NATO North? Building a Role for NATO in the Arctic


Russia’s growing military assertiveness — in Ukraine, Syria, and beyond — has sparked fears over its intentions in the Arctic. The pace of Russian bomber patrols, submarine expeditions, and firing exercises in the Arctic are all at levels not seen since the depths of the Cold War. A growing chorus is calling for NATO to take on a greater role in the Arctic to counter Russian aggression.

But the gathering storm over the Arctic is not just about Russian military activity, and framing it as such is dangerously short-sighted. Unfortunately, just as relations between Russia and the West are deteriorating, the Arctic region is undergoing a terrifying physical transformation. Arctic warming is racing ahead of our best models, burning through the system at a pace that is hard to comprehend. Parts of coastal Alaska are eroding 20 meters per year; the center of the pollock fishery in the Bering Sea is moving north 18 miles annually; and mass die-offs of seabirds, fish, and marine mammals are occurring. The Arctic is undergoing jarring changes in environmental, political, military, and economic domains — all at the same time. This transformation threatens to upend decades of stability. In this state of flux, any mishap or misunderstanding could generate enough friction to spark a serious crisis or even conflict.



Involving NATO in the Arctic, in the context of rapidly deteriorating stability, could be very dangerous. I agree that NATO should play a larger role, but this role must be carefully calibrated. NATO wears two hats: It is an operational military alliance, but it is also a formalized structure for dialogue among states, including with Russia. Increased NATO operations in the Arctic are likely to exacerbate the growing security dilemma. Instead, using NATO channels to open dialogue with Russia on Arctic security issues could add an important and badly-needed source of stability. Using the NATO-Russia Council to close the Arctic security “dialogue gap” through the creation of an Arctic security working group would be a prudent first step. However, drawbacks of greater NATO involvement should be carefully weighed. This article will explain the profound changes wracking the Arctic, sketch the security dynamics, and parse NATO’s role.

What’s New in the Arctic

The Arctic is undergoing transformative physical-environmental changes. Sea ice, the dominant organizing characteristic of the region, is in sharp decline. There is about half as much ice coverage in the Arctic now as the historic average, and the total ice volume has dropped by three quarters.

Economic changes are also taking place, although there is more anticipation than actual development: Russia, for example, has struggled to drive business along its Northern Sea Route (NSR). Economic transformation of the region is possible, but remains an open question tied to global market forces, technological developments, and continued environmental change. However, the Arctic remains one of the last relatively untapped resource reserves on the planet. This includes the growing and colorful business of iceberg water.

Changing physical characteristics and anticipated economic interests have seized the attention of political, military, and economic leaders from the eight Arctic states — Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States as well as some non-Arctic states including China. While the Arctic has long been militarized, new technologies and new considerations are altering the composition and behavior of Arctic forces. Political change has also been occurring in the region, transforming the set of actors who shape debate and decisions. Increasing political participation by indigenous communities and organizations (given formal impetus by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007) has contributed to political change in the Arctic region at national, regional, and circumpolar levels.

The intersection of change in the physical, economic, political, and military domains creates complexity and great uncertainty.

A Delicate Balance of Power

No single country dominates the Arctic. For decades, the United States and Russia maintained a delicate balance of power. But in the context of the changes now occurring, that balance of power is precarious. While a dominant regional hegemon would manage change and provide some type of stability, the Arctic lacks that center of gravity, and instead faces multiple possible outcomes (as flagged in the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment).

The two major Arctic powers — the United States and Russia — differ strongly on key issues that pertain to the future of the Arctic, including the legal status of the Northern Sea Route. Both identify as being in a competitive dyad: As part of that competition, Russia and the United States have been increasing their security presence in the Arctic.  Russian fortifications on their Arctic islands have been widely analyzed: They include the construction of bases as well as installing advanced radar systems and missiles.  The U.S. military will shortly be stationing F-35s at Eielson Air Force Base and work is underway to expand missile detection capabilities at Clear Air Force Station and ICBM interceptor missile defenses at Fort Greely — all in Alaska.

Therefore, in a region wracked by profound change and balanced between opposing great powers, there is potential for destabilization and a dangerous security dilemma. Where might stability and norm-setting emerge to counteract growing militarization? Could NATO serve as a source of stability?

NATO in the Arctic: Pros and Cons

Given its role as the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security, it might seem natural to think that NATO involvement would stabilize the Arctic. While Russia understandably views NATO as a threat, the mechanism of collective defense and the structural process-based system built by NATO provide more predictability for Russia than ad hoc arrangements. NATO could therefore be seen as a stabilizing institution that might exert a beneficial influence on the Arctic region as it undergoes profound change. Some experts have, indeed, called for NATO to take on an expanded role in the Arctic, including bringing the Arctic into NATO’s holistic security approach and conducting a joint threat assessment, or by conducting surveillance and disaster-response operations.

However, two serious issues would complicate NATO’s ability to provide stability and norms in the Arctic. First, NATO’s involvement could dilute the influence of Arctic states. NATO is a large organization with a remit far larger than the Arctic region, and greater NATO involvement therefore risks drawing in outside states. This has traditionally been avoided by Arctic states, including both the United States and Russia. Arctic stability, and Arctic decision-making, may not benefit from the addition of the other 25 NATO states, especially those from eastern Europe, whose interests are quite different.

Second, greater NATO involvement in the region could contribute to escalation and security-dilemma dynamics. NATO is, after all, a military alliance. As NATO increases its capabilities to act in the Arctic, its capacity for interoperability, and its regional familiarity — for example, through exercises like last year’s TRIDENT JUNCTURE — it will signal that it is more of a threat to Russia. Russia is most likely to respond by stiffening its own military posture. Tit-for-tat dynamics could lead to escalation, especially in the case of accident or mishap.

A Path Forward for NATO in the Arctic

If we think of NATO as serving essentially two functions, it becomes easier to parse NATO’s possible role in the Arctic. NATO is both a military-operational concept and a political-organizational concept. As a military alliance, NATO plans and exercises in order to achieve and maintain operational readiness. It also, however, structures and maintains political relationships by formalizing interaction among states, both inside and outside the alliance. Through NATO dialogue, allies speak to each other, as well as partners like Finland and Sweden — and they also speak to Russia, through the NATO-Russia Council.

The NATO-Russia Council, established in 2002 by the Rome Declaration (replacing the Permanent Joint Council), serves as a forum for consultation and joint action between NATO members and Russia. The Council is seen as having an important role in reducing misunderstandings and increasing predictability. In July 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the conclusion of a NATO-Russia Council meeting, “Our discussions are not easy. But they are important, especially when tensions are going up . . . they help to limit the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.” While the secretary general was referring to discussions over Ukraine and the INF treaty, his words could also be applied to the Arctic.

The NATO-Russia Council could be a useful forum for dialogue on security topics in the Arctic, perhaps through the formation of a new working group on Arctic security. Currently, there is no security forum for the Arctic that includes Russia (the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Arctic chiefs of defense (CHODs) meetings have excluded Russia since 2014). The region’s governance forum, the Arctic Council, does not address security matters per its founding charter. The absence of a security forum for the Arctic creates space for misunderstanding and mistrust, the accelerant of a security dilemma.

The NATO-Russia Council could be a good choice for discussing security topics in the Arctic because it is a proven, established structure that is part of a 70-year-old institution, and is therefore more familiar and predictable than a new, untested forum that would be subject to intense shaping efforts by both sides of the U.S.-Russia dyad. On the other hand, as mentioned above, NATO includes countries far away from the Arctic. Some non-Arctic countries may have a strong interest in the region — like the UK and France — and might be important to include in an Arctic-focused security dialogue. NATO partners Sweden and Finland should be included. But not all NATO members and not all partners would have relevance.

NATO Has a (Carefully Tailored) Role in the Arctic

A greater role for NATO in the Arctic should be deliberately calibrated to build stability and positive norms — reaching back to core NATO values, and the role of NATO as a value and norm-building institution. It should be carefully constructed to avoid contributing to escalation or the development of a security dilemma. While a greater operational NATO presence in the Arctic is likely to increase tension, NATO’s organizational function might serve a useful role in filling the dialogue gap on Arctic security.

The Arctic is undergoing profound environmental, geopolitical, and economic shifts. If NATO can establish its values, like the rule of law, as Arctic norms, that could help stabilize the region. In a time of complex change, the familiar, predictable NATO institution might be a good choice to begin building towards a more stable future. NATO’s role in the Arctic must be shaping, not escalating.



Dr. Rebecca Pincus is assistant professor in the department of Strategic and Operational Research (SORD) at the U.S. Naval War College. The views and opinions presented here are her own and do not represent the official position of the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Department. This article refines ideas first presented by Dr. Pincus at Emory Law School’s Center for International and Comparative Law conference, “NATO @ 70,” 18–19 September, 2019.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael H. Lee)