The Arctic for Eight
No. 2 2013 April/June
Lev Voronkov

Doctor of History, is Professor at the Chair of European Integration and Head of the Nordic Department of the Center for Nordic and Baltic Studies, MGIMO University.

Evolution of NATO’s Role in the Arctic

The search for a new mission after the Cold War prompted NATO to set its eyes on various regions, including the Arctic.

The breakup of the Soviet Union undermined the grounds for NATO’s continued institutional presence in the Arctic and for conducting an agreed military policy by NATO member-states in the region. The scale of NATO’s military activity in the region has decreased noticeably, and it is no longer determined by confrontation with some specific state. Not a single Arctic country perceives Russia as an immediate military threat. The alliance has reformed some of its northern military structures to transfer their functions to individual member-states. The regional command AFNORTH in Stavanger has been closed down and its mission handed over to the functional structures in Brunssum, the Netherlands (Joint Force Command) and Britain’s Northwood (Maritime Command). A new command (Allied Command Transformation) has been created, with the headquarters in Norfolk, the U.S., and branches in Stavanger (Norway) and Bydgoszcz (Poland).

However, most of NATO’s Cold War-era military structures in the Arctic remain intact. They are tasked to ensure the member-states’ security by “hard power” methods. Military exercises are staged in the region systematically to keep the troops combat-ready. In 2009, ten countries held the Loyal Arrow exercise. In 2010, the Cold Response exercise was held in the area of Norway’s Narvik. Canada’s Arctic area is the scene of Operation Nanook regular exercise. A ground and naval exercise Response Force in the Baltic due in 2014 will be preceded by joint military training in minesweeping.

NATO member-states take turns to dispatch their military airplanes to patrol the territories of Iceland and the Baltic states. In addition to the U.S. missile defense, the alliance is deploying radars and tracking stations of the Active Layered Tactical Ballistic Missile Defense System in Alaska, Greenland and Northern Canada. Arctic NATO members view the possibility of getting assistance from their allies as a guarantee of their security in an emergency.

NATO’s seminar in Reykjavik in January 2009 identified new challenges to security of the Arctic states – climate change, the melting of the Arctic ice cap, the growing accessibility of important energy and sea resources, and the likelihood of new shipping routes being opened in the Arctic. The participants in the seminar arrived at the conclusion that the current and future missions of NATO in the region will chiefly address the task of maintaining “soft security.” However, the alliance’s capabilities to cope with non-military risks in the Arctic are rather limited. The region’s current problems may be successfully resolved not through military pressure, but with the use of national policy means of the Arctic countries within their jurisdictions and through inter-governmental cooperation within the framework of the Arctic Council, the Barents/Euro-Arctic Council and other organizations.

NATO’s New Strategic Defense and Security Concept adopted in Lisbon in 2010 makes no mention of the Arctic. The role of the alliance in maintaining security in the region is uncertain in a situation where, as the New Concept says, “the threat of a conventional attack against NATO territory is low.” Simultaneously, Arctic NATO members have issued their own national Arctic strategies. German analyst Helga Haftendorn believes that “national actions replace joint alliance performance” in the Arctic.


The discovery of enormous offshore hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic has created a material basis for the quick growth of the Arctic’s geopolitical importance. These reserves have arrested the attention of a great number of influential states, including those beyond the region’s geographic boundaries.

The availability of advanced offshore hydrocarbon production technologies and the melting of Arctic ice as a result of climate change greatly facilitate access of companies and countries to the region’s natural riches. Also, the possibility of new global trade routes being opened in the Arctic in the coming decades is drawing the attention of major trading nations and shipping companies. As a result, Arctic shelf delimitation issues and the applicability of the international Law of the Sea to the Arctic have taken center stage in world politics.

The effects of climate change on animal and plant life in the Arctic, as well as the risk of adverse impact of human industrial activity on the environment and life conditions of indigenous people lends geopolitical and humanitarian dimensions to the ecological issue.

The Arctic is no longer looked at as a periphery of the globe; it has found itself in the focus of many countries’ intense attention. The change of the Arctic’s geopolitical role has prompted practically all Arctic states to update their strategies and adjust them to the region’s new realities.

At present, there are a number of unresolved problems among the Arctic coastal states, including NATO member-states. The United States and Canada are in dispute over the border in the Beaufort Sea between Canada’s Yukon and Alaska and also in the Dixon Entrance area, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Machias Seal Island and North Rock. Another disputed area claimed by Canada is the Hans Island in the Nares Strait. In another example, the United States insists that the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route are international straits. Canada strongly objects. Meanwhile, not a single Arctic coastal country affiliated with the alliance refers to NATO as a mediator in settling disputes.

With the ratification of the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention by Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway, their national jurisdictions have been extended to cover a 200-mile wide strip of the Arctic shelf and respective exclusive economic zones. In fact, the four countries have divided among themselves the mineral, hydrocarbon, and biological natural resources in the Arctic. The Convention allows for expanding the zone of their national jurisdictions in the Arctic Ocean to 350 nautical miles (under certain circumstances). Currently, Denmark, Canada and Russia are gathering facts and evidence to support their claims to expanding their shelf zones to 350 miles and present them to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

The U.S. Senate’s recent refusal to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea is a clear sign of the United States’ principal refusal to set restrictions on its continental shelf in the Arctic. In fact, the United States feels free to use the Arctic shelf resources not just on equitable terms with the other Arctic coastal states, but with a certain competitive advantage for itself as the Convention’s financial and restrictive obligations are currently not applicable to the U.S. At the same time, the United States signed the Ilulissat Declaration of the five Arctic coastal states in 2008 and the Kiruna Declaration in 2013, under which it pledged to act in compliance with international law, including the Law of the Sea. The new U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic Region, signed by President Barack Obama on May 10, 2013, says that “While the United States is not currently a party to the (Law of the Sea) Convention, we will continue to support and observe principles of established customary international law reflected in the Convention.”

NATO non-Arctic member-states and other actors do not call in question the rights of the Arctic countries officially, but they keep looking for ways of participation in managing the resources of the Arctic. Thus the allies have found themselves on the opposite sides of the barricades.

In some non-Arctic countries, the authorities, political analysts and mass media are pressing for amendments to be made to the existing international legal status of the Arctic region through signing a special treaty on the Arctic, identical to the Treaty on the Antarctic, or transforming the Arctic Council into a classical international inter-governmental organization, which would be tantamount to the conclusion of such a treaty de facto. They emphasize the global importance of the Arctic’s sustainable development and insist on the establishment of international Arctic governance. This would inevitably affect the sovereign rights of the Arctic countries to some territories and require changes to the international status of open seas lying far beyond the Arctic region. Efforts by non-Arctic countries include attempts to set some Arctic countries against others, drive a wedge between them, and dramatize unresolved issues.

Cold War-style arguments are frequent in public discussions. For example, Russia is portrayed as an aggressive, war-mongering country, which lays claim to controlling vast Arctic expanses without good reason and keeps building up military muscle to achieve its aims. Some eagerly recall Russia’s intention to deploy two brigades in the Extreme North, while at the same avoiding mention of Russia’s pulling out of its military bases from Arctic islands and drastic cuts in the strength of its border guard troops in the region immediately after the end of the Cold War. Such speculations are meant to consolidate the West in the face of a new “Russian military threat,” ensure NATO’s permanent presence in the region and thus give NATO non-Arctic states the right to have a say in Arctic affairs.

Arctic coastal states have a different vision of such plans. “While many observers have commented in the media on Russia’s perceived provocative actions in the Arctic, there has yet to be any serious cause for alarm,” Canadian experts wrote in a briefing note to Defense Minister Peter MacKay and Associate Defense Minister Julian Fantino in July 2011.

In this situation relations between Arctic NATO members and Russia are growing increasingly pragmatic. The Arctic states tend to present a common front to safeguard their rights and interests in the Arctic against claims by outsiders. Yet the individual national interests of NATO Arctic coastal states and their allied interests in the Arctic are not always identical.

In protecting their own national economic interests, Arctic NATO members have much more in common with Russia than with other members of the alliance, which have no international legal reasons to seek jurisdiction over the Arctic shelf or the exclusive economic zones. These circumstances make the growing cooperation among the five Arctic coastal states – four members of NATO and Russia – in upholding their rights and interests in the Arctic a logical and stable factor until the issue of the delimitation of the Arctic shelf is not finally resolved. Participation of other Arctic states that do not have areas of jurisdiction in the Arctic Ocean in discussing these issues are not necessary and obligatory. The obvious commonality of interests in fundamental matters encourages the Arctic coastal states to coordinate their positions and enhance interaction.


Four of the five Arctic coastal countries are members of NATO. Five Arctic countries that are members of the alliance are permanent members of the Arctic Council.

The governments of northern NATO member countries would like the alliance to pay greater attention to national defense, and not to remote missions in other parts of the world. In 2008, soon after the pullout of the U.S. military from the Keflavik air base (2006), the parliament of Iceland adopted a Defense Act and a Civil Defense Act based on a “soft security” concept. A special 2009 report to the country’s foreign minister officially stated the absence of any real military threat to Iceland.

On March 28, 2011, the parliament of Iceland passed a resolution saying that the interests of security in the region must be ensured by non-military means and through resistance to militarization of the Arctic. The parliament suggested creating a nuclear-free zone in Northern Europe. For the first time ever such an initiative was put forward by a NATO country, which clearly indicated fundamental strategic shifts in the policy concerning the Arctic and Northern Atlantic.

Norway, which sees NATO as the keystone of its national security and defense, has also decided to fundamentally revise its policy. Until recently, it unofficially relied on support from the alliance in talks with Russia over dividing a disputed area of the continental shelf in the Barents Sea. Norway believed that NATO membership allowed it to negotiate with the great power on an equal footing and to protect its national interests. The conclusion of the Russian-Norwegian Maritime Delimitation Treaty in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, which provides that under certain conditions the two countries can use hydrocarbon resources in the Barents Sea as common, has drastically reduced Oslo’s desire to use its NATO membership as an argument in settling disputes with Moscow.

NATO member-countries’ full-fledged involvement in decision-making regarding hydrocarbons production in the Barents Sea contests Norway’s interests. Norway has built up the presence of its armed forces in the north of the country and has been keenly monitoring the sea’s areas to ensure its sovereignty in managing these resources. In attempts to secure its interests in this specific sphere, Oslo prefers to rely on the potential of its national armed forces, not on NATO’s military capabilities.

Norway cannot count on support from the alliance in handling disputes with Russia and other countries over fishing in the Barents Sea even hypothetically, because most allies do not recognize its right (unilaterally proclaimed) to a fisheries protection zone around Svalbard.

The new strategy for the development of the Norway’s northern regions – The High North Strategy adopted by the Norwegian government in 2006 – identified Norway’s relations with Russia as “the central bilateral dimension of Norway’s High North policy,” “based on pragmatism, interests and cooperation.”

U.S. experts Heather Conley and Jamie Kraut maintain that “Norway believes that it is most capable of achieving its regional interests if it cooperates with Moscow on a number of bilateral economic and environmental projects that are mutually beneficial to each country.”

Denmark is also an Arctic coastal state, as Greenland – the Kingdom’s autonomous territory – lies between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. According to a survey by the U.S. Geological Survey, the trillions of cubic feet of gas and several billion barrels of oil, found along Greenland’s coast, may make it 19th in the list of the world’s largest oil regions. Naturally, Copenhagen’s attention is riveted to protecting its economic interests in the Arctic.

The Danish Defense Agreement for 2010-2014 states that the growing activity in the Arctic will put extra pressure on the country’s armed forces. The document envisages measures to upgrade military facilities in Greenland to enable Danish warplanes to monitor the area and ensure Denmark’s sovereignty over Greenland. In order to build up the air and naval patrol capabilities the Danish military plan acquisition of new helicopters capable of flying in adverse Arctic weather conditions, and patrol ships fit for operating in severe ice conditions to complement the 48 fighters F-16, four transport planes C-30 Hercules, 21 helicopters Sea King and 14 Merlin helicopters, one destroyer with three support ships, four frigates and a large number of patrol ships and support vessels, as well as surveillance and early warning systems. The Defense Agreement does not link the protection of national economic interests in the Arctic with assistance from NATO. It suggests pooling the Greenland and Faroe commands and creating a mobile Arctic Rapid Reaction Force.

Denmark plans to upgrade ice and weather monitoring services, expand Station Nord, the Thule air base, and the Kangerlussuaq air base, open more military facilities in Eastern Greenland, and upgrade the defense infrastructures crucial for inspection flights north and east of Greenland. Also, it plans to use the Thule air base, operationally subordinate to the U.S. Air Force, for Danish long-range aircraft involved in inspection flights in the region.

Canada regards the Arctic as an integral part of its national identity. In December 2009, the Canadian parliament unanimously voted to rename the Northwest Passage the “Canadian Northwest Passage,” thereby confirming its claim to it as an “internal strait,” that is, as part of the “Canadian Internal Waters.” The Fisheries Committee of the Canadian Senate issued a recommendation to demand all ships register their presence in Canada’s Arctic waters.

Canada intends to build capabilities for exercising control and protecting Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic, upgrade its sole deep-sea port Nanisivik on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and build a new naval base there. There are plans to open a training center in Resolute Bay for operation in rigorous Arctic conditions and to increase the Canadian Rangers force there by 900 members.

The Canadian government is determined to provide the necessary equipment for the coast guard, build an extra Arctic ice-breaker and six to eight patrol ships, purchase 65 advanced F-35 fighters, acquire 10-12 patrol aircraft for inspecting sea areas, and create a powerful monitoring system comprising sensors, drones and satellites.

Canada makes no secret of its intention to act independently in maintaining its sovereignty in the Arctic and handling disputes with other Arctic coastal states, that is, proceeding from its own, not allied, interests. The scenarios of the annual summer exercise Operation Nunalivut in the north of the country address precisely this objective.

Canada’s Foreign Ministry has declared its intention to strengthen bilateral relations with the Arctic states and reinforce the activities of the Arctic Council and other multilateral institutions. Importantly, it did not feel obliged to mention a NATO role in Canada’s Arctic Strategy. As is known, Canada has blocked attempts to include any mention of the Arctic in NATO’s new Strategic Concept.

At the same time Canada seeks cooperation with Russia on “soft security” issues in the Arctic. It maintains that “geological research and international law, not military clout, will ultimately resolve undersea boundary disputes in the Arctic Ocean.”

The Arctic strategy of the United States as NATO’s military and political leader is of particular interest. The Directive on Arctic Policy, signed by George W. Bush in January 2009, says: “The United States is an Arctic nation, with varied and compelling interests in the region,” including “broad and fundamental national security interests… and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests.” The Directive concerns issues pertaining to both “soft security” (governance, continental shelf, delimitation matters, cooperation in scientific research, shipping, economic issues, environmental issues), and “hard security” (missile defense, early warning, deployment of air and naval systems for strategic troop redeployment, strategic deterrence, naval presence, naval operations, the freedom of shipping and surveillance). The presidential Directive says that the United States will “assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its Arctic interests and to project sea power throughout the region.”

The new U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic Region is based on three lines of effort: advance United States security interests, pursue responsible Arctic Region stewardship, and strengthen international cooperation. The Strategy says: “Working through bilateral relationships and multilateral bodies, including the Arctic Council, we will pursue arrangements that advance collective interests, promote shared Arctic state prosperity, protect the Arctic environment, and enhance regional security, and we will work toward U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Law of the Sea Convention).”

The U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap, made public in October 2009, provides for northward expansion of naval operations, adjustment of the U.S Navy’s capabilities to Arctic conditions, enhancement of defense against ballistic and cruise missiles, and control over sea areas. The United States plans to deploy 36 Stealth fighters F-22 Raptor and P-3 Orion patrol planes in Alaska.

The territories of the United States’ allies in the Arctic play host to U.S. missile defense system facilities (bases in Alaska and North Canada, Thule air base in Greenland, and the Keflavik radar run by the Icelandic defense force) and to the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

The United States’ Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower says that “increased competition for resources, coupled with scarcity, may encourage nations to exert wider claims of sovereignty over greater expanses of ocean, waterways, and natural resources – potentially resulting in conflict.” However, the Strategy does not consider even a hypothetical possibility of using NATO to address such issues. Helga Haftendorn believes that the alliance “is not a primary U.S. vehicle for ensuring Arctic security.”

At the same time, U.S. documents contain calls for enhancing various forms of cooperation by eight Arctic states, including Russia. The United States supports joint exercises and military activities, information and experience exchanges, and measures to improve mechanisms of multilateral cooperation, coordination and support with the military of other Arctic states in search-and-rescue operations and emergency aid activities. A NORAD delegate took part in negotiations at the Russian-U.S. Center for the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas in 2009. NORAD views its operations in Alaska “as an avenue for positive interaction with Russian military counterparts during the reset of relationships between our nations,” says Gail Braymen. “We will seek out opportunities to work with Moscow on emerging issues, such as the future of the Arctic,” says the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report for 2010.

The United States believes that the worst threats to its national security are posed by non-state actors, which may use ice-free Arctic shipping routes for smuggling narcotic drugs and weapons, illegal immigration, and transporting terrorists. Other Arctic coastal states, including Canada and Russia, share these concerns. This is an extra argument in favor of tighter cooperation among Arctic coastal countries.

Nevertheless, it would not be correct to neglect the fact that both Moscow and Washington still have military interests in the Arctic. Both countries have strategic nuclear submarines capable of operating in the region and used as an instrument of deterrence. The U.S. military potential is used as a tool of the national security policy and global strategy rather than an integral part of NATO’s collective forces expected to deter a specific hostile country in the Arctic.

Seeking to safeguard their interests in the region, Arctic NATO members mostly rely on their national armed forces, and not NATO’s combined military potential. In the modern conditions it is increasingly difficult to think of missions NATO might perform in the Arctic as a military-political alliance that would be unconditionally shared by all of its members and would be capable of easing or eliminating the existing divergence of interests.


Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon once referred to the Arctic Five coastal states, including Russia, as nations with shared interests and responsibilities in managing the Arctic Ocean.

The first meeting of the five Arctic coastal states was held in Ilulissat, Greenland, in May 2008. The Ilulissat Declaration said that the existing Law of the Sea provided a solid framework for responsible management of the Arctic Ocean by the Arctic coastal states and other actors through national implementation and application of relevant provisions. The Declaration says there is “no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean.” The existing international legal system is enough to settle disputes.

The Ilulissat forum declared an intention to preserve the unique ecosystem of the region. “We will take steps in accordance with international law both nationally and in cooperation among the five states and other interested parties to ensure the protection and preservation of the fragile marine environment of the Arctic Ocean,” the Declaration states.

The ‘Arctic Five’ reaffirmed their sovereign rights to the northern territories, sea areas, seabed, biological and natural resources of the Arctic and pledged to settle all disputes in accordance with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international legal regulations. They dismissed the idea of establishing an international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean.

At their second meeting in Chelsea, Canada, in March 2010, the Arctic Five announced their plans to closely cooperate on a wide range of issues, from establishing the outer borders of the continental shelves and concluding a legally binding search-and-rescue agreement to establishing a mandatory regime to enhance shipping safety.

In upholding their shared interests against claims by other countries, the Arctic Five have turned into an influential factor of international relations in the region, ready to “contribute actively to the work of the Arctic Council and other relevant international fora.” The United States believes that “the Arctic Council should remain a high-level forum devoted to issues within its current mandate and not be transformed into a formal international organization, particularly one with assessed contributions.”

In May 2011, the Arctic Council met in Nuuk, Greenland, to ink an agreement On Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. The Agreement specifies zones of responsibility among the signatories, who may resort to assistance from non-affiliated states, if need be. In May 2013, the Council members signed an Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic in Kiruna, Sweden.

All of the Arctic Five members are permanent members of the Arctic Council. The Scandinavian member-states of NATO, too, cooperate with the other Nordic countries within the Nordic Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers, and other joint institutions set up within the framework of “Nordic cooperation.” The level of the Nordic countries’ integration is far deeper than that achieved by the European Union member-states. High on the agenda are ways to further expand cooperation in foreign and security policies. In February 2009, Thorvald Stoltenberg, Norway’s former foreign minister, proposed stepping up cooperation by the five countries of Nordic Europe in the defense sphere, and in 2010 the North European countries established the Nordic Defense Cooperation – NORDEFCO. The Nordic Five is a stable group of like-minded countries, whose close regional cooperation in various spheres is an integral part of their home policies and long-term international strategies. Yet it would be wrong to interpret the cooperative efforts of this group of countries in the defense sphere as some kind of alternative to NATO. If there are problems with formulating the alliance’s mission in the Arctic, they will hardly be solved by some mini-NATOs.

Russia interacts with the Nordic Five in the Arctic Council, the Council of the Baltic Sea States, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and within the framework of the Northern Dimension. Any attempts to set one group of Northern countries against another would be counterproductive for Russia and the other Arctic coastal states. The Arctic Five and the Arctic Council address various problems and their activities complement, not contradict each other.

Now that the Cold War is over, the institutional role of NATO as a military-political alliance in the Arctic is hard to substantiate.

NATO countries from among Arctic Council members, jointly with Russia, Finland and Sweden, announced in Kiruna in May 2013 that “Decisions at all levels in the Arctic Council are the exclusive right and responsibility of the eight signatories to the Ottawa Declaration.” They expressed their resolve to continue their work “to strengthen the Arctic Council to meet new challenges and opportunities for cooperation, and pursue opportunities to expand the Arctic Council’s roles from policy-shaping into policy-making.”

The Arctic Council’s Declaration Vision for the Arctic says: “We have made this region into an area of unique international cooperation… We are confident that there is no problem that we cannot solve together through our cooperative relationships on the basis of existing international law and good will.”

If Russia consistently pursues its policy of cooperation with Arctic countries on the basis of the Law of the Sea and with due regard for their common interests in the region, there will be no grounds for attempts to justify NATO’s more active involvement in Arctic affairs.