Russian muscle spurs Arctic arms race
In this edition, NATO scrambles to invest in its Arctic defenses as Russia races ahead
Sign up here to receive Fallout in your inbox.
American and European officials are increasingly seeing the Arctic not as a “zone of peace,” a term coined by Mikhail Gorbachev, but as one of war. The region is once again a site of burgeoning geopolitical conflict — between Russia and China on the one hand and NATO on the other, particularly if Finland and Sweden join the alliance.
In October, I braced against an Arctic chill as I stood on the bow of the Polar Girl, virtually empty on its last trip to Barentsburg, a former Soviet outpost.
Barentsburg is home to some 400 Ukrainian and Russian miners, mostly employees of a Russian state-owned company. When we docked, the village appeared to be abandoned. A light rain falling over a fresh sheet of snow added to its ghostly appeal. The large coal pile nearest where we docked reminded me that the international sanctions levied against Russia had reached as far as this enclave in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago 700 miles south of the North Pole and home to more polar bears than people.
Norwegian naval patrols had already increased in the Barents Sea, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, followed by heightened security measures around power stations, military installations and natural gas facilities. The small archipelago, though traditionally a visa-free zone with few limits on international economic activities, is caught amid growing concerns for regional security. The war in Ukraine has forced nations from the Arctic to the Baltic to rethink and reinvest in their national defense programs.
For Russia, climate change and the melting polar ice cap has meant that the Arctic is of even more strategic and economic value, with untapped resources available and a potential new sea route to Asia. Russian investment is part of its plan to dominate the Arctic by 2035 and rejuvenate its great power ambitions.
Nations neighboring Russia, like Norway, are reevaluating not only their economic and energy ties to Moscow, but also their homeland security by reverting to defense spending focused on domestic concerns like territorial security. And Moscow, which has reopened some 50 military bases along its Arctic coastline, is worrying countries who long relied on NATO or American forces to protect them. If Sweden and Finland join NATO, seven out of eight Arctic nations will be part of the alliance.
But “it seems like the Americans are severely lacking as far as deterrence potential goes,” Andreas Østhagen, a senior fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway, told me. “They don’t have the infrastructure to protect and assist allies.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Expanding its military presence in the Arctic threatens to engulf the region in a second front to the war in Ukraine, either militarily or economically.
Russia has more bases than NATO in the Arctic Circle and has continued to upgrade its infrastructure even as it diverts resources and manpower towards its invasion of Ukraine. It has also been quick to see the opportunities opened up by climate change, possessing many more ice breakers, for instance, than both China and the U.S. Now NATO has to find a way to bridge the gap.
At the start of the war in Ukraine last February, a submarine cable providing connectivity between Svalbard and mainland Norway was damaged under mysterious circumstances. Since then, more than a half-dozen alleged spies have been arrested in the region, one for flying a camera-equipped drone around critical infrastructure. I wondered what the damage to the Svalbard submarine cable and Nord Stream pipelines had in common. Both events, one admittedly smaller than the other, signify in my view a new premium being placed on moving away from a war on terror towards a war for regional territorial integrity.
Underwater explosions at the Nord Stream 1 and 2 natural gas pipelines in late-September, in the nearby Baltic Sea, strengthened a regional resolve to focus on internal defense spending. And the ripple effects are evident.
Last year, Latvia introduced compulsory military service for all citizens regardless of gender and planned to build additional military bases to increase its hosting capabilities for NATO troops.
Sweden announced a national defense budget, placing a premium on space surveillance capabilities and long- and medium-range precision weapons, typically used to defend territorial spaces. Denmark likewise increased its surveillance over the Arctic and sought to hold more joint exercises in its northern regions. Estonia more than doubled its defense spending. And in Finland, the opposition to joining NATO, a territorial defense guarantor, had waned considerably.
In June, Canada pledged to spend $30 billion over the next two decades on countering Russian and Chinese military development in the Arctic. And in December, the U.S. Congress increased its defense spending for Baltic states by more than 20% than in the year prior.
Having long seen the Arctic, despite its proximity, as a post-Cold War zone of peace, the United States has fallen behind Russia in preparedness. It is also scrambling to respond to China’s growing interests in the region.
Next month, the Pentagon is expected to publish an Arctic strategy document, an acknowledgement that the United States recognizes the saber-rattling of both Russia and China. But it is also evidence that the U.S. is reacting to an agenda being set by the Kremlin.
The war has caused tensions to rise in the Arctic, a traditional bastion for Russian military, particularly nuclear, defenses. From a strategic perspective, though, Russia’s Arctic policies must be seen not just as an adjunct to war in Ukraine or conflict with the West.
Russia’s Arctic policy is also in keeping with its desire to develop partnerships in northeast Asia among other broad foreign policy objectives. China, which now describes itself as a “near-Arctic nation” with interests in building a Polar Silk Route, is both a Russian ally in the region but also competition.
While NATO countries’ increased spending on its Arctic defense systems is welcome, is it too limited in intent? Conventional warfare is arguably of less concern than asymmetric warfare, than the need for nations and their allies to defend blindspots. The Arctic, with its vast waters, has since the end of the Cold War been one such blindspot for NATO. As a result, it finds itself playing catch up to Russia.
When I left Barentsburg, swatches of pink and umber lit up the gray morning sky. Dwindling hours of daylight meant it was hard to tell the difference between sunrise and sunset. It seemed like a metaphor for a region caught between two states of being — at war with both the past and the future, the nexus of a bubbling conflict far from the one in Ukraine and with potential to spread. As one young Ukrainian on the Svalbard peninsula told me about Russia’s provocations: “A lot of people don’t understand — if we can’t stop them, this war will start to move.”
Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.