Nir Levitan

The Arctic maneuver in the shadow of the crisis in Europe

NATO Secretary General’s recent visit to the Arctic confirmed the notion of a broad front against the Russian presence in the region. In addition to the military challenges along the Finnish-Russian border, in recent weeks there has been a growing concern that the Svalbard archipelago islands, which is Norwegian territory and receives military cover from NATO, may become a potentially reach a swift escalation between Russia and the West, initiating Arctic front between the involved sides.

On August 19th, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg convened with the Prime Minister of Canada as part of a visit the two made to the Arctic region, where they visited military bases. The two discussed security issues in the North Pole and, specifically, the movements of the Russian army in the region. The visit was held against the backdrop of ongoing reports of the use of hypersonic missiles and an increase of Russia’s regional warning system in the region. In April 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia would continue to advance its military infrastructure in the Arctic along the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

The politics surrounding the region has accelerated the transformation of the North Pole into an essential geopolitical point for global energy requirements, especially in light of the war in Ukraine and the growing suspicion towards Russian intentions. As part of the geopolitical struggle of the North Pole, the American Navy’s published its strategic plan, where it was stated that there are competing views regarding control of maritime resources and seaways that are becoming increasingly accessible. This plan was constructed around the fear of competition from other great powers in the Arctic region, which is a potential threat to the interests of the United States. Thus, it was no surprising when Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the appointment of a new ambassador to the Arctic region. The Americans are also implementing wider exercises in the region, where airborne divisions conduct extensive training designed to increase their mobility, making future frontline communications more effective. Accordingly, when these units operate in Greenland, they operate on missions on behalf of the Joint Arctic Command.

The growing competition also reinforces the rise in the level of tension between the Nordic countries and Russia in the Arctic. Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and the USA issued a joint statement against Russia in as the war in the Ukraine continues and described it as a serious obstacle to cooperation in the Arctic region. They refused to participate in meetings led by Russia in the Arctic Council; despite being committed to the aims of the council, as one of the core efforts of the Arctic Council, and other similar international forums, is to act against the growing threat of climate change.

The Nordic countries have geographical ties and historical and geological claims, some of which have not yet to be settled in the region. In 2014, Denmark and Greenland laid claim to an area of ​​895,000 square kilometers beyond the North Pole to the border of the Russian exclusive economic zone. Denmark also has claims to the Lomonosov Ridge which it considers a geological extension of Greenland. Russia also has territorial disputes with Norway as it expanded its continental shelf to include the Barents Sea region, the Arctic Ocean, and the Norwegian Sea, although both countries have signed the Barents Sea Treaty, affording a moment of respite. Against these tensions, the Norwegian company Aker BP recently announced its intention to drill 15 explorations by next year, including in the Arctic Barents Sea.

NATO sees the Nordic countries as a vital factor in strengthening regional security and building an Arctic military strategy that will help coordinate large-scale exercises across the Nordic region. NATO has also begun a renewed series of exercises and operations designed to respond to the Russian submarine threat. These exercises, called Dynamic Mongoose, take place in the Norwegian Sea and the areas adjacent to them, and include most of NATO’s northern flank fleets.

Iceland, which is also a member of the NATO alliance since its foundation in 1949, is pushing to for the alliance to express its commitments in the Arctic region; simultaneously, Denmark has increased its defense spending by 245 million dollars to improve its surveillance capabilities in Greenland. In June 2019, the Ministry of Defense in Copenhagen revised its Arctic strategy to respond to the security environment in the Arctic. Denmark committed to the ‘Arctic package’, which will strengthen the military presence in and around the Arctic region — mainly against the sightings of unknown vessels that have recently increased. While the influence of Greenland and the Faroe Islands regarding the foreign and security policy affairs of the Arctic region has been very limited until now, Denmark’s renewed strategy also emphasizes their interests and provides them a central place in Denmark’s foreign and security policy strategies. Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod, who recently visited Greenland, noted that the increased international focus on the North Pole, and Greenland in particular, makes Denmark an essential nation in promoting cooperation with Greenland.

These recent moves were also led by US Secretary of Defense, urging Denmark to intervene in the fear that the government in Nuuk will find it difficult to refuse China’s appealing offers to increase their exposure and economic activity on the island. In December 2019 at a NATO summit in London, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen revealed her plans to spend 200 million euros on promoting a renewed strategy for the Arctic.

Furthermore, these changes are expected to alter the current balance in the region, specifically the joining of Sweden and Finland. They guaranteed to assist in non-military projects, especially those promoted by them in recent years. Starting in 2015, a Finnish company began a broad project to connect Europe and Asia using a submarine fiber optic cable on the seabed along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The initiative was led by the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications and implemented by a Finnish fiber infrastructure operator. As of August 2021, the project was well under way with the deployment of more than 400 km of submarine cable. Interestingly, given the size and complexity of this project, the cable system was provided exclusively by Russian suppliers and equipment manufacturers. The role of submarine cables has recently made headlines after they were damaged in mysterious methods. The head of Finland’s security services warned about the threats to the project and the infiltration of foreign powers into its intelligence services, even before the country joined the NATO alliance.

Against the background of formulating a renewed strategy in the Arctic region, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is leading a renewed vigilance among NATO members. The location of Svalbard is a threat to the operations of Russia’s Northern Fleet in the Atlantic Ocean and the importance of the island is recognized by the NATO Secretary General, since the Danish straits limits the Russian naval fleet in the Baltic region. These precautions become even more pertinent in light of Russia’s space agency announcing the launch of the Iranian reconnaissance satellite into space that included the area north of the Svalbard archipelago as a Russian air zone of influence. Against the backdrop of the Russian parliament’s threat not to respect the agreement in the Barents Sea, the fear is mounting that the Russians are attempting to increase the pressure on the Norwegians even more.

On the other hand, the Norwegian military headquarters is working to increase cooperation through the establishment of a joint Nordic air military headquarters as part of the NATO command structure. In Norway, it is noted that the military defense challenges regarding Finnmark in the north along the Finnish-Russian border, the strategic location of the Swedish island of Gotland, and the significance of the Danish Straits must be recognized due to the changes in the northern area.

This issue raises the main concern that, although the Svalbard Archipelago is defined as Norwegian territory and receives military cover from NATO, it may become a potentially dangerous point for a rapid escalation between Russia and the West and the opening of an Arctic front between the parties.

About the Author
Nir Levitan is a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University's Graduate Program in Conflict Resolution, Management and Negotiation. Currently, he is a research fellow at Europa Institute and a research affiliate at Center for Cold War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark