NATO, Russia, and the Strategic Importance of the Arctic
Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has reestablished the relevance of NATO and its commitment to deterring Russian aggression. An increase in weapons sales and allied training drills represents a renewed interest by European countries in the continent's security. Yet, even as Russia's military has become bogged down through operational and strategic failures in Ukraine, its navy has been able to operate freely. While some losses have occurred in the Black Sea due to Ukrainian drone strikes, the impact on Russia's operational ability is relatively insignificant if not humiliating.
The capability of the Russian navy, coupled with the evident effects of climate change in the Arctic which has reduced the ice pack, opens the potential for a new battleground and strategic challenge for Europe that NATO has been reluctant to engage in for decades. The growing threat of Russian influence in the Arctic Circle means that NATO must adapt its way of thinking to address this growing security concern.
Vladimir Putin's 2035 Arctic Strategy refocuses the nation's efforts to exploit vast northern riches that are becoming more accessible due to melting permafrost caused by climate change. Putin hopes to use these Arctic resources such as oil and heavy metals to boost the economy and renew, expand, and develop military facilities across its Arctic territory, mainly but not exclusively centered on the Northern Sea Route. In October of 2023, Russia's Northern Fleet was stripped of its title as an "interspecific strategic territorial association," and Russia transferred its four constituent regions to the reformed Leningrad Military District. The recreation of the Leningrad Military District, stationed close to Finland and NATO territory, suggests that Russia is preparing for possible conflict with the Baltic States and NATO. Finland shares an 800-mile border with Russia, making it the most vulnerable but also strategically threatening NATO country to Russian aggression in the Arctic region. Following the invasion of Ukraine, there was concern that Finland would be the next target. However, those fears have mostly alleviated given Finland’s new NATO protection and the fact that many of the Russian troops once stationed along the border were sent to Ukraine, leaving a scarce Russian military presence in the North.
Multiple Arctic and near-Arctic islands like Svalbard (Norway), the Faroe Islands and Greenland (Denmark) operate with a high level of autonomy but do not have their own national defence. In each case, Moscow has expanded its influence with little resistance from Oslo or Copenhagen. The 1920 Svalbard Treaty gave Norway sovereignty of Svalbard Island, but allowed Russia to legally mine coal since Russia was a treaty signatory. However, Russia has invited Chinese companies to partake in these mining operations, which increases the influence of another autocracy in strategically sensitive areas. Currently, Svalbard is home to China's Yellow River Research Station. Although it is understandable that NATO is more concerned with the ground and air operations in Ukraine, a renewed focus and overwhelming show of force must be conducted in the Arctic that establishes NATO dominance to discourage further incursion by Russian warships and joint economic ventures between the Kremlin and China.
Past views that the Arctic did not fall within NATO's strategic concern due to a limited number of countries having significant Arctic territory are now outdated, with the induction of Finland into the treaty and Sweden likely to soon follow. This new NATO presence and the increased access to shipping lanes in the Arctic will inevitably lead to a rise in transatlantic competition among corporations and countries seeking to exploit this economic opportunity. A focus on keeping the ships of Russia and its allies out of Arctic waters is important. Arctic resources provide economic commodities for Russia that pose the potential to undermine global sanctions aimed at weakening its economy after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If Russian-allied ships could enter Russian ports through the Arctic lanes, Russia would have an increased ability to import and export goods necessary for their war effort.
NATO's strategic planning would be wise to incorporate additional joint allied operations in Arctic conditions, as well as allow Finland and Sweden to play an influential role in defensive planning for Northern territory due to the military capability in that region. Containing Russian influence and expansion is vital in securing a peaceful future for Europe and depriving Russia of the resources necessary to secure a victory in Ukraine.