for-tat dynamics could lead to escalation, especially in the case of accident or mishap.
If we think of NATO as serving essentially two functions, it becomes easier to parse NATO’s possible role in the Arctic. NATO is both a military-operational concept and a political-organizational concept. As a military alliance, NATO plans and exercises in order to achieve and maintain operational readiness. It also, however, structures and maintains political relationships by formalizing interaction among states, both inside and outside the alliance. Through NATO dialogue, allies speak to each other, as well as partners like Finland and Sweden — and they also speak to Russia, through the NATO-Russia Council.NATO Has a (Carefully Tailored) Role in the Arctic
The NATO-Russia Council, established in 2002 by the Rome Declaration (replacing the Permanent Joint Council), serves as a forum for consultation and joint action between NATO members and Russia. The Council is seen as having an important role in reducing misunderstandings and increasing predictability. In July 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the conclusion of a NATO-Russia Council meeting, “Our discussions are not easy. But they are important, especially when tensions are going up . . . they help to limit the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.” While the secretary general was referring to discussions over Ukraine and the INF treaty, his words could also be applied to the Arctic.
The NATO-Russia Council could be a useful forum for dialogue on security topics in the Arctic, perhaps through the formation of a new working group on Arctic security. Currently, there is no security forum for the Arctic that includes Russia (the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Arctic chiefs of defense (CHODs) meetings have excluded Russia since 2014). The region’s governance forum, the Arctic Council, does not address security matters per its founding charter. The absence of a security forum for the Arctic creates space for misunderstanding and mistrust, the accelerant of a security dilemma.
The NATO-Russia Council could be a good choice for discussing security topics in the Arctic because it is a proven, established structure that is part of a 70-year-old institution, and is therefore more familiar and predictable than a new, untested forum that would be subject to intense shaping efforts by both sides of the U.S.-Russia dyad. On the other hand, as mentioned above, NATO includes countries far away from the Arctic. Some non-Arctic countries may have a strong interest in the region — like the UK and France — and might be important to include in an Arctic-focused security dialogue. NATO partners Sweden and Finland should be included. But not all NATO members and not all partners would have relevance.
A greater role for NATO in the Arctic should be deliberately calibrated to build stability and positive norms — reaching back to core NATO values, and the role of NATO as a value and norm-building institution. It should be carefully constructed to avoid contributing to escalation or the development of a security dilemma. While a greater operational NATO presence in the Arctic is likely to increase tension, NATO’s organizational function might serve a useful role in filling the dialogue gap on Arctic security.Shaping is escalating. Just reading this oped that much is clear. One cannot shape/alter/change advance/embed NATO in the Arctic without it being perceived as an escalation.
The Arctic is undergoing profound environmental, geopolitical, and economic shifts. If NATO can establish its values, like the rule of law, as Arctic norms, that could help stabilize the region. In a time of complex change, the familiar, predictable NATO institution might be a good choice to begin building towards a more stable future. NATO’s role in the Arctic must be shaping, not escalating"