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How Russia’s Future With NATO Will Impact the Arctic

Three critical ways the crisis in Ukraine will determine the region’s future.

A soldier holds a machine gun as he patrols the Russian northern military base on Kotelny island, beyond the Arctic circle on April 3, 2019.

A soldier holds a machine gun as he patrols the Russian northern military base on Kotelny island, beyond the Arctic circle on April 3, 2019. The Russian military base is home to 250 soldiers and is to serve as a model for future military installations in the Arctic. Maxime Popov /AFP Via Getty

The geopolitical importance of the Arctic region is coming back into focus as Russian troops further encroach into Ukraine. The Russian invasion is further deteriorating relations and highlighting critical fault lines between Russia and NATO-allied states. In determining their response to Russian aggression, NATO allies are weighing key considerations, including the various impacts from the potential use of force, balancing the use of sanctions with Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies, and addressing Russia’s strengthening ties with China.

The Arctic region is set to play a key role in each of these considerations. Abundant natural gas and energy reserves are concentrated in Russian Arctic territory, which European countries are highly dependent on for their energy supply. Meanwhile, Russia has made the Arctic a focal point of its military modernization efforts, leading to a steady buildup of Russian and NATO forces throughout the region. The widespread military buildup since 2007 amplifies the potential for a conflict between Russia and NATO-allied states to spill over into the region. Armed conflict in the Arctic could permanently damage regional cooperation, compromising coordinated efforts, dating back to 1996, among the Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.) in search-and-rescue operations, environmental protection, and prevention of illegal fishing, among other issues. President Putin is also leveraging Arctic resources to strengthen his hand elsewhere, including deepening connections with China by announcing renewed cooperation in the Arctic and signing a new 30-year agreement on energy exports in early February.

As the Ukraine crisis evolves, the Arctic’s role and the impact the crisis could have on the region are broken down below.

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The geopolitical importance of the Arctic region is coming back into focus as Russian troops further encroach into Ukraine. The Russian invasion is further deteriorating relations and highlighting critical fault lines between Russia and NATO-allied states. In determining their response to Russian aggression, NATO allies are weighing key considerations, including the various impacts from the potential use of force, balancing the use of sanctions with Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies, and addressing Russia’s strengthening ties with China.

The Arctic region is set to play a key role in each of these considerations. Abundant natural gas and energy reserves are concentrated in Russian Arctic territory, which European countries are highly dependent on for their energy supply. Meanwhile, Russia has made the Arctic a focal point of its military modernization efforts, leading to a steady buildup of Russian and NATO forces throughout the region. The widespread military buildup since 2007 amplifies the potential for a conflict between Russia and NATO-allied states to spill over into the region. Armed conflict in the Arctic could permanently damage regional cooperation, compromising coordinated efforts, dating back to 1996, among the Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.) in search-and-rescue operations, environmental protection, and prevention of illegal fishing, among other issues. President Putin is also leveraging Arctic resources to strengthen his hand elsewhere, including deepening connections with China by announcing renewed cooperation in the Arctic and signing a new 30-year agreement on energy exports in early February.

As the Ukraine crisis evolves, the Arctic’s role and the impact the crisis could have on the region are broken down below.

Armed conflict threatens longstanding Arctic cooperation

Today, the Arctic is the only region where Russia has military and strategic supremacy, and as the ongoing crisis in Ukraine escalates, it brings with it increased risk for conflict in the Arctic. Since 2014, Russia has built over 475 new structures across its Arctic military strongholds and has conducted extensive military exercises, most recently in January 2022. Both Russian and NATO troops are currently stationed in close proximity throughout the region and have conducted war games in the same geographic vicinities, such as the Norwegian Sea. As the situation along the Ukrainian border escalates tensions between NATO allies and Russia, the fallout from a miscalculation across a militarized Arctic could become severe.

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Arctic has served as one of the key arenas in which cooperation among the U.S., Russia, and other Arctic nations has continued to progress. However, an escalation of the Ukraine conflict could limit communication between Russia, the U.S. and other Arctic states and undercut coordination on common regional interests. Additionally, a breakdown in communication between Russia and other Arctic nations would further heighten the risk of a miscommunication between Russian and NATO forces stationed across the region.

The emergence of a conflict would risk not only ending cooperation in key areas across the Arctic, but also potentially fraying the Arctic’s existing patchwork governance structure. Arctic governance, as currently constructed, consists of various national standards, laws, and treaties, with the Arctic Council serving as the most comprehensive governance forum. These forums have played a critical role in improving relations between Russia and NATO-allied states in the past—for example, after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, cooperation in the Arctic helped normalize relations between Russia and the other Arctic states. In contrast, the former Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum, the main venue for security dialogues with Russia in the Arctic, was suspended in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The remaining governance structures are meant to facilitate cooperation among Arctic nations and indigenous groups on small-scale regional issues, not contain great power competition or resolve armed conflicts. An escalation of the current crisis in Ukraine will provide a major test for Arctic governance structures and determine, in part, the extent of future coordination with Russia across the region.

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
December 2020

Europe’s reliance on Russian energy limits sanctions’ effectiveness

As Russia amassed some 200,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, European countries have faced record-high increases in natural gas prices and a regional energy crisis exacerbated by Europe’s longstanding reliance on Russian energy supplies. Despite its efforts to diversify its energy mix, Russia remains the EU’s single largest energy source, supplying roughly a third of Europe’s natural gas and a quarter of its crude oil. The Arctic is estimated to contain roughly 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and nearly 30 percent of its natural gas reserves, much of which resides in Russian territory. Russia is already the world’s third-largest producer of oil and second-largest producer of natural gas, and Russian energy exports play a critical role in supporting Europe’s power supply. This relationship between Europe and Russia has made enforcing effective sanctions on Russia more difficult, as many European states have been opposed to placing sanctions on Russia’s energy sector—the most important part of its economy. However, the crisis in Ukraine is rapidly changing this assessment, potentially altering Europe and Russia’s future economic relationship.

The Nordstream 2 pipeline has played a central role in the debate over Russian sanctions. In September 2021, the Russian company Gazprom completed the pipeline, which would enable Russia to funnel natural gas directly from Russia to Germany, effectively doubling its capacity to export natural gas to Europe. The pipeline would also allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine and export natural gas directly to EU states, severely limiting Ukraine’s leverage, as numerous existing natural gas pipelines that Russia uses run through Ukrainian territory. However, the pipeline has never been operational, due to pushback from the U.S. and other European countries. Germany has now halted its certification after Russia recognized the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine (the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lohansk People’s Republic) on February 22nd and began mobilizing troops into Ukraine’s Donbas region, where they are located. With further sanctions coming after Russian airstrikes in Ukraine, Russia’s energy sector could be targeted with additional restrictions.

This development signals a significant shift in the EU’s approach, but also leaves it vulnerable to Russian retaliation. Russia could further limit its energy exports to Europe, forcing countries in the region to seek alternative suppliers from the U.S. and Middle East and elevating already near-record-high energy prices. While the loss of sales to the EU market would hurt Russian export revenue in the short term, Russia has been securing new energy export customers in Asia. China has been particularly eager to purchase Russian energy supplies, which could help sustain Russia’s energy sector in the face of additional EU and U.S. sanctions.

Deepening ties with Russia could expand China’s Arctic influence

Closer cooperation with Russia grants China the chance to expand its role in the Arctic, where it has been steadily ramping up its activity over the past decade, further transforming the region into a future arena of great power competition. In 2013, China became an Arctic Observer state on the Arctic Council, and from 2012 to 2017 it invested over $435 billion across Arctic states in a range of sectors, including research, infrastructure, and resource extraction. In 2018, China published its Arctic Strategy and outlined its plan for a “Polar Silk Road” as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s interest in the Arctic to date has centered on ensuring access to the rapidly opening Northern Sea Route—an Arctic shipping lane connecting Europe and Asia along Russia’s Northern ocean—and securing a share of the region’s energy and critical mineral reserves. Pursuing these interests has led to major economic agreements with Russia, including a $400 billion natural gas deal signed in 2014 and, most recently, a 30-year natural gas deal finalized this month.

China and Russia’s cooperation in the Arctic is sparking further security concerns from the U.S. and EU and is generating speculation that China is using the Arctic as an arena to expand its global ambitions. While Russia can supply China with energy resources, China provides a lucrative market for energy exports, access to capital, and financial services to counteract NATO sanctions on Russia. Additionally, China’s participation in Russian military drills, conducted in the Arctic in 2018 and 2019, raises concerns that future agreements between the two nations in the region could include military cooperation. As the ongoing crisis in Ukraine leads to new sanctions on Russia from both the U.S. and EU, it is likely that Russia will increasingly turn to China for economic support. While that bilateral relationship is nuanced, this dynamic could create an opening for China to further pursue and cement its long-term presence in the Arctic region. An expansion of China’s role in the Arctic would increase tensions with the U.S. and other Arctic nations already wary of China’s intentions, and potentially catalyze a transformation of the Arctic’s future role in geopolitics.

Looking Ahead

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine and challenges NATO, the Arctic is positioned to play a crucial and growing role in future geopolitical, economic, and military affairs. The abundant resources contained in the Arctic, combined with Russia’s strong military position in the region, are rapidly becoming critical factors in determining the U.S. and EU’s strategic engagement with Russia. For a deeper dive, FP Analytics’ Arctic Competition Power Map breaks down the varying dimensions of Arctic resource and military competition, and comprehensively lays out the interests and strengths of each Arctic nation.


Christian Perez is a Senior Policy & Quantitative Analyst with FP Analytics, Foreign Policy’s independent research and analysis division. His work focuses on trade and investment, emerging technologies, sustainability, and impact analysis. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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Arctic Competition

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.

Power Maps are just one of the tools from FP Insider that help you cut through the noise of a compex world. FP Insiders gain access to critical global intelligence from a trusted and reliable source. Learn more about FP Insider.

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BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MARCH 29: US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo and EU Commissioner in charge of financial services, financial stability and the Capital Markets Union, Mairead McGuinness (not seen) hold a joint news conference in Brussels, Belgium on March 29, 2022. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MARCH 29: US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo and EU Commissioner in charge of financial services, financial stability and the Capital Markets Union, Mairead McGuinness (not seen) hold a joint news conference in Brussels, Belgium on March 29, 2022. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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