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Arctic Competition

Part Two: Military Buildup and Great Power Competition

PUBLISHED ON DECEMBER 14

FP Analytics’ two-part Arctic Competition Power Map provides Insiders with an in-depth breakdown of how melting sea ice is enabling increased commercial activity and geopolitical competition over resources, shipping routes, and territory in the Arctic. In Part I, we visualize how climate change is physically transforming the Arctic, lay out the scale of potential resources that will be made available, and detail the positions and interests of major players in the region. We provide a thorough walk-through of why the region is gaining increasing commercial and geopolitical importance, and explicitly lay out different actors’ interests in the Arctic, from domestic economic development to securing critical supply chain. As new actors such as China establish their presence in the region, nations are forging fresh political and commercial partnerships across a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. The impacts of these new partnerships will transform the Arctic and create major political fault lines with the potential to spark future conflict and confrontation.

Executive Summary

Rapidly receding sea ice is enabling access to a range of highly valuable resources across the Arctic. In addition to energy reserves, critical minerals, and fisheries, newly opened shipping lanes across the Arctic could potentially help to re-route global trade and enable high-speed internet connectivity between Europe and Asia. The ability to exploit newly available Arctic resources is drawing increasing interest from both commercial and national actors and is enticing nations, such as China and Japan, to pour both political and financial capital into the region.

As new commercial relationships emerge in the Arctic, Russia and China are increasingly collaborating on Arctic development—with China providing capital for Russian energy and infrastructure projects. At the same time, Russia has been militarizing its Arctic territory, re-opening Soviet-era military bases, investing in new Arctic-specific technologies, and conducting extensive war games across the region. This has prompted NATO countries, led by Norway and the U.S., to conduct their own war games in the region and has raised concerns over the potential emergence of a Russia-China alliance in the region.

Russia and China’s relationship is nuanced. The two countries have their own competing interests in the Arctic, with interactions between the two actors to proceed at a cautious pace for now. However, increasing military activity in the region continues to elevate the risk of a misunderstanding, or an outside conflict spilling over into the Arctic, particularly in the absence of an official security body for national actors through which to address regional defense issues.

With new players, commercial relationships, and extensive military buildup emerging in the Arctic, there has been an attendant increase in international tensions. Commercially, strengthening ties between Asian and European nations, deepening levels of Chinese investment across the region, and Russia’s emerging primacy are generating U.S. pushback. Militarily, Russia’s extensive defense buildup, and alternating military exercises by Russia and NATO actors have created a potentially more volatile region. Against a global backdrop of heightening U.S.-Russia tensions and the wider uncoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies, the Arctic is emerging as an arena of great power competition.

FP Analytics’ Arctic Competition Power Map two-part series breaks down key emerging trends across the Arctic by:

  • Mapping control of key resource bases and breaking down the state of play between public- and private-sector actors who are competing for Arctic access and influence;
  • Outlining the emerging commercial and economic relationships between national and commercial actors in the region;
  • Projecting the key points of geopolitical tension and the relative power positions of the actors involved;
  • Highlighting the global implications of increasing militarization across the Arctic; and,
  • Identifying critical risks materializing for policymakers, businesses, and non-governmental actors.

FP Analytics’ Arctic Competition Power Map series provides a comprehensive mapping and analysis of the developing commercial, military, and great power competition in an increasingly accessible Arctic. It clarifies key points of competition and potential conflict as well as opportunities for collaboration. It is a powerful tool for businesses and others seeking to understand how emerging great power competition across the Arctic will help shape and influence the wider geopolitical landscape. By providing a comprehensive breakdown of the wide-ranging commercial and security issues at play, the Arctic Competition Power Map series provides critical insight into strategies for effectively navigating this dynamic region.

Subscribe to FP Insider below or contact us at insider@foreignpolicy.com for full access to Arctic Competition.

Introduction

In 2007, Russia planted its flag on the seabed of the North Pole in a widely publicized stunt to declare Russian sovereignty over disputed Arctic Ocean territories. Meant to both assert Russia’s claim over resources and territory in the disputed Lomonosov ridge and boost nationalist notions of Russia conquering the Arctic, media hype foreshadowed that this would kick off a frenzied race for Arctic resources and territories. Since then, resource competition throughout the Arctic has been nuanced, leading not to outright conflict but to shifting economic alliances and power dynamics. The 2007 event did, however, elevate the Arctic in geopolitics, driven not by disputes over territory but more by Russia’s increasing military buildup and China’s expanding presence—escalating tensions in the region to their highest point since the Cold War. Within this context, a number of complex dynamics are emerging. Russia is the most powerful Arctic actor in terms of its military capabilities, territorial control, and thorough commitment to developing its interests in the region—from exploiting Arctic resource bases to using the Arctic as an arena to project military power. Since 2007, Russia’s external relations with other Arctic nations have deteriorated, particularly after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, which was widely condemned by NATO countries and led to extensive Russian sanctions and countersanctions.

While Russia has long focused on strengthening its dominance over the region, economic pressures exacerbated by NATO sanctions have drawn Russia closer to Asian nations, notably China, who are seeking to establish economic and strategic footholds in the Arctic. China is seizing the opportunity. While Russian and Chinese interests are aligned at present, largely focused on economic agreements and military cooperation, their long-term interests in the region diverge, with Russia desiring increased sovereignty in the region and China aiming to internationalize it. Chinese capital has been welcomed not only by Russia, but also by myriad Arctic nations eager to attract investors, such as Iceland, Denmark, and Canada. Meanwhile, U.S. relations with China have soured significantly since 2007, with the Trump administration most recently homing in and expressing its intent to deter Russian and Chinese influence in the Arctic. Amid this shifting geopolitical landscape, the Arctic is becoming more accessible and increasingly militarized. As both Russian and NATO forces build new military bases and conduct war games in the Arctic, tensions are rising, and the cost of a miscalculation is greater than ever.

Part 1

Russian Military Buildup, Defense Interests, and Posturing in the Arctic

As sea ice melts, Russia’s northern border, which stretches over 24,000 kilometers along the Arctic Ocean, is becoming increasingly accessible. Safeguarding Arctic resources and land and sea borders—in particular, control over the Northern Sea Route (NSR)—is critical to Russia’s future economic development. The desires to enhance domestic defense capabilities, safeguard national economic assets, assert sovereignty in Arctic waters, and create a foothold in the Northern Atlantic from which to project power are driving increasing Russian military buildup throughout the Arctic. Since 2007, Russia has reopened fifty previously closed Soviet-era military bases, and since 2014 it has invested heavily in rebuilding its military infrastructure, including 475 new structures across its Arctic military strongholds. The extent and pace of Russia’s Arctic military buildup have raised concerns among U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.S. Ambassador to Norway Kenneth J. Braithwaite, who warn of increasing Russian and Chinese naval assertion in Arctic waters. Surrounded by NATO countries, and delicately balancing its relationship with China, Russia perceives its militarization of the Arctic as essential and defensive in nature. While Russian Arctic militarization is unlikely to be directly challenged at present, it is provoking push back from NATO and contributing to an increasingly tense and militarized Arctic.

Key Takeaways

  • The Issue

    Russia’s northern border is becoming increasingly exposed, opening new economic opportunities and prompting an extensive increase in Russian military buildup to protect its Arctic assets. Russia is investing in land, air, and sea military bases, along with sub-marine capabilities, satellite monitoring, and its nuclear arsenal in order to secure its Arctic interests, raising concerns and among Arctic NATO countries.

  • The Reaction

    Mounting tensions between Russia and NATO countries and a deteriorating domestic economy have turned Russia toward Asian nations to finance its continued Arctic development. This effort has produced mixed results, but China’s role as a major economic partner has drawn the two nations significantly closer together—despite their diverging visions for the region as a whole.

  • What’s at Stake

    The future of economic development and balance of power in the Arctic. Russia’s drive to continue regional economic development, coupled with military expansion in the Arctic and its nuanced relationships with NATO and China, will determine whether the Arctic will be a region characterized by economic cooperation and international collaboration, or descend into regional conflict.

The Breakdown
Understanding the Extent and Nature of Russian Military Buildup Across the Arctic
Russia’s extensive militarization of the Arctic is heightening regional tensions and unsettling its neighboring Arctic countries.
  • GRAPHIC 1: Russian Militarization of the Arctic
  • GRAPHIC 2: Russian Military Districts
  • GRAPHIC 3: Russian Military Arsenal and Tactics
  • GRAPHIC 4: Russian War Games and Military Exercises
Click to expand

Since 2007, Russia has been rapidly expanding its military infrastructure and capabilities across the Arctic. However, its military expansion in the Arctic has not been disproportionate to its overall military investments in other regions during this same time period. In September 2008, following widespread military operational failures in the five-day Georgia-Russian war that August, Russia launched a series of nationwide military reforms to restore its military capabilities, which were in decline since the collapse of the USSR. Shifting from troops to technology, military reforms reduced troops by 20 percent and increased military spending for a ten-year weapons-modernization plan by an estimated $8 billion. This plan prioritized the procurement of new missiles and platforms to increase nuclear deterrence capabilities, and budgeted significant capital for new planes, helicopters, ships, missiles, and submarines. Alongside its military reforms, Russia also released a new Arctic strategy document in 2008—Basic Principles of the Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic to 2020—emphasizing two major strategic aims: 1) safeguarding Russia’s Arctic energy resources, and 2) developing the NSR shipping lane. Russia’s interest in securing its Arctic resources, combined with its comprehensive military upgrades, have been the main drivers behind increased Arctic military activity.

As articulated in its 2008 strategy document, one major focus of Arctic defense capabilities has been on developments along the NSR, where Russia is re-implementing its Cold War-era “Bastion” defense concept—a naval strategy that creates multi-layered defense fortifications throughout specific waters (referred to as the “Bastion”). Russian nuclear submarines and ships are protected in these waters by sensors, mines, and coastal and surface-to-air missiles, along with naval and air force support. Today, Russia can integrate sophisticated underwater sensors, cyber assets such as GPS-jamming capabilities, and extensive satellite coverage into its naval Bastion, and it is currently testing advanced Bastion defense capabilities such as hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. These assets can be deployed both defensively—for sea denial and second-strike capabilities—and offensively for sea control and naval access to the North Atlantic. The bulk of Russia’s Bastion defense capabilities are aimed at protecting the Kola Peninsula, the area at Russia’s northeastern borders with Norway and Finland.

Expert Q&A

Cause for concern?

Q: What are the implications of Russia’s posturing in the Arctic?
Elizabeth Buchanan, Ph.D.
Lecturer in Strategic Studies, Deakin University at the Australian War College

“This status quo, which is currently what the Arctic Council continues to promote by having consensus-driven dialogue and cooperation on environmental and social regional concerns, is functioning quite well considering tensions elsewhere between Russia and the West. What happens when that becomes fragile? What happens when it is clear the region needs a security-body or forum to navigate or communicate on issues of military-security nature within the Arctic?”

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“The issue with Russia is [that] from the outside looking in, it looks [in the Arctic] like Russia’s militarization and Russia’s heavy-handedness [is similar to what] we’ve seen in Ukraine, and in the former Soviet Union. That makes countries like Canada and Norway hesitant to bring on NATO to push or to test the Russians. But it’s not really about that. It’s not scaremongering, it’s not the saber-rattling coming from Russia. I think that’s what people from the outside appropriate to the issue, right? “Oh, Russia’s just being aggressive and assertive.” But if you look at a map, you can see ... the clear majority of the Arctic is Russian. [When] we apply international law; we know they’ve got the largest legitimate stake….

They are a legitimate stakeholder with the largest presence [in the Arctic], and they don’t need to use military might and teeth to do that, while they do it elsewhere. They push that they are being co-operative. It’s going to be the hallmark of their Arctic Council chairmanship, and they have been co-operative. But also, they’re the largest stakeholder, so they get to call the shots. And that’s hard to swallow, right?

That’s hard to swallow externally looking in on the issue, but internally, that’s what neighbors and stakeholders recognize. Once you peel that away, you see the idea of Arctic Great Games and [a] race for resources, which all fall well within uncontested spaces, is a rather moot argument - there’s really nothing there.…

The real fun and the sexiness of an Arctic ‘great game’ will come if the current status quo in the region is undermined. This status quo, which is currently what the Arctic Council continues to promote by having consensus-driven dialogue and cooperation on environmental and social regional concerns, is functioning quite well considering tensions elsewhere between Russia and the West. What happens when that becomes fragile? What happens when it is clear the region needs a security-body or forum to navigate or communicate on issues of military-security nature within the Arctic?”

T.J. Sjostrom
Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses

“Russia sees its investments as purely defensive. Their perception is that the U.S. and NATO are encroaching and enforcing encroachment into traditional real or perceived Russian territory.”

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“[Russia’s] been refurbishing all its infrastructure, and they’ve used two large strategic spending initiatives. The State Armaments Program of 2020, and also the State Armaments Program of 2027. In addition to those, Russia has a broad-reaching national projects program to boost tourism, scientific research, and port infrastructure for commercial use in the Arctic as well.

Russia’s put a lot of money into these programs, and they’ve been fairly successful. They’ve made great leaps in modernizing their Arctic [military forces] and infrastructure [leading to an increased Arctic posture]. Now, there are definitely still a lot of problems with Russian infrastructure in the Arctic, and climate change has a lot to do with that, but the point remains that Russia has put significant investment into the Arctic in the past ten, fifteen years.

Russia sees its investments as purely defensive. Their perception is that the U.S. and NATO are encroaching and enforcing encroachment into traditional real or perceived Russian territory. Basically, they’re feeling the squeeze, and they think they’re going to get squeezed in the Arctic. The Arctic is so important to them, it’s in their national military doctrine and their national security strategy. It is incredibly important in foundational documents to the Russians— [their National Security Strategy, Arctic Strategy, and National Military Doctrine].

Long-term, Russia sees the Arctic as its economic security blanket, [and realistically, their options outside of the Arctic are limited. But now], with COVID alone, global oil prices have plummeted, because there wasn’t a lot of demand. People were staying in, people were unemployed. The oil prices still haven’t fully recovered, and there’s no guarantee that [they] ever will fully recover to the levels that we saw maybe even six, seven years ago.”

SOURCES: Primary source interviews conducted by FP Analytics

In 2014, President Vladimir Putin announced the creation of the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command, a Murmansk-based combined forces command to coordinate every military unit in the Arctic. The Northern Fleet includes land, sea, and sub-surface assets, allowing Russia to freely conduct strategic operations and secure its sea-based nuclear forces across the Arctic. Increased military infrastructure and the creation of the Northern Fleet allow Russia to assert control over the NSR. Russia recently conducted a number of war game exercises along the NSR, with some activities extending beyond Russian territorial waters. In October 2019, Russia conducted its Grom-19 military exercise—sending eight nuclear-capable submarines into the GIUK Gap—the open ocean in the North Atlantic among Greenland, Iceland, and the UK, forming a naval chokepoint—the largest such demonstration since the Cold War. Most recently, in August 2020, Russia conducted extensive war games in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Exercises included more than fifty warships and submarines and forty aircraft. Concerningly for the U.S., Russia’s guided-missile submarine Omsk surfaced near Matthew’s Island in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast—the nearest that Russian submarines have been spotted to the U.S. coast. This event added to the concerns of U.S. officials, who had already warned about Russian submarine activity off the East Coast earlier in the year.

Despite the rapid militarization, Russia currently stands to gain the most from maintaining peaceful relations in the Arctic. Any armed conflict could significantly set back Russian goals to develop its Arctic economy and increase commercial activity along the NSR. However, Russia’s military buildup, its increasing economic ties to China and more aggressive posturing in the region are heightening tensions between Russia and Arctic NATO countries. In August 2018, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that competition in the Arctic could lead to conflict, assuming a more bellicose posture on the region than in past statements. This harsher rhetoric was accompanied by an uptick in Arctic military drills, two of which included China as an active partner (the Tsentr-19 and Volstok-18 exercises). These activities led to the U.S. calling out Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic, and Norway warning of the emerging challenges that both countries pose. However, despite cooperating in military exercises, China and Russia are not yet close to signing a binding military treaty in the Arctic. Both still hold conflicting visions for China’s future role in the region, with Russia intent on preventing widespread internationalization of the Arctic, and China aiming to increasingly open the region to non-Arctic nations. Russia intends to project global power through the Arctic, but China—despite helping to fund this vision—could also stymie this goal as it works to internationalize the Arctic in a bid to increase its own influence and presence in the region. For now, the relationship is at a comfortable equilibrium, but significant uncertainty over Russia and China’s future balance of power between the two remains.

Graphic 1

Russian Militarization of the Arctic

Russia has built extensive military installations and capacity within its Arctic territory, centralized under the command of the Northern Fleet.
Provideniya Bay Providensky District
Anadyr-Ugolny Ugolnye Kopi
Dresba Air Base Pevek
Chersky Chersky
Sredny Island Sredny Ostrov
Alykel Norilsk, Russia
Sabetta Yamal Penninsula
Amderma Nenets Autonomous Okrug
Nadyn Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug
Vorkuta Pechora basin
Nagurskoye Franz Josef Land
Rogachevo Novaya Zemlya
Wrangel Island Base Wrangel Island
Temp Air Base Kotelny Island
Naryan-Mar Naryan-Mar, Russia
Cape Schmidt Chukotka Autonomous Okrug
Tiksi North Tiksi
Sputnik Base (200th Brigade Base) Murmansk Oblast
Alakurtti (80th Brigade Base) Murmansk Oblast
OSK Sever (HQ) Arkhangelsk
Murmansk Murmansk
Dikson Taymyrsky Dolgano-Nenetsky District
Dudinka Dudinka
Northern Fleet HQ Severomorsk, Murmansk Oblast
  • Airfield
  • Coastguard base
  • Military base
  • Airfield and military base
  • Coastguard and military base
  • Airfield and coastguard base
  • Northern Fleet headquarters
SOURCES: CHATHAM HOUSE, CSIS, FOREIGN POLICY

Graphic 2

Russian Military Districts

Russian territory is divided into five military districts—four regular districts and one special district for the Northern Fleet military command—used to schedule Russia’s major strategic exercises.
As of January 1st, 2021, the Northern Fleet HQ will be elevated to a full co-equal military district, and take on a new designation as the Northern Fleet military district.
SOURCES: THE BARENTS OBSERVER

Graphic 3

Russian Military Arsenal and Tactics

Scroll for a breakdown of Russia’s Arctic military capacity, the structure of its armed forces, and an analysis of its technological capabilities.
Sea Capabilities: The Northern Fleet

All of Russia’s Arctic forces are centralized under the Northern Fleet, including a substantial part of the Russian Navy. The Northern Fleet is headquartered on the Kola Peninsula and along the coasts of the Barents and White Seas and was assigned its own special military district in June 2020, but patrols all throughout the Arctic. As currently constructed, the Northern Fleet consists of nuclear submarines, the air force and air defense force, the army corps of the ground forces, coastal troops, surface ships, patrol ships, and icebreakers. The Northern Fleet operates throughout Russia’s Arctic using the infrastructure created on all the archipelagos and communicates and coordinates patrols through a highly efficient logistics system, which includes radar and sub-sea fiber optic channels.

The Northern Fleet is in charge of securing Russia’s second-strike nuclear capabilities and is the main medium for deploying new nuclear technology through the Arctic. It also ensures Russian access to the Arctic Ocean, the North Atlantic, and the GIUK Gap and monitors activity along the NSR. Northern Fleet submarines have been particularly active near the GIUK Gap—the waterway connecting Greenland, Iceland and the UK which serves as a key military access point in the Northern Atlantic—where submarine activity has surpassing Cold War levels.

Land Capabilities: Arctic Brigades

Under the Northern Fleet’s command, Russia operates a number of land brigades: The 61st Marine Brigade in Sputnik and the Arctic Brigade in Alakurtti. The Arctic Brigade was formed in early 2015, from two army motorized infantry brigades: the 200th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade in Pechenga, and the 80th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade in Alakurtti. Formed in early 2015, from two army motorized infantry brigades: the 200th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade in Pechenga, and the 80th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade in Alakurtti. The main tasks of the Arctic Brigade are the protection of Russia’s Arctic coastline, facilities and infrastructure and escorting ships transiting through the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The Arctic Brigade uses a number of snow-capable vehicles, such as 30 DT-10MP all-terrain amphibious carriers, and also deploys unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or, more commonly, “drones”) for basic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations throughout the Arctic. It went through rotations in Syria from 2015–18 to gain operational combat experience and most recently conducted a chemical defense training with a RKhM-6 chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) reconnaissance vehicle in March 2020.

Air Force and Air Defense

Russia’s air assets in the Arctic region consist mainly of the aircraft supporting the Northern Fleet, and the Russian Navy operates 100–120 long-range Tupolev Tu-22 bomber aircraft, Tupolev Tu-142, and Ilyushin Il-38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which are equipped to navigate offshore in Arctic conditions. After a 30-year hiatus, the Ministry of Defense resumed patrolling the airspace in the North Pole area in 2019 using MiG-31BM interceptor fighters. Since 2019, two air force squadrons have been assigned to control the Arctic region, and the NSR is being patrolled daily by Il-38N Dolphin anti-submarine aircraft equipped with Novella optical-electronic and radio intelligence systems, which are intended to supply troops with relevant information collected throughout the region.

In addition to more regular air patrols, since 2018, Russia has focused on bolstering its air defense capacities through advanced missile delivery systems. In 2018, Bastion and Bal coastal defense missile systems were deployed to the region near the islands of Alexandra Land and Kotelny. The Bastion-P system is a coastal defense complex that deploys supersonic homing Oniks anti-ship missiles, which can defend more than 600 km of coastline against surface ships. The unit carries 36 Oniks missiles, which can engage targets beyond the visual horizon. The defense ministry also acquired Tor-M2DT surface-to-air missile systems, which can detect moving aerial targets at a range of 15 km and can work at minus 50° Celsius.

Technological Capabilities

The Northern Fleet is making extensive use of new drone technology. Since Russia created its domestic drone industry in the late 2000s, UAVs have been introduced in the Northern Fleet for navigation assistance, coastal surveillance, and air defense support. The Northern Fleet currently uses Gorizont, Forpost, and Orlan-10 UAVs, designed to withstand Arctic conditions, and the military is working on developing larger drones for resupplying remote Arctic bases in the future. In addition to drone patrols, installing satellite-monitoring stations and anti-satellite capabilities across the Arctic is extremely important for Russia. In August 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a contract supplying them Tirada electronic warfare systems for jamming satellites. These systems have been integrated into the Northern Fleet’s Center for Radio-Electronic Warfare, which handles two main tasks: ensuring the safety of navigation along the NSR, and controlling the radio-electronic sphere in the region.

Other Arctic technology in use includes Arctic-specific land platforms—such as the T-80BVM MBTs and BTR-82A armored personnel carriers—and deep-sea communications cables across the Arctic seabed to link military facilities. Russia has had success developing Arctic-specific technology—in 2018, arms manufacturer Kalashnikov developed a weather-proof bodysuit for Special Forces soldiers, and military researchers developed a blood substitute for extreme conditions. It is now investing in a range of new technologies such as underwater drones, space-based assets, and small satellites to ensure better coverage. If development is successful, these assets will be ready to deploy in another 10 to 20 years and will significantly strengthen the Russian Arctic bastion.

SOURCES: SIPRI, CSIS

Breaking Down Russia’s Complex Relationship with China

In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s “Pivot to the East” strategy, resulting in a number of economic partnerships with Asian countries, particularly China. Extensive sanctions enforced by the U.S. and EU against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 facilitated this embrace. Multiple Asian nations, such as Japan and South Korea, have invested in Russia’s Arctic development, but—with the exception of China—the majority of investments were limited to Russia’s Yamal LNG pipelines. Other Asian nations, such as India and Singapore, are discussing potential deals partnering with Russian companies in natural gas and oil extraction, but progress has been slow, and commitments tentative. By contrast, China has invested nearly $200 billion in the Russian Arctic to date, largely in long-term deals. The China Development Bank’s $13 billion-dollar investment in the Yamal LNG has 15-year terms, for example, with this and other long-term deals entangling Russia and China for the foreseeable future. Economically, this relationship is mutually beneficial. Cut off from Western capital, Chinese funding is essential to Russia’s continued development in the Arctic, while Russian oil and gas resources diversify China’s energy supply. The relationship is also facilitating China’s increased presence in the region and its efforts to become a regional power player. However, each country’s long-term strategic vision and national security priorities in the region diverge sharply.

For Russia, establishing sovereignty over its Arctic territory and the associated waters along the NSR is a key national security interest. Despite the need for Chinese capital, increased Chinese presence and influence is not in Russia’s long-term strategic interests. China’s claim to be involved in Arctic affairs relies on portraying the Arctic as an international territory that impacts countries outside the Arctic. From China’s perspective, outside stakeholders—such as European and Asian countries—are entitled to influence Arctic development and affairs through freely navigating Arctic waters, accessing Arctic resources, and leading or partnering in environmental and scientific research efforts. However, this clashes with Russia’s interpretation of Arctic affairs, in which Russia, as the largest Arctic nation, has a decisive say over security and navigation issues, particularly along the NSR. Increased Chinese and international influence challenges Russia’s exclusive control of the NSR, the centerpiece for Russia’s economic development plans. Currently, Russia asserts complete navigational control along the NSR—charging transport fees for commercial vessels, requiring foreign military ships to give 45 days’ advance notice and obtain permission to use the passage, and mandating on-boarding Russian pilots while sailing through the NSR. As early as 2003, Russia rejected Chinese research vessels aiming to enter Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) during China’s second Arctic Expedition, and in 2012, it again blocked Chinese research vessels from navigating the NSR during China’s fifth such expedition, forcing China to suspend all of its Arctic research activities at the time. Since then, Russia has continually tightened control over the NSR and will push back against any freedom-of-navigation efforts along the NSR, whether for commercial or military means.

Expert Q&A

An emerging alliance, a marriage of convenience, or something else completely?

Q: What are the dynamics of the relationship between Russia and China?
Troy Bouffard
Faculty Instructor at University of Alaska Fairbanks

“Ultimately, Russia and China are very separate actors with very separate strategic and global goals.”

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“Ultimately, Russia and China are very separate actors with very separate strategic and global goals. [Recently], they’ve found great utility in working together, either for their own mutual benefits, especially with energy for China, or in the usefulness of representing a fairly powerful anti-Western partnership. There’s nothing friendly about the two nations between each other. They do not like each other, but they have found great utility in forming a partnership and in looking past issues that normally kept tensions high between them, and especially in recent years with the Arctic LNG 1 and 2 and then the upcoming Arctic LNG 3 projects being very important to China and a revenue source to Russia. They found a great place to work together that’s quite meaningful and that does cause some concern to the West. There’s been a lot of discussion about: What is China’s purpose in the Arctic?

And they’re an observer in the Arctic Council, but I can tell you that really means very little by charter requirements and acceptance of being an observer, which is a temporary thing only. Ultimately, the influence of the observers or their nations’ IGO’s or NGOs, [is] very limited by charter, [and] by rules.

Ultimately, China and Russia have opposing global goals, and eventually, it’s going to come to a head, I believe, in that much of China’s global focus is based on geo-economic strategies and goals and objectives versus Russia, which is generally geopolitically oriented. For now, clearly, their partnership is very mutually beneficial to each other, but ultimately, they have very different goals, and both have potential to represent great powers, right?

I think there’s a strong understanding that Russia and China are not that comfortable with each other, there’s [not] any confidence that they [will] turn into a tight partnership, like the U.S. and Canada. Our strong National North American Defense partnership in our alliance is formidable, it is strong, and very stable. That is not the situation with Russia and China, though nobody says it is, but the potential for that to get there [is nearly non-existent]. Even Russia and China aren’t even pretending that it’s possible.”

Elizabeth Buchanan, Ph.D
Lecturer in Strategic Studies, Deakin University at the Australian War College

“People talk about it as a marriage of convenience between Beijing and Moscow. I don’t think it’s a marriage of convenience. I think it’s one in which both states are extremely suspicious of each other”

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“[Russia was] an original blocking state in the Arctic Council deliberations, [from] letting China become an observer state. That was in the early 2000s, [when the] oil price was super high, Putin was lucky. Much of this comes down to luck, right? He was filling coffers, they’d paid off all their international debt, and their sovereign wealth fund was looking healthy. He’s looking over the horizon to [see] who could challenge what he plans to do for Russia. Russia’s going to be an energy superpower, [and they’re aiming] to take back their rightful mantle. The only threat they really have is China, on the horizon.

Then we had Ukraine in 2014, and the double whammy of the oil price drop, which hit Russia hard. They had to scramble for partners. It made sense. People talk about it as a marriage of convenience between Beijing and Moscow. I don’t think it’s a marriage of convenience. I think it’s one in which both states are extremely suspicious of each other, and that stems from Far Eastern territory grabs and centuries of diplomatic tension, right? As all neighbor’s experience —land neighbors, that is.

It is a strategic exploitation arrangement. I don’t even think it’s a partnership, because it’s so lopsided in the Arctic. China’s built most of the infrastructure, it’s paid [Russia] to hold shares in and put up the capital for a number of projects. But it’s still not allowed to have a majority share [in Russia’s Arctic], even though [Russia’s Arctic] exports – the existing LNG projects are eighty percent going to [the Chinese] market.

Russia’s trying as much as it can to maintain some semblance of control over the region. I think it’s a carefully managed, mutually beneficial engagement. I think that is the way to encapsulate it, because it is just not a partnership, and it’s not an alliance. I don’t think it’s ever going to head that way, and that’s about Russia hedging its bets on [China]. Russia and China are interesting, because when they think of alliances, and partnerships, they’ve learned too much from history that you never have alliances. Neither of them has alliances. They have trusted, useful neighbors, and useful partners to look to, but they’ve learned too much from being burned in the past.”

SOURCES: Primary source interviews conducted by FP Analytics

Russia has also pushed back against any Chinese naval activity in the region. In 2010, the Russian navy sent warnings to China that Beijing was “advancing their interest very intensively, in every possible way” in the Arctic, necessitating enhanced Russian naval exercises and control of the NSR. Russia is wary of the fact that China is a stronger naval and military power, with the potential to overwhelm Russia in the region. This was reflected in Russia’s pre-2014 stance toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seen at the time as a competing geopolitical strategy to weaken or marginalize Russia’s dominance in the region. This tension over BRI drove Russia to initially advocate against China’s application for observer status on the Arctic Council in 2013 as well as reject the permanent observer status of the EU on the Arctic Council. Since 2014, however, NATO sanctions have forced Russia to adjust its stance on China out of economic necessity. Russia’s position in the region vis-à-vis China has weakened significantly since 2014, and Russia is now more reliant on China for its capital and technology than China is reliant on Russia for its energy and resources. Russia and China’s interests are aligned at the moment, but China still poses a long-term threat to Russia in the region. As of now, Russia and China’s relationship remains mutually beneficial but is not representative of a newly emerging anti-Western Arctic Axis.

Graphic 4

Russian War Games and Military Exercises

Since 2018, Russia has conducted extensive military exercises throughout the Arctic.
Click + symbol to read more
August 27, 2020
Russian War Games in the Bering Sea

The Russian Navy conducted major war games near Alaska involving more than 50 warships, about 40 aircraft and multiple practice missile launches.

During the exercises, Russia’s Pacific guided-missile submarine Omsk surfaced in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast (spotted at St. Matthew Island). Russian media claimed the surfacing was “routine,” but the novelty of spotting Russian submarines so close to the U.S. coast still raised alarm among U.S. authorities.

September 11–17, 2018
Vostok-18 Exercises in Eastern Russia

Exercises took place primarily in eastern Russia and partially in the Bering Sea.

Exercises involved a combined total of 300,000 troops, 1,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters; 80 ships; and 36,000 tanks, making it the largest military exercise conducted by Russia since 1981.

Chinese and Mongolian forces participated in some exercises alongside Russian troops. China sent 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and other equipment, and 30 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit took part in joint campaign exercises simulating defensive and counteroffensive operations in Zabaykalsky Krai near the Mongolian border.

September 2019
Tsentr-19 Military Drills

As part of larger military drills across central Russia, the Northern Fleet conducted several cises in the Arctic incorporating newly developed Arctic-specific military equipment.

The overall exercises included 128,000 land troops, 20,000 pieces of equipment, 600 aircrafts, and 15 warships. It involved troops from China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kirgizstan.

Prior to the kick-off of Tsentr-19, Russia launched an additional 500-troop military exercise on Bolshevik Island, off Russia’s central Arctic coast.

April 25, 2020
Russian Military Exercise in Far-North Islands

An exercise was conducted throughout Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago of largely uninhabited islands in the High Arctic, near Canada’s own Far North island chain.

Paratroopers jumped 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) from an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft and tested new equipment developed for extremely cold weather operations.

August 15, 2019
Russian Navy Drill in the Norwegian Sea

Thirty Russian naval vessels, including surface ships, submarines, tugs, and service and supply ships, took part in the naval operation.

Norway’s defense chief, Haakon Bruun-Hansen, stated that the objective of the exercise was to block NATO’s access to the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Norwegian Sea.

Russian forces deployed consisted of ships from the Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet, and Black Sea Fleet. The same vessels participated in the “Ocean Shield 2019” exercise in the Baltic Sea earlier in the month.

October 2019
Grom-19 Military Exercise

A significant exercise focused on engaging Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. It included ten Russian submarines—eight of which were nuclear-powered—patrolling the GIUK gap, all four of Russia’s naval fleets and 12,000 troops. The largest such demonstration since the Cold War.

Russian submarines were spotted between Svalbard and Finnmark, in the northernmost part of mainland Norway, guarding the entrance to the eastern part of the Barents Sea and in the northern Norwegian Sea.

August 19, 2019
Ocean Shield Exercise in the Baltic Sea

Russian Navy drills involved 49 warships and combat boats, 20 support vessels, 58 aircraft and 10,634 Armed Forces personnel.

Drill training focused on engaging inter-fleet forces and evaluated the Navy’s readiness to defend access to Russian territory and waters through the Baltic Sea.

August 27, 2020

Russian War Games in the Bering Sea

The Russian Navy conducted major war games near Alaska involving more than 50 warships, about 40 aircraft and multiple practice missile launches.

During the exercises, Russia’s Pacific guided-missile submarine Omsk surfaced in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast (spotted at St. Matthew Island). Russian media claimed the surfacing was “routine,” but the novelty of spotting Russian submarines so close to the U.S. coast still raised alarm among U.S. authorities.

September 11–17, 2018

Vostok-18 Exercises in Eastern Russia

Exercises took place primarily in eastern Russia and partially in the Bering Sea.

Exercises involved a combined total of 300,000 troops, 1,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters; 80 ships; and 36,000 tanks, making it the largest military exercise conducted by Russia since 1981.

Chinese and Mongolian forces participated in some exercises alongside Russian troops. China sent 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and other equipment, and 30 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit took part in joint campaign exercises simulating defensive and counteroffensive operations in Zabaykalsky Krai near the Mongolian border.

September 2019

Tsentr-19 Military Drills

As part of larger military drills across central Russia, the Northern Fleet conducted several cises in the Arctic incorporating newly developed Arctic-specific military equipment.

The overall exercises included 128,000 land troops, 20,000 pieces of equipment, 600 aircrafts, and 15 warships. It involved troops from China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kirgizstan.

Prior to the kick-off of Tsentr-19, Russia launched an additional 500-troop military exercise on Bolshevik Island, off Russia’s central Arctic coast.

April 25, 2020

Russian Military Exercise in Far-North Islands

An exercise was conducted throughout Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago of largely uninhabited islands in the High Arctic, near Canada’s own Far North island chain.

Paratroopers jumped 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) from an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft and tested new equipment developed for extremely cold weather operations.

August 15, 2019

Russian Navy Drill in the Norwegian Sea

Thirty Russian naval vessels, including surface ships, submarines, tugs, and service and supply ships, took part in the naval operation.

Norway’s defense chief, Haakon Bruun-Hansen, stated that the objective of the exercise was to block NATO’s access to the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Norwegian Sea.

Russian forces deployed consisted of ships from the Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet, and Black Sea Fleet. The same vessels participated in the “Ocean Shield 2019” exercise in the Baltic Sea earlier in the month.

October 2019

Grom-19 Military Exercise

A significant exercise focused on engaging Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. It included ten Russian submarines—eight of which were nuclear-powered—patrolling the GIUK gap, all four of Russia’s naval fleets and 12,000 troops. The largest such demonstration since the Cold War.

Russian submarines were spotted between Svalbard and Finnmark, in the northernmost part of mainland Norway, guarding the entrance to the eastern part of the Barents Sea and in the northern Norwegian Sea.

August 19, 2019

Ocean Shield Exercise in the Baltic Sea

Russian Navy drills involved 49 warships and combat boats, 20 support vessels, 58 aircraft and 10,634 Armed Forces personnel.

Drill training focused on engaging inter-fleet forces and evaluated the Navy’s readiness to defend access to Russian territory and waters through the Baltic Sea.

SOURCES: MILITARY TIMES, THE DRIVE, CBC NEWS, THE BARENTS OBSERVER, THE MOSCOW TIMES, CSIS, NAVY RECOGNITION, NATO REVIEW, THE DIPLOMAT
Part 2

NATO Arctic Defense Capabilities, Emerging Alliances and Strategic Priorities

Led by Norway and the U.S., NATO countries in the Arctic are mounting varied responses to expanding Russian militarization, resulting in growing military activity from all actors involved. The U.S. is taking the most rhetorically aggressive stance, but its strategy in the region has been piecemeal and inconsistently implemented. Norway, however, must balance cooperation with Russia on Arctic issues ranging from border crossings to fisheries protection. Yet overall, the relationship between the two countries has been deteriorating as Norway collaborates with NATO allies, including in a number of extensive war games in response to Russian military exercises in the region. As tensions have ratcheted up, the U.S. has moved to bolster its Arctic presence, re-opening a naval base in Iceland in 2014 and increasingly partnering with Norway for military training exercises. China’s entrance into the region has heightened tensions, with both the U.S. and Norway expressing concerns over China’s naval presence. Despite NATO countries’ increased focus on Arctic defense capabilities in recent years, they sorely lag behind. Russia remains many years ahead in its Arctic capabilities, and without increased U.S. investment, it will continue to cement its strategic advantage in the region.

Key Takeaways

  • The Issue

    NATO countries are increasing their Arctic defense capabilities in response to regional Russian defense buildup. Extensive war games conducted throughout the region by the U.S. and Norway, in collaboration with all 30 NATO allies as well as Sweden and Finland, are increasingly being accompanied with harsh rhetoric toward Russian Arctic military activities.

  • The Reaction

    Arctic NATO countries and Russia are both increasingly perceiving militarization by the other side as aggressive, and militarization on their own part as defensive. This dynamic is creating an emerging cycle of mounting military capacity building and defense exercises that risk further deteriorating NATO countries’ already fraught relationship with Russia at best, and military confrontation at worst.

  • What’s at Stake

    The Arctic’s future as an arena of international cooperation and collaboration. Increased tensions between NATO countries and Russia will deter cooperation and risk escalation in the region, which is increasingly becoming an arena from which to project hard power.

The Breakdown
Understanding the Extent and Intent of NATO Military Activities in the Arctic
Norway and the U.S. are investing in Arctic defense, but NATO countries still lag far behind Russia in their overall military capacities in the Arctic.
  • GRAPHIC 5: NATO Countries Military Bases in the Arctic
  • GRAPHIC 6: NATO Countries Arctic Defense Capabilities and Tactics
  • GRAPHIC 7: NATO Countries Arctic War Games and Military Exercises
Click to expand

Arctic NATO countries, primarily the U.S. and Norway, are responding to increased Russian military presence in the Arctic by bolstering their own defense capabilities and conducting war games and tactical drills throughout the Arctic region. In 2018, prompted by Russia’s extensive war games and posturing in the Arctic, the U.S. and Norway both began significantly boosting their military capabilities and presence in the region and increasing defense collaborations. Already the NATO nation with the most extensive military operations in the Arctic, Norway released a new eight-year defense plan in April 2020, allocating €1.46 billion ($1.73 billion) toward defense upgrades across its air force and navy. The defense plan also included 58 mentions of Russia and 52 mentions of China (more than any other nations) as emerging defense priorities. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. signaled a similar commitment to rebuilding its Arctic capabilities. In June 2020, then President Trump called for a $2.6 billion plan to build three new polar icebreakers over the next decade, and the U.S. Department of Defense committed $57 million in its 2020 budget to upgrade the Keflavík Naval Air Station in Iceland. Since 2018, the U.S. military has worked extensively with Norway—participating in NATO drills, collaborating on submarine patrols in the North Atlantic, and funding surveillance radar systems near the Russian border. The U.S. Navy is sending roughly 700 marines to Norway on long-term rotations and publicly reported that its fast-attack submarine—the USS Seawolf—had docked in a Norwegian port in August 2020, the first time the U.S. had disclosed the submarine’s location in five years.

Even with U.S. support, Norway and other Arctic NATO countries do not have nearly the same Arctic capabilities as Russia, which has 36 more active polar icebreakers and at least 12 more active military bases than any other Arctic country. Arctic nations such as Iceland and Denmark have small militaries, and Canada has not prioritized the region militarily, focusing instead on scientific exploration and economic development. Russia’s defense advantage comes from its natural geography and a willingness to devote substantial resources to the region. Its Arctic coastline accounts for 53 percent of the total, and it has the most Arctic islands within its territorial waters on which to build naval bases and military outposts, allowing it to build 24 active military bases within its Arctic territory, more than all NATO countries have within the Arctic combined. The extent of Russian territory in the Arctic allows it to develop superior naval, satellite, and radar monitoring coverage throughout the Arctic. According to the Wilson Center’s Marisol Maddox, this capacity is exceptional, given that it is exceedingly difficult to build infrastructure in the Arctic without territorial Arctic islands to use as bases, as most military installations in Arctic coastal territory need to be built into permafrost, which is rapidly deteriorating due to climate change. Further, regional infrastructure development is highly costly, and Russia has poured significantly more resources into Arctic development than any other country, providing a proposed $231 billion in tax incentives for companies investing in Arctic development. Comparatively lacking military bases, icebreakers, submarines, comprehensive satellite coverage, and a coherent strategy or unified interests, NATO forces do not represent a commensurate threat to Russia in the region, where Russia maintains a distinct strategic advantage that is set to increase in the near future.

Graphic 5

NATO Countries’ Military Bases in the Arctic

Norway has extensive Arctic military infrastructure, but other NATO countries do not have similar capacities.
Select Map To View
Thule Air Base Thule, Greenland, U.S.
Raven Camp (Seasonal) Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, U.S.
Naval Air Station Keflavik Keflavik, Iceland, U.S.
Eielson air-force Base North Pole, Alaska, U.S.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.
Clear air-force Station Denali Borough, Alaska, U.S.
Fort Richardson Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.
Fort Wainwright Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.
Fort Greely Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.
ISC Kodiak Kodiak Island, Alaska, U.S.
Marine Safety Unit Valdez, Alaska, U.S.
Uscg Juneau Juneau, Alaska, U.S.
CFS Alert Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada
Frobisher Bay Air Base Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada
Eureka Fosheim Peninsula, Qikiqtaaluk, Canada
Resolute Bay Cornwallis Island, Nunavut, Canada
  • Station Group Banak: Banak, Norway, Norway
  • Sørreisa Air Defense Center: Sørreisa, Norway, Norway
  • Andøya Air Station: Andøy, Norway, Norway
  • Bodø Main Air Station: Bodø Norway, Norway
  • Bardufoss Air Station: Bardufoss, Norway, Norway
  • Skjold Garrison: Troms County, Norway, Norway
  • Setermoen Camp : Setermoen, Norway, Norway
  • Garrison of Sør-Varanger: Høybuktmoen, Norway, Norway
  • Garrison of Porsanger : Porsangmoen, Norway, Norway
  • Sortland Navy Coastguard Station: Sortland, Norway, Norway
  • Trondenes Fort : Harstad, Norway, Norway
  • Ramsund Naval Station: Ramsund, Norway, Norway
Provideniya Bay Providensky District
Anadyr-Ugolny Ugolnye Kopi
Dresba Air Base Pevek
Chersky Chersky
Sredny Island Sredny Ostrov
Alykel Norilsk, Russia
Sabetta Yamal Penninsula
Amderma Nenets Autonomous Okrug
Nadyn Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug
Vorkuta Pechora basin
Nagurskoye Franz Josef Land
Rogachevo Novaya Zemlya
Wrangel Island Base Wrangel Island
Temp Air Base Kotelny Island
Naryan-Mar Naryan-Mar, Russia
Cape Schmidt Chukotka Autonomous Okrug
Tiksi North Tiksi
Sputnik Base (200th Brigade Base) Murmansk Oblast
Alakurtti (80th Brigade Base) Murmansk Oblast
OSK Sever (HQ) Arkhangelsk
Murmansk Murmansk
Dikson Taymyrsky Dolgano-Nenetsky District
Dudinka Dudinka
Northern Fleet HQ Severomorsk, Murmansk Oblast
Thule Air Base Thule, Greenland, U.S.
Raven Camp (Seasonal) Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, U.S.
Naval Air Station Keflavik Keflavik, Iceland, U.S.
Eielson air-force Base North Pole, Alaska, U.S.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.
Clear air-force Station Denali Borough, Alaska, U.S.
Fort Richardson Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.
Fort Wainwright Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.
Fort Greely Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.
ISC Kodiak Kodiak Island, Alaska, U.S.
Marine Safety Unit Valdez, Alaska, U.S.
Uscg Juneau Juneau, Alaska, U.S.
CFS Alert Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada
Frobisher Bay Air Base Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada
Eureka Fosheim Peninsula, Qikiqtaaluk, Canada
Resolute Bay Cornwallis Island, Nunavut, Canada
  • Station Group Banak: Banak, Norway, Norway
  • Sørreisa Air Defense Center: Sørreisa, Norway, Norway
  • Andøya Air Station: Andøy, Norway, Norway
  • Bodø Main Air Station: Bodø Norway, Norway
  • Bardufoss Air Station: Bardufoss, Norway, Norway
  • Skjold Garrison: Troms County, Norway, Norway
  • Setermoen Camp : Setermoen, Norway, Norway
  • Garrison of Sør-Varanger: Høybuktmoen, Norway, Norway
  • Garrison of Porsanger : Porsangmoen, Norway, Norway
  • Sortland Navy Coastguard Station: Sortland, Norway, Norway
  • Trondenes Fort : Harstad, Norway, Norway
  • Ramsund Naval Station: Ramsund, Norway, Norway
Provideniya Bay Providensky District
Anadyr-Ugolny Ugolnye Kopi
Dresba Air Base Pevek
Chersky Chersky
Sredny Island Sredny Ostrov
Alykel Norilsk, Russia
Sabetta Yamal Penninsula
Amderma Nenets Autonomous Okrug
Nadyn Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug
Vorkuta Pechora basin
Nagurskoye Franz Josef Land
Rogachevo Novaya Zemlya
Wrangel Island Base Wrangel Island
Temp Air Base Kotelny Island
Naryan-Mar Naryan-Mar, Russia
Cape Schmidt Chukotka Autonomous Okrug
Tiksi North Tiksi
Sputnik Base (200th Brigade Base) Murmansk Oblast
Alakurtti (80th Brigade Base) Murmansk Oblast
OSK Sever (HQ) Arkhangelsk
Murmansk Murmansk
Dikson Taymyrsky Dolgano-Nenetsky District
Dudinka Dudinka
Northern Fleet HQ Severomorsk, Murmansk Oblast
  • Airfield
  • Coastguard base
  • Military base
  • Airfield and military base
  • Coastguard and military base
  • Airfield and coastguard base
  • Northern Fleet headquarters
SOURCES: MILITARYBASES.COM, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG, CANADIAN GLOBAL AFFAIRS INSTITUTE

Graphic 6

NATO Countries’ Arctic Defense Capabilities and Tactics

Scroll for a breakdown of Arctic NATO countries’ defense capabilities and regional strategic defense priorities.
SELECT COUNTRY TO SEE MORE INFORMATION

Norway

Defense Priorities Overview

Norway’s defense priorities are increasingly informed by the global shifting of power toward Russia and Asia, and the emergence of great power competition in the Arctic. Norway specifically calls out “an increasingly unstable strategic landscape, where the rule-based order is challenged and the use of instruments of power is more prevalent” as a security threat in its 2020 Long Term Defence Plan. In addition to great power rivalry, Norway lists the increasing access of rival states to advanced technologies, and the interlacing of the military and civilian sectors in the security domain as key national security concerns. To meet these challenges, Norway has re-affirmed its commitment to NATO as the cornerstone of its defense policies, and an eagerness to invest in its domestic defense capabilities—with the stated goal of increasing defense spending to reach 2 percent of GDP in 2028 (up from 1.7 percent of GDP in 2019).

Land Capabilities

Norway’s land capabilities consist of the Norwegian Army and the Norwegian Home Guard. The largest unit of the Norwegian Army forces is the Brigade North, with four maneuver battalions and support battalions, primarily stationed in Troms County in the north of Norway, above the Arctic Circle. Additional land defense forces include the Finnmark Land Defence with Porsanger Battalion, the Border Guard, His Majesty the King’s Guard, and an Intelligence Battalion. The Norwegian Home Guard includes the Area Structure and Rapid Response forces, consisting of 40,000 soldiers.

Air Capabilities

Norway is currently in the process of replacing its fleet of 60 F-16 combat aircrafts with 52 F-35’s. Due to their limited range and current lack of tanker aircraft support, neither F-16 nor F-35 aircraft can provide reliable air support in the Arctic airspace outside of Norway’s borders. In 2014, to address this shortcoming, Norway joined with Poland and the Netherlands to acquire a pool of four A330 MRTT tanker aircraft to boost defense capabilities in the Arctic Ocean. Norway’s most effective Arctic air defense capabilities come from its six P-3 Orion long-range maritime patrol aircraft, currently in the process of being replaced by five P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. Additionally, Norway has four C-130J tactical transport aircraft, 14 NH90 maritime helicopters, 18 Bell 412 helicopters to be replaced by new tactical transport helicopters, and 16 Sea King helicopters, which will be replaced by AW101 search and rescue helicopters.

Sea Capabilities

The Royal Norwegian Navy consists of ten ships—four frigates, Fridtjof Nansen Class and six Corvettes, Skjold Class—and six submarines Ula Class, currently in the process of being replaced by four new submarines and four mine countermeasure Vessels, which will soon be replaced by autonomous systems. Additionally, the Navy operates logistics and support vessels, consisting of ten outer coast guard vessels and five inner coast guard vessels.

Denmark (Greenland)

Defense Priorities Overview

The Danish Government’s Foreign and Security Policy Strategy lists economic development, strengthening ties with Greenland, climate change, and scientific research as its top priorities in the Arctic. However, it makes note of Russia’s military buildup as an issue that requires continual monitoring and emphasizes both the growing geopolitical importance of the Arctic as well as efforts by the Danish government to increase its presence in the Arctic. The Danish government also notes the entrance of China into the Arctic and emphasizes that this will bring both positive opportunities for continued growth as well as potential geopolitical challenges. In 2019, Denmark pledged to triple its Arctic defense budget, providing an additional 1.5 billion DKK ($240 million) over the next three years to invest in arial surveillance and submarine hunting technologies.

Land Capabilities

The small Frømandskorps (Frogman Corps) special forces unit, based in Greenland, has a partially Arctic role, while the Jaeger special forces, based in Denmark, are also available for Arctic duties. Each unit comprises 200–300 troops. Denmark also maintains a small military patrol force (roughly a dozen troops) in Greenland, the Sledge Patrol Sirius.

Air Capabilities

Denmark operates three unarmed maritime patrol aircraft over the Baltic Sea and off Greenland, and the 2018 Defence Agreement endorses the acquisition of an additional 27 F-35 aircraft, which could be deployable to Greenland. The 2012 Defence Agreement allocates substantial funds for testing different surveillance options for the Arctic, including UAVs and the use of existing satellites. The 2018 Defence Agreement endorses arming frigates with SM-2 and SM-6 missiles to enhance maritime air defense.

Sea Capabilities

Denmark has three large frigates and two frigate support ships that can operate in Arctic waters but are not ice-strengthened. The Royal Danish Navy also has four Thetis operational patrol vessels (OPVs), capable of breaking through ice up to one meter thick, which patrol the North Atlantic, and three smaller, ice-strengthened Knud Rasmussen-class OPV, dedicated for patrols off Greenland. One additional ice-strengthened Tulugaq large patrol craft also operates from Greenland. The 2018 Defence Agreement endorsed enhancing the Royal Danish Navy’s anti-submarine capabilities by equipping naval frigates with sonar equipment to detect submarines, and anti-torpedo systems to defend against enemy torpedoes. Additionally, the nine MH-60R helicopters that operate on the naval frigates will be equipped with dipping sonars and torpedoes so they can participate in anti-submarine warfare.

Canada

Defense Priorities Overview

The 2017 Canada First Defence Strategy lists maintaining Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage and developing it for economic activity, as top policy priorities in the Arctic. It also acknowledges the security challenges accompanied by the Arctic becoming increasingly accessible and recognizes the potential for increased military support in the Arctic. Additionally, enhancing surveillance capabilities is listed as one of the most pressing needs in the Arctic, and the government is looking at acquiring radars and satellites for that purpose.

Land Capabilities

All Canadian land forces receive basic cold-weather training and have cold-weather personal equipment. Increased winter training of large troop units is part of the Canada First policy, and the army is being outfitted with new winter uniforms and up to 100 snow-capable vehicles beginning in 2021. The main Arctic force are the Canadian Rangers, a lightly armed militia force with a patrol and reconnaissance role in northern Canada, trained and equipped for year-round Arctic operations. The Canadian Rangers consist of roughly 5,000 troops spread out across more than 200 communities in Canada’s Arctic and more remote regions. To support the Canadian Rangers, the Canadian Army created four Arctic Response Company Groups (ARCGs) in 2007, small units with special Arctic training designed to respond rapidly to Arctic security and defense issues. Additionally, a special Arctic training center was opened in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in 2013.

Air Capabilities

The Royal Canadian Air Force provides mobility support; arial search and rescue capabilities; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets throughout the Arctic. It operates 18 CP-140 Aurora long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft that patrol the Arctic. Canada also has 80 CF-18 combat aircraft that can be deployed to the Arctic, and it is in the midst of updating them. In June 2020, Canada closed a $862.3 million deal with the U.S. Department of State to upgrade its CF-18s with new radar systems and weapons as part of a larger air force modernization effort, the Future Fighter Capability Program. Canada is also investing heavily in surveillance equipment. The 2017 Canada First Defence Strategy outlines plans for 10–12 maritime patrol aircraft to become part of a surveillance “system of systems,” starting in 2020. Canada already operates an extensive network of air surveillance radar systems in the north of the country—the North Warning System. Under the Canada First Defence Strategy, these capabilities will be expanded to comprise sensors, unmanned arial vehicles, and underwater surveillance systems.

Sea Capabilities

The Royal Canadian Navy operates 12 Halifax-class patrol frigates and four diesel-electric submarines with enough range to operate in the Arctic Ocean. However, it currently has no ice-strengthened warships, so patrolling the Arctic is mainly done by the Canadian Coast Guard, which has six large icebreakers (two “heavy” and four “medium”) and seven small icebreakers. However, all are unarmed, and most can only operate in the Arctic during summer months. The 2017 Canada Defence Strategy endorses plans to acquire an additional six to eight Arctic offshore patrol ships and 15 new frigates to replace the current ones.

United States

Defense Priorities Overview

The 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy lists the U.S. and its allies eroding competitive edge against China and Russia as the principal challenge to long-term U.S. security in the Arctic. The DoD lists three major security concerns in the Arctic: 1) Defending the homeland—defending U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic is the top priority; 2) Competing when necessary to maintain favorable regional balances of power; 3) Ensuring that common domains remain free and open—the Arctic must remain open for legitimate civilian, commercial, and military purposes. To achieve these strategic aims, the DoD advocates building Arctic awareness, enhancing Arctic operations, and strengthening the rules-based order in the Arctic.

Land Capabilities

The Alaskan Command (ALCOM) is responsible for operations in and around the state, including in Alaska’s Arctic territory. However, the army component of ALCOM is mainly made up of ordinary infantry and airborne troops and is not specifically trained or prepared for Arctic operations. The Northern Warfare Training Center (NWTC) in Black Rapids, Alaska, is where all U.S. Army cold-weather training is concentrated and annually trains 1,300-1,400 troops from different units in Arctic or cold-weather operations. The Alaska National Guard supports Arctic operations, and the U.S. Marine Corps has specific training and equipment for potential Arctic roles.

Air Capabilities

The Department of the Air Force accounts for close to 80 percent of U.S. Arctic military spending. It operates large bases, training complexes, satellite command and control stations, and more than 50 early-warning and missile defense radar systems across Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. The U.S. maintains two large air bases in Alaska near the Arctic, both equipped with F-22 aircraft and airborne early-warning (AEW) aircrafts. U.S. forces use the Thule air base in Greenland and recently returned to the Keflavik base in Iceland, which is set to host U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft, a key surveillance asset for locating and tracking Russian submarines. The U.S. has over 200 long-range maritime patrol aircraft. However, only a few U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft operate over the Bering Sea and the Arctic.

Sea Capabilities

The U.S. Coast Guard is primarily responsible patrolling the Arctic and regularly deploys offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) there. While not specifically designed for icy conditions, many U.S. aircraft car¬riers, major combat ships, and amphibious warfare ships are capable of operating in northern weather conditions due to their size. However, most of these ships cannot navigate directly through Arctic waters, and the U.S. operates just two polar icebreakers. In 2016, the Senate allocated $1 billion for one large icebreaker in the 2017 navy budget, but the vessel is not expected to be in service for at least another ten years. While lacking in icebreaker capacity, the U.S. Navy has a strong submarine fleet and currently operates 51 SNN Los Angeles class nuclear submarines capable of operating under Arctic ice.

SOURCES: SIPRI, CSIS, FINNISH INSTITUE OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, NATO REVIEW

Emerging Alliances and NATO Strategy in the Arctic

NATO lacks a specific strategy for the Arctic, and the Alliance’s current operative strategic guidance document, the Strategic Concept 2010, does not even mention the Arctic. Norway has called for increased NATO presence in the region, but concerns over further antagonizing Russia have led non-Arctic NATO countries to remain inactive. Without a coherent NATO strategy, Arctic security is left to the Arctic nations themselves. Norway is the most active NATO country militarily in the region but maintains a strong incentive to maintain peaceful relations with Russia—as noted above, the two countries need to collaborate on border crossings, search and rescue, fisheries management, and environmental preservation. However, Norwegian and Russian relations are seeing heightened tensions due to both countries accusing each other of excessive militarization of the Arctic, recent hacking allegations from Norway against Russia, and continual disputes over Norwegian treatment of Russian activity on Svalbard island, a Norwegian territory that allows Russian commercial and residential presence under a 1920 treaty.

While Norway maintains a strong military presence in the region, the only true Arctic power with the ability to counter Russian Arctic ambitions is the U.S., but it lacks a coherent long-term Arctic strategy and has not demonstrated a similar willingness to invest in the Arctic to the degree of Russia and/or China. The U.S. has stepped up its efforts in recent years; from 2016 to 2019, it budgeted roughly $1.3 billion total toward military construction in Alaska overall, a portion of which included Arctic defense upgrades. While Russia initially budgeted 209 billion rubles ($2.76 billion) toward Arctic military expansion during this same period, economic hardship forced it to significantly cut this spending to 12 billion rubles ($160 million). However, in its latest Arctic five-year plan, it budgeted $82 billion toward overall economic development in the Arctic.

Expert Q&A

A way forward?

Q: What are the key strategic objectives for the U.S. in the Arctic, and should they be investing more heavily in the region?
Malte Humpert
Founder & Senior Fellow at the Arctic Institute

“If you read all the different Arctic U.S. strategies and policies from Obama one, to Obama two, to now with Trump, it’s all very piecemeal. It’s not a cohesive coherent twenty-, thirty-year strategy for the Arctic”

Listen to Malte's full answer
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“It’s a conundrum that’s really hard to solve for the U.S., because the primary goal is deterring, delaying, and hampering Chinese and Russian activity in the Arctic because [of the history with the Arctic in the] Cold War with the blue line as a border [between Russia and the U.S.]. If Russian and Chinese assets are located in the Arctic, they are a lot closer than they were previously, right? You have [more and more] Russian submarines operating in the Arctic, and Chinese submarines are in the Arctic now [as well]. This presents a new threat theatre, compared to ten or twenty years ago. It’s a very one-dimensional Arctic for the U.S. It’s really not about economic investments, at least at large scale.

If you read all the different Arctic U.S. strategies and policies from Obama one, to Obama two, to now with Trump, it’s all very piecemeal. It’s not a cohesive coherent twenty-, thirty-year strategy for the Arctic, it’s about: we need to have more awareness, we need to have icebreakers, we need to have Arctic patrol vessels. But it’s all very piecemeal and cobbled together. There’s no real solution of how the U.S. really sees or envisions its role in the Arctic in twenty or thirty years from now. And I think that’s a stark difference, compared to Russia and to China.

China is really good at long-term planning because they don’t have two year-election cycles, where they have to change everything and start fresh. And I think for China, this is really not a 2030, 2040 play. Now they are thinking 2060, 2070, 2100, the Arctic is ice-free, [and] suddenly it becomes feasible for blue-water navy to operate in the Arctic, to gain a foothold in Greenland, and suddenly you’re a few hundred miles from U.S. territory, compared to several thousand miles. And so, I think those are very long-term thinking, and there’s economic benefits. There are geopolitical benefits, and for the U.S., it’s a tricky equation to solve, because the economic equation is not there.

How do you really contain Russia and China in the Arctic? You definitely can’t contain them on the economic level, because they’re not doing anything illegal. There’s oil and gas there, if they want to get to that, if they want to build up Arctic shipping and icebreakers and more shipping [none of this is illegal]. [So, how to contain Russia and China is] very tricky... It’s very hard to grab. It’s almost like some un-grabbable thing that’s changing very quickly. And that’s the other challenge for policymakers that work in the Arctic sector, be it search and rescue, or oil spill prevention, or environmental regulation, [or] for military planners and people that work on that. Things are changing really, really quickly.”

SOURCES: Primary source interviews conducted by FP Analytics

While the U.S. and Russia’s bilateral relations have been deteriorating on the global stage, within the Arctic there is still room for U.S.-Russia cooperation on climate change, commercial development, and scientific research. Russia demonstrates a willingness to collaborate with the U.S. on practical matters—the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB) and U.S. Coast Guard work collaboratively on search-and-rescue operations and policing illegal fishing in the Bering Strait, for example. But major points of tension within the Arctic stemming from disputes over freedom of navigation and Russian activity in the Bering Sea complicate any collaborative efforts. The U.S. maintains that Russia’s control over the NSR violates the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and Russia’s war games off the Alaskan coast are increasingly encroaching into the U.S.’s EEZ. Of particular concern for the U.S. is Russia’s increasing ability to navigate these waters without being detected by U.S. monitoring equipment. Without increased U.S. support and investment in the Arctic, it is unlikely that NATO countries will be able to curb Russian influence, and there is no legal basis for directly countering Russia’s military expansion in the region as most of its actions do not violate international law. While NATO countries have increased collaborative efforts since 2018, Russia’s ability to coordinate and execute on its Arctic development still gives it a distinct strategic advantage over NATO countries with varying capabilities and interests. This dynamic, combined with U.S. relative underinvestment and lack of consistent policy prioritization toward the Arctic, bestows on Russia an enduring long-term geopolitical advantage in the region.

Graphic 7

NATO Countries’ Arctic War Games and Military Exercises

Since 2018, NATO countries have responded to increased Russian military posturing by collaborating on extensive military exercises throughout the Arctic.
Select Map To View Click + symbol to read more
March 4, 2020
ICEX 2020 Exercise in the Arctic Ocean

The U.S. Navy conducted a three-week biennial exercise to assess its operational readiness in the Arctic and train with partner nations.

The exercise involved five nations (Britain, Canada, Japan, Norway, and the U.S.), two submarines, and more than 100 participants. The two submarines conducted multiple Arctic transits and a North Pole surfacing during the exercise.

March 2019
Operation Nanook-Nunalivut in Northern Canada

Canada conducted Arctic preparedness exercises with roughly 500 personnel to test Arctic survival skills and logistics. Activities included long-range patrols, ice diving, and creating landing strips on the sea ice.

Divers from France, Norway, Finland and Sweden all took part in the exercise.

The operation also focused on scientific research on, for example, cold weather injuries, satellite usage for search and rescue, and improving cold weather shelter systems.

September 2020
UK-led Naval Exercise off Russia’s Arctic coast

Led by the UK, U.S. and Norwegian vessels participated in war games in the Barents Sea, near the headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

The drills took place in international waters but included elements within Russia’s claimed 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

August 21, 2020
U.S. Navy publicly announced the USS Seawolf Submarine Visit to Norway

The U.S. Navy made the rare decision to publicize a visit by the highly advanced, first-in-class USS Seawolf to Norway in a demonstration of American underwater capabilities in the region.

This was the first time the Navy released photos of the USS Seawolf in five years.

March 2, 2020
Cold Response 2020 Arctic War Games

Norway led major military exercises that included 16,000 from Norway, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the U.S. Foreign forces accounted for roughly 6,000 of the participating troops.

Exercises focused on high-intensity combat scenarios in demanding winter conditions and placed emphasis on trainings to enhance joint amphibious capabilities.

October 2018
Trident Juncture Military Exercises in Norway

NATO allies staged exercises in Norway with a combined 50,000 troops—the largest military exercise in Norway in more than a decade. Exercises included 65 ships and 250 aircraft, with participation from all 29 NATO countries (North Macedonia was not a NATO country at the time of the exercise) as well as Finland and Sweden.

War games focused on hypothetical scenarios requiring protecting Norway from invasion through both its land and sea borders.

March 4, 2020

ICEX 2020 Exercise in the Arctic Ocean

The U.S. Navy conducted a three-week biennial exercise to assess its operational readiness in the Arctic and train with partner nations.

The exercise involved five nations (Britain, Canada, Japan, Norway, and the U.S.), two submarines, and more than 100 participants. The two submarines conducted multiple Arctic transits and a North Pole surfacing during the exercise.

March 2019

Operation Nanook-Nunalivut in Northern Canada

Canada conducted Arctic preparedness exercises with roughly 500 personnel to test Arctic survival skills and logistics. Activities included long-range patrols, ice diving, and creating landing strips on the sea ice.

Divers from France, Norway, Finland and Sweden all took part in the exercise.

The operation also focused on scientific research on, for example, cold weather injuries, satellite usage for search and rescue, and improving cold weather shelter systems.

September 2020

UK-led Naval Exercise off Russia’s Arctic coast

Led by the UK, U.S. and Norwegian vessels participated in war games in the Barents Sea, near the headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

The drills took place in international waters but included elements within Russia’s claimed 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

August 21, 2020

U.S. Navy publicly announced the USS Seawolf Submarine Visit to Norway

The U.S. Navy made the rare decision to publicize a visit by the highly advanced, first-in-class USS Seawolf to Norway in a demonstration of American underwater capabilities in the region.

This was the first time the Navy released photos of the USS Seawolf in five years.

March 2, 2020

Cold Response 2020 Arctic War Games

Norway led major military exercises that included 16,000 from Norway, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the U.S. Foreign forces accounted for roughly 6,000 of the participating troops.

Exercises focused on high-intensity combat scenarios in demanding winter conditions and placed emphasis on trainings to enhance joint amphibious capabilities.

October 2018

Trident Juncture Military Exercises in Norway

NATO allies staged exercises in Norway with a combined 50,000 troops—the largest military exercise in Norway in more than a decade. Exercises included 65 ships and 250 aircraft, with participation from all 29 NATO countries (North Macedonia was not a NATO country at the time of the exercise) as well as Finland and Sweden.

War games focused on hypothetical scenarios requiring protecting Norway from invasion through both its land and sea borders.

August 27, 2020
Russian War Games in the Bering Sea

The Russian Navy conducted major war games near Alaska involving more than 50 warships, about 40 aircraft and multiple practice missile launches.

During the exercises, Russia’s Pacific guided-missile submarine Omsk surfaced in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast (spotted at St. Matthew Island). Russian media claimed the surfacing was “routine,” but the novelty of spotting Russian submarines so close to the U.S. coast still raised alarm among U.S. authorities.

September 11–17, 2018
Vostok-18 Exercises in Eastern Russia

Exercises took place primarily in eastern Russia and partially in the Bering Sea.

Exercises involved a combined total of 300,000 troops, 1,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters; 80 ships; and 36,000 tanks, making it the largest military exercise conducted by Russia since 1981.

Chinese and Mongolian forces participated in some exercises alongside Russian troops. China sent 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and other equipment, and 30 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit took part in joint campaign exercises simulating defensive and counteroffensive operations in Zabaykalsky Krai near the Mongolian border.

September 2019
Tsentr-19 Military Drills

As part of larger military drills across central Russia, the Northern Fleet conducted several cises in the Arctic incorporating newly developed Arctic-specific military equipment.

The overall exercises included 128,000 land troops, 20,000 pieces of equipment, 600 aircrafts, and 15 warships. It involved troops from China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kirgizstan.

Prior to the kick-off of Tsentr-19, Russia launched an additional 500-troop military exercise on Bolshevik Island, off Russia’s central Arctic coast.

April 25, 2020
Russian Military Exercise in Far-North Islands

An exercise was conducted throughout Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago of largely uninhabited islands in the High Arctic, near Canada’s own Far North island chain.

Paratroopers jumped 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) from an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft and tested new equipment developed for extremely cold weather operations.

August 15, 2019
Russian Navy Drill in the Norwegian Sea

Thirty Russian naval vessels, including surface ships, submarines, tugs, and service and supply ships, took part in the naval operation.

Norway’s defense chief, Haakon Bruun-Hansen, stated that the objective of the exercise was to block NATO’s access to the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Norwegian Sea.

Russian forces deployed consisted of ships from the Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet, and Black Sea Fleet. The same vessels participated in the “Ocean Shield 2019” exercise in the Baltic Sea earlier in the month.

October 2019
Grom-19 Military Exercise

A significant exercise focused on engaging Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. It included ten Russian submarines—eight of which were nuclear-powered—patrolling the GIUK gap, all four of Russia’s naval fleets and 12,000 troops. The largest such demonstration since the Cold War.

Russian submarines were spotted between Svalbard and Finnmark, in the northernmost part of mainland Norway, guarding the entrance to the eastern part of the Barents Sea and in the northern Norwegian Sea.

August 19, 2019
Ocean Shield Exercise in the Baltic Sea

Russian Navy drills involved 49 warships and combat boats, 20 support vessels, 58 aircraft and 10,634 Armed Forces personnel.

Drill training focused on engaging inter-fleet forces and evaluated the Navy’s readiness to defend access to Russian territory and waters through the Baltic Sea.

August 27, 2020

Russian War Games in the Bering Sea

The Russian Navy conducted major war games near Alaska involving more than 50 warships, about 40 aircraft and multiple practice missile launches.

During the exercises, Russia’s Pacific guided-missile submarine Omsk surfaced in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast (spotted at St. Matthew Island). Russian media claimed the surfacing was “routine,” but the novelty of spotting Russian submarines so close to the U.S. coast still raised alarm among U.S. authorities.

September 11–17, 2018

Vostok-18 Exercises in Eastern Russia

Exercises took place primarily in eastern Russia and partially in the Bering Sea.

Exercises involved a combined total of 300,000 troops, 1,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters; 80 ships; and 36,000 tanks, making it the largest military exercise conducted by Russia since 1981.

Chinese and Mongolian forces participated in some exercises alongside Russian troops. China sent 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and other equipment, and 30 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit took part in joint campaign exercises simulating defensive and counteroffensive operations in Zabaykalsky Krai near the Mongolian border.

September 2019

Tsentr-19 Military Drills

As part of larger military drills across central Russia, the Northern Fleet conducted several cises in the Arctic incorporating newly developed Arctic-specific military equipment.

The overall exercises included 128,000 land troops, 20,000 pieces of equipment, 600 aircrafts, and 15 warships. It involved troops from China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kirgizstan.

Prior to the kick-off of Tsentr-19, Russia launched an additional 500-troop military exercise on Bolshevik Island, off Russia’s central Arctic coast.

April 25, 2020

Russian Military Exercise in Far-North Islands

An exercise was conducted throughout Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago of largely uninhabited islands in the High Arctic, near Canada’s own Far North island chain.

Paratroopers jumped 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) from an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft and tested new equipment developed for extremely cold weather operations.

August 15, 2019

Russian Navy Drill in the Norwegian Sea

Thirty Russian naval vessels, including surface ships, submarines, tugs, and service and supply ships, took part in the naval operation.

Norway’s defense chief, Haakon Bruun-Hansen, stated that the objective of the exercise was to block NATO’s access to the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Norwegian Sea.

Russian forces deployed consisted of ships from the Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet, and Black Sea Fleet. The same vessels participated in the “Ocean Shield 2019” exercise in the Baltic Sea earlier in the month.

October 2019

Grom-19 Military Exercise

A significant exercise focused on engaging Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. It included ten Russian submarines—eight of which were nuclear-powered—patrolling the GIUK gap, all four of Russia’s naval fleets and 12,000 troops. The largest such demonstration since the Cold War.

Russian submarines were spotted between Svalbard and Finnmark, in the northernmost part of mainland Norway, guarding the entrance to the eastern part of the Barents Sea and in the northern Norwegian Sea.

August 19, 2019

Ocean Shield Exercise in the Baltic Sea

Russian Navy drills involved 49 warships and combat boats, 20 support vessels, 58 aircraft and 10,634 Armed Forces personnel.

Drill training focused on engaging inter-fleet forces and evaluated the Navy’s readiness to defend access to Russian territory and waters through the Baltic Sea.

August 27, 2020
Russian War Games in the Bering Sea

The Russian Navy conducted major war games near Alaska involving more than 50 warships, about 40 aircraft and multiple practice missile launches.

During the exercises, Russia’s Pacific guided-missile submarine Omsk surfaced in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast (spotted at St. Matthew Island). Russian media claimed the surfacing was “routine,” but the novelty of spotting Russian submarines so close to the U.S. coast still raised alarm among U.S. authorities.

September 11–17, 2018
Vostok-18 Exercises in Eastern Russia

Exercises took place primarily in eastern Russia and partially in the Bering Sea.

Exercises involved a combined total of 300,000 troops, 1,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters; 80 ships; and 36,000 tanks, making it the largest military exercise conducted by Russia since 1981.

Chinese and Mongolian forces participated in some exercises alongside Russian troops. China sent 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and other equipment, and 30 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit took part in joint campaign exercises simulating defensive and counteroffensive operations in Zabaykalsky Krai near the Mongolian border.

September 2019
Tsentr-19 Military Drills

As part of larger military drills across central Russia, the Northern Fleet conducted several cises in the Arctic incorporating newly developed Arctic-specific military equipment.

The overall exercises included 128,000 land troops, 20,000 pieces of equipment, 600 aircrafts, and 15 warships. It involved troops from China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kirgizstan.

Prior to the kick-off of Tsentr-19, Russia launched an additional 500-troop military exercise on Bolshevik Island, off Russia’s central Arctic coast.

April 25, 2020
Russian Military Exercise in Far-North Islands

An exercise was conducted throughout Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago of largely uninhabited islands in the High Arctic, near Canada’s own Far North island chain.

Paratroopers jumped 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) from an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft and tested new equipment developed for extremely cold weather operations.

August 15, 2019
Russian Navy Drill in the Norwegian Sea

Thirty Russian naval vessels, including surface ships, submarines, tugs, and service and supply ships, took part in the naval operation.

Norway’s defense chief, Haakon Bruun-Hansen, stated that the objective of the exercise was to block NATO’s access to the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Norwegian Sea.

Russian forces deployed consisted of ships from the Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet, and Black Sea Fleet. The same vessels participated in the “Ocean Shield 2019” exercise in the Baltic Sea earlier in the month.

October 2019
Grom-19 Military Exercise

A significant exercise focused on engaging Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. It included ten Russian submarines—eight of which were nuclear-powered—patrolling the GIUK gap, all four of Russia’s naval fleets and 12,000 troops. The largest such demonstration since the Cold War.

Russian submarines were spotted between Svalbard and Finnmark, in the northernmost part of mainland Norway, guarding the entrance to the eastern part of the Barents Sea and in the northern Norwegian Sea.

August 19, 2019
Ocean Shield Exercise in the Baltic Sea

Russian Navy drills involved 49 warships and combat boats, 20 support vessels, 58 aircraft and 10,634 Armed Forces personnel.

Drill training focused on engaging inter-fleet forces and evaluated the Navy’s readiness to defend access to Russian territory and waters through the Baltic Sea.

March 4, 2020
ICEX 2020 Exercise in the Arctic Ocean

The U.S. Navy conducted a three-week biennial exercise to assess its operational readiness in the Arctic and train with partner nations.

The exercise involved five nations (Britain, Canada, Japan, Norway, and the U.S.), two submarines, and more than 100 participants. The two submarines conducted multiple Arctic transits and a North Pole surfacing during the exercise.

March 2019
Operation Nanook-Nunalivut in Northern Canada

Canada conducted Arctic preparedness exercises with roughly 500 personnel to test Arctic survival skills and logistics. Activities included long-range patrols, ice diving, and creating landing strips on the sea ice.

Divers from France, Norway, Finland and Sweden all took part in the exercise.

The operation also focused on scientific research on, for example, cold weather injuries, satellite usage for search and rescue, and improving cold weather shelter systems.

September 2020
UK-led Naval Exercise off Russia’s Arctic coast

Led by the UK, U.S. and Norwegian vessels participated in war games in the Barents Sea, near the headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

The drills took place in international waters but included elements within Russia’s claimed 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

August 21, 2020
U.S. Navy publicly announced the USS Seawolf Submarine Visit to Norway

The U.S. Navy made the rare decision to publicize a visit by the highly advanced, first-in-class USS Seawolf to Norway in a demonstration of American underwater capabilities in the region.

This was the first time the Navy released photos of the USS Seawolf in five years.

March 2, 2020
Cold Response 2020 Arctic War Games

Norway led major military exercises that included 16,000 from Norway, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the U.S. Foreign forces accounted for roughly 6,000 of the participating troops.

Exercises focused on high-intensity combat scenarios in demanding winter conditions and placed emphasis on trainings to enhance joint amphibious capabilities.

October 2018
Trident Juncture Military Exercises in Norway

NATO allies staged exercises in Norway with a combined 50,000 troops—the largest military exercise in Norway in more than a decade. Exercises included 65 ships and 250 aircraft, with participation from all 29 NATO countries (North Macedonia was not a NATO country at the time of the exercise) as well as Finland and Sweden.

War games focused on hypothetical scenarios requiring protecting Norway from invasion through both its land and sea borders.

August 27, 2020

Russian War Games in the Bering Sea

The Russian Navy conducted major war games near Alaska involving more than 50 warships, about 40 aircraft and multiple practice missile launches.

During the exercises, Russia’s Pacific guided-missile submarine Omsk surfaced in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast (spotted at St. Matthew Island). Russian media claimed the surfacing was “routine,” but the novelty of spotting Russian submarines so close to the U.S. coast still raised alarm among U.S. authorities.

September 11–17, 2018

Vostok-18 Exercises in Eastern Russia

Exercises took place primarily in eastern Russia and partially in the Bering Sea.

Exercises involved a combined total of 300,000 troops, 1,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters; 80 ships; and 36,000 tanks, making it the largest military exercise conducted by Russia since 1981.

Chinese and Mongolian forces participated in some exercises alongside Russian troops. China sent 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and other equipment, and 30 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit took part in joint campaign exercises simulating defensive and counteroffensive operations in Zabaykalsky Krai near the Mongolian border.

September 2019

Tsentr-19 Military Drills

As part of larger military drills across central Russia, the Northern Fleet conducted several cises in the Arctic incorporating newly developed Arctic-specific military equipment.

The overall exercises included 128,000 land troops, 20,000 pieces of equipment, 600 aircrafts, and 15 warships. It involved troops from China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kirgizstan.

Prior to the kick-off of Tsentr-19, Russia launched an additional 500-troop military exercise on Bolshevik Island, off Russia’s central Arctic coast.

April 25, 2020

Russian Military Exercise in Far-North Islands

An exercise was conducted throughout Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago of largely uninhabited islands in the High Arctic, near Canada’s own Far North island chain.

Paratroopers jumped 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) from an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft and tested new equipment developed for extremely cold weather operations.

August 15, 2019

Russian Navy Drill in the Norwegian Sea

Thirty Russian naval vessels, including surface ships, submarines, tugs, and service and supply ships, took part in the naval operation.

Norway’s defense chief, Haakon Bruun-Hansen, stated that the objective of the exercise was to block NATO’s access to the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Norwegian Sea.

Russian forces deployed consisted of ships from the Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet, and Black Sea Fleet. The same vessels participated in the “Ocean Shield 2019” exercise in the Baltic Sea earlier in the month.

October 2019

Grom-19 Military Exercise

A significant exercise focused on engaging Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. It included ten Russian submarines—eight of which were nuclear-powered—patrolling the GIUK gap, all four of Russia’s naval fleets and 12,000 troops. The largest such demonstration since the Cold War.

Russian submarines were spotted between Svalbard and Finnmark, in the northernmost part of mainland Norway, guarding the entrance to the eastern part of the Barents Sea and in the northern Norwegian Sea.

August 19, 2019

Ocean Shield Exercise in the Baltic Sea

Russian Navy drills involved 49 warships and combat boats, 20 support vessels, 58 aircraft and 10,634 Armed Forces personnel.

Drill training focused on engaging inter-fleet forces and evaluated the Navy’s readiness to defend access to Russian territory and waters through the Baltic Sea.

March 4, 2020

ICEX 2020 Exercise in the Arctic Ocean

The U.S. Navy conducted a three-week biennial exercise to assess its operational readiness in the Arctic and train with partner nations.

The exercise involved five nations (Britain, Canada, Japan, Norway, and the U.S.), two submarines, and more than 100 participants. The two submarines conducted multiple Arctic transits and a North Pole surfacing during the exercise.

March 2019

Operation Nanook-Nunalivut in Northern Canada

Canada conducted Arctic preparedness exercises with roughly 500 personnel to test Arctic survival skills and logistics. Activities included long-range patrols, ice diving, and creating landing strips on the sea ice.

Divers from France, Norway, Finland and Sweden all took part in the exercise.

The operation also focused on scientific research on, for example, cold weather injuries, satellite usage for search and rescue, and improving cold weather shelter systems.

September 2020

UK-led Naval Exercise off Russia’s Arctic coast

Led by the UK, U.S. and Norwegian vessels participated in war games in the Barents Sea, near the headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

The drills took place in international waters but included elements within Russia’s claimed 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

August 21, 2020

U.S. Navy publicly announced the USS Seawolf Submarine Visit to Norway

The U.S. Navy made the rare decision to publicize a visit by the highly advanced, first-in-class USS Seawolf to Norway in a demonstration of American underwater capabilities in the region.

This was the first time the Navy released photos of the USS Seawolf in five years.

March 2, 2020

Cold Response 2020 Arctic War Games

Norway led major military exercises that included 16,000 from Norway, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the U.S. Foreign forces accounted for roughly 6,000 of the participating troops.

Exercises focused on high-intensity combat scenarios in demanding winter conditions and placed emphasis on trainings to enhance joint amphibious capabilities.

October 2018

Trident Juncture Military Exercises in Norway

NATO allies staged exercises in Norway with a combined 50,000 troops—the largest military exercise in Norway in more than a decade. Exercises included 65 ships and 250 aircraft, with participation from all 29 NATO countries (North Macedonia was not a NATO country at the time of the exercise) as well as Finland and Sweden.

War games focused on hypothetical scenarios requiring protecting Norway from invasion through both its land and sea borders.

SOURCES: U.S. PACIFIC FLEET, THE BARENTS OBSERVER, THE NY TIMES, THE GUARDIAN, CFR, BREAKING DEFENSE, THE DRIVE
Part 3

Conflict Potential and Prevention in the Emerging Arctic Great Power Competition

While there is relatively minimal risk of direct military conflict over resources or territory in the Arctic, great power competition the region is set to intensify for the foreseeable future. Prominent Arctic experts agree that there are two primary, short-term risks that could trigger military escalation in the region: a misunderstanding between Russian and NATO forces or external conflict spilling over into the Arctic. Russia and NATO countries increased military capacities throughout the region magnify both the likelihood and severity of a potential misunderstanding or spillover event occurring. Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has been a region largely free from outside geopolitical disputes. Since 2014, however, this dynamic has changed rapidly. The Arctic is now a key strategic region for both Russia and China, and any potential conflicts involving these nations are likely to include the Arctic. Preventing such a conflict is an expressed priority for Arctic nations. However, there is no forum or formal channel for nations to discuss Arctic defense priorities or resolve disputes. The lack of communication among major actors on defense and security issues further heightens the risk of a misunderstanding in the region, while making any potential conflict significantly harder to de-escalate.

Key Takeaways

  • The Issue

    Great power competition is intensifying in the Arctic amid an increasingly tense and militarized backdrop. Faced with ramping military activity, the lack of a dedicated security forum or governing body to execute and coordinate high-level security discussions among Arctic nations greatly increases the risk of conflict and confrontation.

  • The Reaction

    As Russia is fortifying its long-term interests in the region, China is integrating itself in the region economically and militarily, while the U.S. is falling behind in both presence and influence. As global tensions between NATO countries, Russia, and China increase outside of the Arctic, continuing to find ways to collaborate within the Arctic becomes exceptionally important for avoiding regional conflict.

  • What’s at Stake

    Beyond the risk of military confrontation, deteriorating relationships between Arctic nations could adversely affect or derail broader efforts to coordinate on issues ranging from environmental protection to scientific research. The Arctic remains one of the best international arenas for cooperation on climate action and presents a unique opportunity for otherwise-hostile nations to find common ground.

The Breakdown
The Future of Great Power Competition in the Arctic
Great power competition has returned to the Arctic for the foreseeable future, but there are still ample opportunities for rival powers to cooperate in the region.
  • GRAPHIC 8: Expert Q &A
Click to expand

For the U.S., and NATO more broadly, maintaining Arctic security relies on enforcing freedom of navigation and unimpeded access to the North Atlantic Ocean, increasing diplomatic influence and presence, and establishing multilayered Arctic defense systems. This engagement is vital for maintaining trade and investment relationships, upholding the collective NATO defense commitments, and maintaining strategic deterrence against Russia and China. However, years of U.S. relative underinvestment in the Arctic have left it in a weak position to secure these interests, other Arctic nations do not have the means, and the majority of NATO countries within the EU do not hold a seat on the Arctic Council—broadly excluding them from Arctic affairs. U.S. military leadership and government officials, from Air Force Lieutenant General Tom Bussiere to U.S. Representative Rick Larsen have expressed their desire to increase focus on the Arctic. But despite steps in that direction, such as the establishment of the Office of the U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region, there are still limited budget support and gaps in official Arctic policy toward fulfilling long-term strategic objectives. To date, the U.S. is neither matching investment levels with Russia to pursue a deterrence strategy nor leading cooperative efforts in scientific exploration and combating climate change. Sharp contrasts in approach to the Arctic between administrations makes coordinating Arctic priorities difficult internally and internationally. For the U.S. to avoid abdicating influence in the region, it must strategically prioritize long-term development and move away from inflammatory rhetorical threats. The U.S. has the economic and defense capabilities to increase its Arctic presence and capabilities, lead on environmental efforts, and uphold NATO security interests. Doing so relies on expanding its existing Arctic strategy, committing to investing in the region long-term, strengthening partnerships with NATO allies in the region, and committing to working collaboratively on environmental challenges with all Arctic nations.

A relative lack of U.S. investment and leadership in the Arctic broadly affects the security environment of its Arctic NATO allies and opens opportunities for Russia—and increasingly China—to project power throughout the Arctic. Both Russia and China are making the Arctic a long-term strategic priority—implementing their Arctic strategies and dedicating economic resources to push the region toward their preferred outcomes and strategic interests. Russia has more than a ten-year head start on the U.S. in its Arctic capabilities, and China has roughly a five-year advantage. The Arctic is vital to Russia’s economic future and provides a key strategic platform for its efforts to restore its great power status. For Russia, the major risk is that these predicted Arctic dividends will fail to materialize. Russia has the most significant long-term stake in the region, and it needs the returns on its investments in energy resources and the NSR to justify years of debt-spending and satisfy foreign investors. If these gambits do not pay off, Russia will be in a precarious economic position—cut off from Western capital and increasingly vulnerable to Chinese creditors. While Russia has taken pains to avoid falling into this trap, it will need to continue to balance its need for capital with its desire for sovereign control in the Arctic. For China, Arctic engagement is a strategic calculus with relatively low risk—if the U.S. does not elevate its Arctic commitments and cedes future influence over the region, it will present increasing opportunities for China to strengthen its foothold. For Arctic NATO countries, a more assertive U.S. and EU posture would help establish defense deterrence. However, with less territory outside the Arctic and smaller economies more vulnerable to shocks from regional unrest, any escalation could disproportionately impact them—making maintaining peaceful relations a high priority.

Expert Q&A

Signs of Trouble?

Q: What developing risks should observers be watching to either prevent or react to any potential escalation in the region?
Malte Humpert
Founder & Senior Fellow at the Arctic Institute

“Things build up more and more, and everyone pushes the other to react. And at some point, you have something build up that can easily evolve into something larger, especially when you have the type of rhetoric on the U.S. side that we saw last year, where you are accusing Russia to be an aggressor in the Arctic.”

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“I think there’s probably two aspects to it. One is that small things can escalate quickly. I mean, we’re seeing so much more military activity on both sides—NATO and Russia in the Arctic—so much more patrols and fighter jets that are patrolling the nuclear bombers, a lot more surveillance flights, and we have a lot more activity under the water, under the ice, too, in terms of submarines, and so there’s always risk similar to the Cold War. Things build up more and more, and everyone pushes the other to react. And at some point, you have something build up that can easily evolve into something larger, especially when you have the type of rhetoric on the U.S. side that we saw last year, where you are accusing Russia to be an aggressor in the Arctic.

So, I think a lot of those military exercises, Russia [reinvigorating the] Northern Fleet [and building] up offensive weaponry. It all creates risk, right? It all [creates] risks for incidents with potential for misunderstandings. The more assets you have in the region, the risk goes up. And then there’s potential economic risk, too, that as Russia and other Arctic states are trying to expand their exclusive economic zone, depending on the subterranean readings submitted to the UNCLOS, there’s potential for conflict there that they can’t agree on where delineations should be. I don’t think it’s going to lead to war between Russia and Canada, but there’s definitely room for political conflict there.

The third aspect is that conflict outside of the Arctic can transpire or move into the Arctic. If you think of military confrontation between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea, or over Taiwan, or over Japan or whatever it may be, there’s no reason why that conflict wouldn’t also happen in the Arctic when the Arctic has suddenly, and over time, [become a] pretty normal navigable ocean. Because twenty, thirty years ago, even if there would have been a war between two countries, that war wouldn’t have also escalated into the Arctic, because you wouldn’t have been able to put your blue-water navy in the Arctic. There might’ve been some submarines under the ice [or] some surveillance flights over the Arctic or whatever it may be, but [the Arctic] was really just a frozen bed.

It’s like if you play [a] board game, and there’s a big dead spot in the middle that no one really cares about because you can’t get in there. And, if you could get in there, then you can’t really fight there, because it’s all frozen. But that’s changing, and I think that’s definitely a concern that future military conflicts can potentially also occur in the Arctic, just like they could happen in the Atlantic, or they would have an effect on the Pacific or whatever it may be. So, once you have a navigable ocean, you can send a carrier group through the Arctic, and that’s not unrealistic that that happens within the next ten or twenty years. Certainly, the equation of what is possible in the Arctic in terms of conflict changes.”

Andreas Østhagen, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow at the Arctic Institute

“I definitely see a risk in the Arctic, because after 2014, the few mechanisms that were set up to promote Pan-Arctic discussion on security issues were disbanded.”

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“I definitely see a risk in the Arctic, because after 2014, the few mechanisms that were set up to promote Pan-Arctic discussion on security issues were disbanded. The Northern Chiefs of Defense Forum and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, both these mechanisms [were disbanded]. And then they set up the Arctic Coastguard Forum a year later, but the Arctic Coastguard Forum’s a practical meeting place and half the coastguards are civilians.

[This] happens at the same time [when] increased tension and the potential for spillover is much greater now than it was in 2014, just after Crimea, or in 2010, or 2008. This is probably one of the points in modern history [where] we have the highest chance of a spillover, highest chance of something [outside the Arctic] deteriorating and then being relevant in the Arctic. At the same time, you don’t have these mechanisms set up, and there’s no new mechanism.... There’s been a lot of talk about it over the last couple of years, how to engage more in security dialogue between the Arctic countries. You do have Norway-Russia bilateral dialogue [and] all the Arctic countries have their bilateral dialogue with Russia if needed.

[So], you do have these very low-key or typical ways of having dialogue and communications, but you don’t have Pan-Arctic discussion, and you don’t have any code of conduct. I know some of my fellow researchers have been suggesting this, that you should have a code of conduct. [But] you don’t, so I see tension in the Arctic [only increasing]. And 2020 has been a year that has really highlighted this with the U.S.’s engagement in the Arctic.

You have accidents, [or] incidents, especially at sea. And there’s a reason why you have these different agreements, like [the] Incidents at Sea Agreement, [and other] agreements between countries to alleviate some of the pressure that might build [with] increased activity. And now we see that increased activity in the Arctic. And there’s no such new measures being put in place.

That [doesn’t] mean you’ll have outright conflict, but I think the chance of something happening and spiraling out of control is greater now than it has been over the last decades. And it doesn’t seem like the relationship between the different actors is getting any better.”

SOURCES: Primary source interviews conducted by FP Analytics

The Need for a Security Dialogue and Forum for Conflict Prevention and International Cooperation in the Arctic

As noted above, escalating military buildup increases the likelihood and impact of the two largest short-term risks in the Arctic: a miscalculation or an outside conflict spilling over. As the Arctic becomes more militarized, increasing numbers of Russian, NATO, and Chinese military vessels are occupying the same international waters, and mounting tensions between great powers outside of the Arctic present risks of conflicts within the region. The geopolitics of the Arctic itself will become more complicated as additional countries involve themselves in Arctic affairs. India and Japan have the potential to play roles in the Arctic, alongside South Korea and Japan as they seek to partner with Russia on oil and gas exports and explore potentially larger overall economic involvement with Russia in the region. The EU’s increased interest in the Arctic, and eight EU states being admitted to the Arctic Council as Observers since 1998, open the door for a larger EU presence in the Arctic. If the U.S. continues to underinvest in the Arctic, other NATO countries may take it upon themselves to begin bolstering Arctic security forces. As more nations assert their interests in the Arctic, it is critical to have mechanisms in place to diffuse misunderstandings or points of conflict. The Arctic Council is an effective mechanism for coordinating Arctic issues related to the environment, search and rescue, scientific research, environmental concerns, and more. However, it is not designed to address security and defense disputes, and members are forbidden from discussing defense and security issues due to their commitment to keeping the forum depoliticized.

Today, there is no official structured forum for discussing or addressing Arctic military and security issues. Recognizing this as a major gap in international governance, the Northern Chiefs of Defense Conference and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable initiatives were established to expand security cooperation across the Arctic around 2012, but neither organization includes Russia, preventing multilateral Arctic security discussions inclusive of all Arctic nations from occurring. Since then, no comprehensive forum for communicating and coordinating Arctic defense and security issues has been established. In the absence of such a forum, continued collaboration through the Arctic Council remains critical to fostering continued international engagement. Arctic nations can strengthen cooperation on a range of critical environmental, research, and commercial issues, despite tensions in other realms. Climate issues are central to the Arctic and present a key realm of collaboration for all Arctic nations. The incoming Biden administration in the U.S. offers an opportunity for constructive engagement. Collaborative efforts on issues affecting all Arctic nations will help offset rising tensions in other areas. Great power competition has arrived in the Arctic, but the Arctic is not yet on the precipice of conflict. Amidst the military posturing and rhetoric, there are still ample opportunities for adversarial powers to strengthen alliances and find common ground.

Looking Ahead

Rapidly melting sea ice is opening up the Arctic for increased economic activity and transforming it into an arena of great power competition. In Part I of this series, Arctic Resource Competition, we laid out why a scramble for Arctic resources is unlikely to lead to direct conflict but is instead shifting geopolitical partnerships in a more nuanced way—pushing Russia and China closer together and amplifying both countries’ status in the region. Russia’s vast Arctic resource base, and the opening of the NSR, are leading that country to boost its Arctic defense capabilities as Arctic development becomes progressively more critical for its economic future. This, coupled with Russia and China’s strengthening ties in the region, is raising U.S. and NATO concerns over an emerging Russia-China Arctic axis. In response to increased Russian militarization and extensive war games conducted in Russia’s Arctic and the North Atlantic, Norway has hosted its own military exercises that have included all of its NATO allies. These activities have been accompanied by increased military spending on its Arctic capabilities by both the U.S. and Norway, and increasingly close military cooperation between the two countries—resulting in the the most substantial military buildup and activity in the region since the Cold War.

A more militarized Arctic raises the stakes and likelihood of a potential miscalculation occurring in the region—and, with direct territorial disputes unlikely to lead to conflict at present, a miscalculation remains the most immediate risk for regional escalation. While the Arctic is still not likely to be an arena for direct military confrontation in the immediate future, the great power competition emerging in the region has long-term implications reaching far beyond Arctic borders. The Arctic presents Russia with its best opportunity for projecting international power, serving as a key strategic region in which it can maintain a distinct military advantage over NATO rivals. The U.S. is recognizing the long-term strategic importance of the region, and growing attention by policymakers and funding for Arctic defense could signal the beginning of a prolonged Arctic power struggle with Russia. While China is still an outsider in Arctic affairs, its ability to provide capital for Arctic developments makes it a mainstay in the Arctic for the foreseeable future. Despite it being the largest financier of Russian Arctic development, Russia’s relationship with China is nuanced, and it remains to be seen whether both nations can maintain a stable partnership in the region.

As climate change continues to affect the region at a disproportionate rate, the impacts of Arctic affairs will increasingly be felt outside of the Arctic. More nations across Asia and Europe are now looking toward the Arctic for resources and increased trade and navigation and as a key region in the fight against climate change. Collaboration on climate change represents a clear opportunity for deeper engagement among Arctic nations. Since the Cold War, the Arctic has not been at the forefront of geopolitical debates, but the worsening climate crisis and the return of great power competition are bringing it toward center stage. And for stakeholders with key interests in the Arctic, the region is now a commercial and geostrategic priority.

A special thanks and acknowledgement to the Arctic experts who contributed to this piece, and without whom, it would not have been possible:

  • Marisol Maddox, Arctic Analyst at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute
  • Dr. Maria Shagina, Postdoc Fellow at University of Zurich
  • Elizabeth Buchanan, Ph.D., Lecturer in Strategic Studies, Deakin University at the Australian War College
  • Troy Bouffard, Faculty Instructor at University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Malte Humpert, Founder & Senior Fellow at the Arctic Institute
  • Andreas Østhagen, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the Arctic Institute

And a special acknowledgement in remembrance of my friend and classmate T.J. Sjostrom, who was absolutely instrumental in putting this work together. T.J. was an outstanding scholar, proud veteran and loving father. You will be sorely missed. - Christian Perez

Written by Christian Perez. Edited by Allison Carlson. Copyedited by David Johnstone. Design by Jon Benedict. Development by Catherine Snow. Art direction by Lori Kelley. Graphics by Juan Velasco/5W Infographics for Foreign Policy.

FP Analytics

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