This article was originally published in The Arctic Journal.
By Kevin McGwin
NATO leaders are aware of the potential for conflict with Russia in the North. For now, though, other theaters worry them more.
Try to start a conversation about security issues in the Arctic these days and you are just as likely as not to be steered to a different part of the world entirely. Ever since 2014, such discussions have been influenced by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.
For those that link Russia’s doings in the two regions, there are two concerns: that disagreements between Russia and the West in south-eastern Europe will spill over into the North and that Moscow could try for a similar land grab from its Arctic neighbours.
Evidence that policymakers find both of these scenarios a possibility is not difficult to find. Take, for example, an October 2015 address titled ‘Russia, the Arctic and a changing security policy climate’, by Lt. Gen. Kjell Grandhagen, the head of Norway’s military intelligence agency. The first mention of the Arctic comes about two thirds of the way through, after a thorough analysis of Moscow’s doings elsewhere.
Other defence-policy addresses, intelligence assessments and the like similarly warn that what Russia is doing in the South can happen in the North. As an example of an increasingly antagonistic Russia, they point to the increasing number of run-ins in the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, as well as Moscow’s troop build-up close to Finland’s border.
For those that subscribe to the view that military activity in the North and south-east can be linked, then the recent NATO summit, held in Warsaw on July 8-9, was both a relief and a cause for concern.
Firstly, the main message of the summit was that NATO remains committed to its original mission of protecting member states from invasion. After facing an existential crisis in post-Cold War years, when ‘go out of area or go out of business’ was the mantra among decision makers, NATO again has, if not an enemy, than at least a potential threat, to the East.
The centrepiece of NATO’s response to growing uncertainty about Russia’s intentions in the East was the establishment of four multinational combat battalions, each with 1,000 soldiers. The units will be placed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, and, it is hoped, will show Moscow that when NATO feels the need, it can resort to more than just exercises as a way to show its resolve.
What the hawks may find disappointing is that no attention was paid to the Arctic specifically. None of the official statements released during the summit mentioned the region.
This is not to say that the Arctic has escaped the attention of NATO decision-makers. The alliance continues to hold exercises in the Arctic, and some of these exercises involve non-NATO members Finland and Sweden. Some of the largest exercises have occurred in the past two years.
So far, however, these displays of force have stopped well short of the same type of deterrence due to be deployed to the eastern front. Such restraint is in keeping with a pledge, made in 2013 by Anders Fogh Rasussen, then the alliance’s secretary general, that NATO had no plans to increase its activity level in the Arctic.
Last month’s summit would appear to confirm that the alliance is sticking with this position. Addressing the gathering, Jens Stoltenberg, the current secretary-general, announced that in addition to its eastern flank, NATO’s other big countermeasure was would be shore up its defences in cyberspace. For now, the Northern threat seems more virtual than real.
Kevin McGwin is a reporter for The Arctic Journal and Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic newspaper. He has covered Greenlandic and Nordic issues since 2005.
[Photo courtesy of PO Phot Donny Osmond]