The Arctic region has become a site of growing international attention due to its valuable resources and its potential as a trade route. However, competing interests and military activity of prominent powers, namely Russia and the United States, are increasing regional tensions and are laying the ground for a more open and expanded struggle. This scenario presents a challenge to the traditional Nordic policy of maintaining strategic balance in their foreign policy (military and economic interests), raising the question of whether this approach can be sustained in the near future in the High North.
The Nordic countries follow the concept called ‘Nordic Balance’ and tend to avoid confrontational approaches. Instead, they opt for cautious and pragmatic policies. While maintaining a level of wariness towards Russian policy, they seek to establish broad international commercial ties and engage in dialogue with their close neighbors, including Russia. This nuanced approach of balancing stability with open dialogue is indicative of the complex dynamics at play in the region.
However, the war in Ukraine caused the Nordic countries to pull back and to join in the sanctions against Russia. The changing reality on the ground highlighted the need to be under the defense umbrella of the United States and NATO and necessitated a new balance point between the pursuit of Nordic national interests and a commitment to the United States regarding regional stability.
One of the most significant events in the Arctic recently was the joint military exercise by NATO forces in Norway. The exercise simulated invasion and reflected the growing concern among NATO members for the possibility of a military threat from Russia. Rear admiral, Rune Andersen, head of the Royal Norwegian Navy, expressed the need for preparedness and deterrence against future aggression. In the eyes of the Norwegians, the hotline established between the Norwegian Joint Operational Headquarters and the Northern Fleet underscores the imperative of maintaining stability in the region.
These exercises take on even greater significance in light of Russia’s emphasis on the Arctic in its maritime doctrine. Russia has expressed interest in the Arctic in order to protect its northern trade routes and to gain access to new fossil fuels and rare metal deposits. Russia has a significant naval presence in the region, including nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarines cruising in the Baltic and the High North. Russian naval capability includes only slightly fewer such submarines than the 64 that the US is estimated to have.
Against this backdrop, Russia’s Arctic strategy has prompted concerns among Norwegians who are seeking allies for increased deterrence. For example, Finland and Sweden could provide essential support by monitoring and sharing intelligence and providing vital air power. As future members of NATO, Finland and Sweden could increase their willingness to support their revised defense doctrine but still would not be able to cover all the measures needed to pose a challenge to the Russian Navy.
The Nordic countries aim to engage in the Arctic in a way that supports their own economic and strategic objectives. Rather than isolating Russia, they want to promote a peaceful and cooperative relationship. This policy is based on the increasing traffic in the Northern Sea Route (NSR), where there is a growing need for cooperation among Arctic countries to ensure the safe and sustainable use of the region’s resources.
One such example of this cooperation is the reloading of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by the Norwegian shipping company Tschudi for the Russian company Novatek. Similarly, the Russian Ministry of Transport has plans to ship coal via the Yenisei River and the NSR to Asia, with the initial shipments planned for the 2023 navigation season. These economic opportunities highlight the potential benefits of increased connectivity in the Arctic.
In addition, the melting sea ice has led to a rush by companies to lay fiber optic cables across certain areas of the Arctic. The Polar Express route is a Russian project currently underway to construct a fiber optic cable running along the Arctic coast, spanning from the northwest to the southeast corners of Russia. This has significant implications for people in the Arctic and beyond, with increased access to high-speed Internet leading to better research and communication potential. Companies like Alcatel Submarine Networks (part of Finnish communication giant Nokia) are competing to extend these cables across the region and bring the Arctic further online.
It is clear that the economic opportunities in the Arctic must be balanced against the risk of military escalation. The Nordic countries observe that Russia’s emphasis on the Arctic in its maritime doctrine and in the deployment of several submarines for an exercise in the region highlight the need for a greater US presence in order to counter Russia’s growing military activity.
Independently, the US Navy has established a temporary presence in Iceland and has been increasing its engagement in the Arctic. US officials have adopted bolder language in their criticism of Russia and China at the Arctic Council. Still, experts have questioned the lack of information regarding how the US plans to increase its presence in the region and whether it is willing to commit ground forces or fund the development of ice-capable vessels. These developments stand in stark contrast to conciliatory approach of the Nordic Balance policy.
Ultimately, cooperation among Arctic countries and allies like NATO is essential to ensure the safe and sustainable use of the region’s resources and to prevent unnecessary escalations and misunderstandings. Yet the current situation in the Arctic poses a heavy challenge to the Nordic policy of balance, and decision-makers in the Nordic countries will need to carefully consider their next steps in the face of a potential acceleration of tensions with Russia in shared border areas. These decisions will be influenced by the competing interests of the US and Russia, both of whom will likely seek to shape the outcome. The ability of the Nordic alliance to navigate this complex geopolitical landscape will be put to the test in the coming years.