The Arctic Model and the Role of NATO

The Arctic has always been a place apart.

It is unique for its climate and geography: for natural phenomena such as the midnight sun and the Northern Lights, as well as the creatures and the cultures which have evolved there. Throughout human history, it has been viewed with reverence as a special and mysterious place where unique rules apply.  However, global warming has begun to reveal the secrets of the Arctic, lifting the shroud of ice, which has veiled the region for millennia, and opening it to ever-greater traffic.

That geographical opening has been mirrored by geopolitical changes. Hitherto, the Arctic states have displayed an enviable record of cooperation, dialogue and peaceful resolution of disputes. However, increased access to the region has also brought the risk of increased tensions there. Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine have gravely heightened that risk.

Like the ice, which has dominated the Arctic for thousands of years, the regional peace of recent decades can no longer be taken for granted.

This article will examine how that peace was built, through the determination of all the Arctic states to avoid confrontation and promote cooperation. It will identify the main factors that challenge it: Russia’s growing militarization of the region and the increasing danger of disputes from beyond the Arctic being imported into it. Finally, it will suggest a way for the West, and NATO in particular, to respond through the development of an Arctic strategy aimed at deterring military threats.

The Arctic Model: Subject to the Law

Norway and Russia scored a striking diplomatic success in 2010: after 40 years of negotiation, they finally agreed on the delimitation of their maritime boundaries. In light of the current crisis in Ukraine, it is ironic that the Maritime Delimitation Treaty was seen as the herald of a new era of cooperation between the West and Russia. However, the agreement exemplifies the painstaking and rules-based approach on which relations in the Arctic have been built.

While Rudyard Kipling once wrote in The Rhyme of the Three Sealers that “there’s never a law of God or man runs north of Fifty-Three” degrees north, the modern Arctic has been subjected to international law by the explicit choice of Arctic countries. This is a uniquely Arctic model, and it has been uniquely successful.

That choice is reflected in policy documents, published both by individual nations and multilateral organizations. On the international level, the five states that share the coastline of the Arctic Ocean (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States) signed a far-reaching agreement in 2008. Named after the city in Greenland where it was signed, the Ilulissat Declaration committed the Arctic nations to resolve issues of jurisdiction and sovereignty through existing legal mechanisms based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). On the national level, all five have issued Arctic strategy documents, which reflect a number of basic goals and principles:

1. A peaceful, safe and secure Arctic, including the resolution of maritime boundary disputes in accordance with international law, enhanced maritime safety and surveillance, and enhanced cooperation in the Arctic Council and among the five littoral states.
2. Sustainable economic and social development, including the exploitation of new economic opportunities in the Arctic, the extraction of mineral resources under the highest international standards, an increased use of renewable energy sources, the sustainable harvesting of living resources, maintaining a leading international role in research, and promoting Arctic cooperation on human health and social sustainability.
3. Environmental protection, including development with respect for the Arctic’s vulnerable climate, environment and nature and cooperation with international partners on climate change and environmental protection.
4. Addressing indigenous peoples’ rights and the needs of indigenous communities
5. Maintaining the ability to enforce sovereignty, including through the provision of adequate legal, diplomatic and defence capabilities.

A commitment to peaceful international cooperation is central to all of the diplomatic organizations which deal with Arctic issues: the five littoral states, the Arctic Council (made up of the five plus Finland, Iceland and Sweden), and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, which includes the five Nordic countries and Russia. Working in different fields, ranging from environmental protection to business development, these various organizations have been remarkably successful in keeping the High North an area of low tensions. Throughout practically all of the international disputes of the past two decades, the Arctic has remained at peace.

The Arctic offers an example of how both large and small nations can work together within internationally accepted legal frameworks. It is also an example of nations coming together to find common ground in an area of strategic importance, and seeking to strengthen consultative and cooperative mechanisms.

That is a unique and responsible, geopolitical model. It is that model which is now under threat.

A Changing Environment

The impact of climate change on the Arctic has been widely discussed. The retreat of pack ice and the opening of new areas to shipping offer potentially enormous economic opportunities. In terms of transport, a shipping route along Russia’s northern coast would shorten the voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific by almost 5,000 nautical miles. Furthermore, scientific estimates by the US Geological Survey indicate that the region contains approximately 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas deposits, as well as vast quantities of mineral resources including rare earth elements, iron ore, and nickel.

However, the opening of the Arctic comes with fresh risks. The identification of mineral reserves has already led to disputes over who has the right to extract them. In 2007, a Russian-led polar expedition, descending through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean in a submarine, planted a Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole. Russia declared that the North Pole has always been Russian. Canada presented a counter-claim. In December 2014, Denmark declared that under UNCLOS, some 900,000 square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean north of Greenland belong to it (Greenland is a self-governing part of Denmark).

Debate has also focused on who has the best claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain chain traversing the geographic North Pole, the Beaufort Sea, between the United States and Canada, and the Barents Sea, between Russia and Norway. In each case, a question of geographical boundaries has become a source of political disagreement—with mineral resources worth billions of dollars potentially at stake.

At the same time, states from beyond the Arctic Circle are showing an increased interest in the region. China, Japan, India, South Korea and Singapore have all gained observer status in the Arctic Council, as have a number of European powers: Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands. Their presence strengthens the Council’s legitimacy in the governance of Arctic issues. However, as more and more nations look to draw benefits from the Arctic, it brings the concomitant risk that they will import their strategic rivalries into the Arctic.

This is no hypothetical danger: the European Union has already found its bid for permanent observer status to the Arctic Council blocked because of a bilateral dispute with Canada over the European import ban on seal products. While minor in itself, this incident shows the extent to which disagreements from outside the Arctic can have an impact in the region. That is of concern because the tensions caused by Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine are also reaching into the Arctic, with potentially grave consequences.

Russian Assertiveness, Arctic Instability

While the Arctic today is a region of peaceful cooperation, there are clear indications that the more assertive Russian attitude following the aggression against Ukraine will have implications for the Russian military posture in the Arctic.

Russia has long made clear its desire to enlarge its territory in the Arctic. Given its failure to modernize or diversify its economy, its determination to wring the greatest possible benefit from Arctic resource holdings can only be expected to grow. Russia’s interest in the Arctic is profound. Much of its territory, and many of its mineral deposits, lie north of the Arctic Circle. The bulk of its fleet of nuclear submarines is home-ported in Arctic waters and there are expectations in Russia that the Northern Sea Route will bring significant earnings in the future.

As a result, in February 2013, President Putin signed a strategy to enforce Russia’s sovereignty, and reinforce its military capabilities, in the Arctic. Entitled “The Strategy of Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and ensuring National Security up to 2020,” the document puts a particular stress on national security, emphasizing the need for comprehensive mobile combat readiness in the Arctic. In the December of the same year, in an address to the Defence Ministry Board, Putin ordered an Arctic military build-up, saying that Russia would create forces in the Arctic to ensure military security and protect the country’s national interests in the region. Significantly, he said that “there are (US) submarines there, and they carry missiles. It only takes 15-16 minutes for US missiles to reach Moscow from the Barents Sea. So should we give away the Arctic? We should on the contrary explore it”. This is a direct challenge to the longstanding consensus that the Arctic should be kept free of military rivalry.

His words have been turned into action. Russia is reopening its military base in the Novosibirsk Archipelago (New Siberian Islands), which had been abandoned in 1993 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The islands “have key meaning for the control of the situation in the entire Arctic region”, Putin declared. Russia has also started restoring its Arctic airfields, including one called “Temp” on Kotelny Island near the city of Norilsk. The revival of other northern airfields is set to continue, as is the reactivation of docks on the New Siberian Islands and the Franz Josef archipelago. In recent months, observers have seen a major increase in the number of flights by Russian strategic bombers and support aircraft. Just as in the Cold War, the aircraft flew both along the Norwegian coast into the Atlantic, and towards Alaska and Canada. In September 2014, Russia announced it was resuming its permanent Arctic military presence. In a symbolic move, it sent 10 warships and nuclear-powered icebreakers along the Northern Sea Route.

Defence Minister Shoigu has confirmed that there are plans to create a group of troops and forces to ensure military protection of the Russian Federation’s national interests in the Arctic. Two new so-called “Arctic brigades” will be permanently based in the Arctic region over the next few years, and the joint forces strategic command “North” was formally created in December 2014 to coordinate all Russian military activities in the Arctic region.

The trend is clear: Russia is arming itself in the Arctic. This is not a situation that the other Arctic states can afford to ignore. They must weigh the implications for their own deterrence and defence. For Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the United States, that means weighing the implications for NATO.

The Need for NATO

When NATO drew up a new Strategic Concept in 2010, Arctic security was not explicitly included. The threat of armed conflict in the Arctic was considered very low and existing cooperation mechanisms, in particular the Arctic Council, were assumed to be sufficient to handle the challenges of the region. The Strategic Concept focused on more pressing issues, such as missile defence and Afghanistan.

However, NATO’s duty is clear. Its commitment to defend any ally who is attacked—through Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty—does not stop at the Arctic Circle. With a number of exceptions linked to allied holdings south of the Tropic of Cancer, the treaty covers all of the territory of the NATO member states, including in the High North. The Arctic is not “out of area”. It is “in area”.

In essence, NATO is an Arctic alliance, because it has Arctic allies. That being the case, it needs to consider how to deal with any potential threats in the High North. In particular, it needs to develop a strategy to respond to Russia’s ongoing militarization of the Arctic—a  strategy which deters potential threats, promotes stability and predictability, and demonstrates resolve.

This would be fully in line with the Strategic Concept, which states that allies will “continue to review NATO’s overall posture in deterring and defending against the full range of threats to the Alliance, taking into account changes to the evolving international security environment.”

It is therefore crucial to ensure that the Alliance has the ability to plan, lead and execute the collective defence mission in accordance with Article 5. That includes:

1. Reinforced training and exercises above the Arctic Circle. The Norwegian-led series of exercises, “Cold Response”, in which troops operate together in icy weather and low temperatures, is an excellent example. Such exercises are vital to ensuring that Alliance forces are prepared to meet potential threats in the Arctic.
2. Better surveillance and intelligence-sharing mechanisms, in order to enhance awareness of the strategic situation in the Arctic, and to provide early warning of potential threats.
3. Improved contingency planning to ensure that the alliance is ready to perform its core tasks in any part of NATO territory.
4. A strengthened regional focus within the NATO command structure, including a focus on Arctic issues.

Drawing up such a strategy, and implementing it swiftly and fully, would enhance NATO’s credibility as the defender of its security in the Arctic. It would give the alliance a pool of trained and ready troops, improved situational awareness, clear plans and a reinforced chain of command to deal with any eventuality.

As such, it would send a strong diplomatic signal to both Russia and NATO allies. To Russia, it would indicate that the alliance would not tolerate threats to its members anywhere in its area of responsibility—deterring any attempts to solve political disputes through military means. To the members of NATO in the Arctic, it would indicate that the alliance is ready to defend them wherever and whenever is needed—increasing their confidence and their sense of solidarity.

These measures would be defensive, transparent and limited in their military footprint.  Taken together, they would give NATO the tools it needs to respond to any threat to allies in the Arctic, without undermining the principle that disputes should be solved by diplomatic means.

Conclusion: Defending the Arctic Model

Over the past two decades, the Arctic has emerged as a model of peaceful international cooperation and dispute resolution. It has done so because every Arctic country—including Russia—has agreed that military force is not an option there.

Russia’s military build-up means that the other Arctic states must change their calculus. Diplomacy should always remain the first choice for the resolution of disputes, but it must now be coupled with credible deterrence. Given that four of the five Arctic littoral states are NATO allies, it means that NATO must draw up an Arctic strategy.

This is not about importing strategic rivalries into the Arctic. Still less does it mean that the opening of the Arctic is itself a reason for more tension and rivalry, or a challenge to established security policy. It is to be hoped that the Arctic model of cooperation, peaceful co-existence and the rule of law will continue. However, that model can no longer be taken for granted; it must be defended. The appropriate way to do so is through careful planning and preparation—including by NATO.