How to Take Advantage of NATO Enlargement in the Arctic

commentary

Jun 24, 2024

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS <em>Prince of Wales</em> leads a fifteen-ship formation of ships from the United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group and the NATO Amphibious Task Group during Exercise Nordic Response 24 in the Norwegian Sea, March 11, 2024, photo by Belinda Alker/Royal Navy

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales leads a fifteen-ship formation of ships from the United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group and the NATO Amphibious Task Group during Exercise Nordic Response 24 in the Norwegian Sea, March 11, 2024

Photo by Belinda Alker/Royal Navy

This piece is part of a commentary series on the upcoming NATO summit in Washington in which RAND researchers explore important strategic questions for the alliance as NATO confronts a historic moment, navigating both promise and peril.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine is reshaping NATO's strategy in Eastern Europe, mounting tensions are also plaguing the neighbouring Arctic. The transformation of this once-peaceful area into a geostrategic flashpoint unfolded in three acts, but NATO could help defuse the situation.

First, global warming over the past decade has had an outsized impact on the region, increasing temperatures at the highest rate in the world and, as the ice cap melts, making the Arctic ocean easier to navigate. Second, this is increasingly opening the ocean to maritime activities including fishing, trade, tourism, and military operations, particularly in the summer months.

The potential to exploit the Arctic's vast oil and gas reserves is still a remote prospect, but seems sufficient to stoke the interest of Russia and China. Third, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 considerably worsened relations with the West, including with its seven Arctic counterparts, rendering cooperation in the region more difficult than ever, even through the apolitical-by-design Arctic Council. In reaction to heightened tensions, Finland and Sweden successively joined NATO in 2023 and 2024, making all Arctic countries except Russia part of the alliance.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 considerably worsened relations with the West, including with its seven Arctic counterparts, rendering cooperation in the region more difficult than ever.

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The genesis of NATO's turn of attention to the Arctic goes back to Ukraine's Maidan Revolution in 2014 and Russia's annexation of Crimea. Russia's aggression and willingness to redraw the map of Europe not only irremediably antagonised Ukraine and most of Eastern Europe, but also soured the Kremlin's relations with its Arctic counterparts. The region, once seen as a beacon of peaceful cooperation, returned to an inimical status quo reminiscent of the Cold War while NATO, after more than a decade of intervention in remote Afghanistan, saw the prospect of high-intensity warfare back at its gates. Arctic states which had previously resisted a bigger role for NATO in the region, particularly Canada, reconsidered their position.

In this context, the alliance's defence ministers released a statement in 2015 that sought to bring territorial defence back to centre stage with the “360-degree approach,” a strategic framework envisioning NATO as a geographically coherent bloc with surrounding 'flanks' to defend against potential aggression. The debate on how to close the Greenland-Iceland–United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, which gives Russia access to the North Atlantic, was revived. Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has since focused attention on the eastern and northern flanks.

One could interpret the accession of Finland and Sweden to full membership as a victory for NATO's 360-degree approach in the Arctic. Although both countries were already NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partners with high levels of force interoperability with the alliance, NATO now presents a more formally unified front to its northern flank. In practice, this will give more weight to Arctic voices within NATO, rebalancing its centre of gravity towards the High North in the absence of a dedicated Arctic Command. However, the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO had the unintended consequence of feeding into Russia's rhetoric of encirclement (PDF) in the Arctic. Russia's stakes in the Arctic are hard to deny: its Northern Fleet and sea-based nuclear deterrence rely on Murmansk's deep-water ports. The addition of 1,340 kilometres of NATO border at the footstep of Murmansk Oblast and the Kola peninsula was unsurprisingly excoriated by Russia, accusing the alliance of dangerous escalation. To help in countering such narrative, NATO should avoid strategic ambiguity in the Arctic and develop a clear and transparent deterrence posture for the region.

Unfortunately, NATO's new status in the Arctic is arguably the worst of both worlds in its current state. The alliance combines a theoretical position of dominance, thanks to the membership of seven of the eight Arctic states, while simultaneously lacking proper strategic and operational alignment.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Canada have considered the Arctic primarily as a North American Aerospace Defense Command jurisdiction due to Russia's persistent missile threat compared to relatively diminished naval forces. The U.S. Navy has also seen its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities reduced and a rebalancing effort towards the Indo-Pacific taking its attention away from the GIUK gap.

The United Kingdom, centrepiece of the GIUK complex, currently operates the smallest attack submarine fleet in its history, with six platforms at the time of writing compared to almost 30 at the end of the Cold War, and cannot afford to bear the brunt of GIUK defence alone despite the welcome additions of modern Type 26 and P-8 Poseidon to its fleet.

Other players are in comparably challenging positions. For instance, Denmark must patrol its vast exclusive economic zone around Greenland and the Faroe Islands with four ice-reinforced hull frigates designed in the 1980s that do not meet NATO readiness standards. Situational awareness in the Arctic is consequently fragmented across different national forces with disparate capabilities and incommensurate operational requirements.

In their 2023 Vilnius Summit Communiqué, NATO leaders recognised these issues and pledged continuing joint exercises and Arctic surveillance coordination. These pledges have already been partly enacted with a recent ASW exercise in the Norwegian Sea but are hardly sufficient to adequately secure NATO's northern flank.

NATO should act as a coordinating force to ensure ongoing physical presence of military assets and monitoring of its vast and austere Arctic maritime space.

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NATO's Arctic strategy should fully acknowledge the spatial redefinition of the region with the accession of Finland and Sweden. Securing the Norwegian Sea and the GIUK and Bear gaps, as well as the protection of critical infrastructures, coastal defence, and access to the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago, should be defined as strategic priorities for all NATO's Arctic members, plus the United Kingdom, which styles itself as “the Arctic's nearest neighbour.”

NATO should act as a coordinating force to ensure ongoing physical presence of military assets and monitoring of its vast and austere Arctic maritime space. The United Kingdom, as the most capable military power with direct access to the European Arctic and leader of the Northern European Joint Expeditionary Force, should be a driving force, focusing its ASW assets on the GIUK gap. It should also invest jointly with Arctic states on platforms that can reinforce presence and situational awareness north of the Arctic circle more efficiently or cheaply, such as ice breakers and large uncrewed underwater vehicles.

Only with such decisive actions will NATO be able to capitalise on its enlargement in the Arctic and truly secure its northern flank.


Nicolas Jouan is a senior analyst in defence and security at RAND Europe.