NATO in the Arctic: Keep Its Role Limited, For Now

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The adage “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” could easily describe NATO’s policies in the Arctic for the last 30 years. Consequently, the alliance has taken a largely hands-off approach to the region.

Nevertheless, individual NATO members with territory or territorial waters in the Arctic (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the United States) have taken the initiative to advance their Arctic interests. Recently, the United States has taken a more assertive role in the region. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out Russian and Chinese Arctic behavior at the May 2019 Arctic Council ministerial meeting, the U.S. Air Force has stationed more fifth-generation fighter planes in Alaska than exist in any other location on the planet, and the U.S. Navy reactivated the Second Fleet with responsibilities for the North Atlantic. The Defense Department and individual services have released, or will release, several Arctic strategies. The U.S. Coast Guard published an Arctic Strategic Outlook in April 2019, followed by an Arctic strategy from the Defense Department in June 2019 and the U.S. Air Force in July 2020. The Navy and Army are expected to follow suit with revised Arctic strategies in late 2020 and 2021 respectively.



So far, all of those strategies reference the value of regional partnerships with like-minded states, which begs the question — should NATO play a greater role in the Arctic? Some argue yes, saying that NATO should create an Arctic security forum with Russia or engage in visible contingency planning. Others disagree, believing that since there is no consensus within the alliance on actions in the Arctic, the matter should be left to individual member states. Camille Grand, NATO’s assistant secretary general for defense investment, said when asked about the topic in an a recent interview, “I don’t think we are there yet.”

NATO itself should play a very limited, direct role in the Arctic. The alliance should only engage in circumscribed contingency planning and conduct the occasional large exercise like Trident Juncture in 2018. To do more risks weakening alliance unity and needlessly antagonizing Russia. Specifically, NATO should avoid creating a new alliance command dedicated to the Arctic, pushing for Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, or establishing a new Arctic security forum between NATO and Russia. These policy options have been floated in expert dialogues and ought to be tabled, at least for now. Rather than coordinating through NATO, which would continue today’s policy, member states and their non-NATO partners should meet Arctic security threats by engaging in more frequent and deeper unilateral, bilateral, or coalition-of-the-willing defense cooperation focused on cold weather training, regular military exercises, and rotational force deployments. This is a subtle but important distinction. Some physical activities would look the same in this alternative policy, but they would not be under a NATO moniker.

Context and Threats

Climate change is transforming the geopolitics of the Arctic. The Arctic is warming two to three times as fast as the rest of the globe, with corresponding ice-melt, softening of permafrost, higher waves and erosion, and more frequent wildfire events. That translates into the potential for more access to the Arctic, resource extraction, and maritime activity, but also more threats to the human security of Arctic populations, some of whom live in NATO countries.

America’s rivals are taking an increased interest in Arctic issues. Russia — long an Arctic power — has renewed, expanded, and developed new military facilities across its Arctic territory, mainly but not exclusively centered on the Northern Sea Route. Moreover, the Russian navy has conducted exercises in the Baltic, Barents, and Norwegian Seas, while ground exercises simulate battle between Arctic states. Commercial fishing vessels are moving farther north in pursuit of previously unavailable fish stocks, threatening the livelihood of coastal communities. Three of the eight Arctic states — Finland, Russia, and Sweden — are not NATO members and Russia, at least, has strong reasons to object to a greater NATO role in the region. Finally, Moscow will take the two-year rotating chair of the Arctic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum in May 2021. China’s regional actions include increased scientific, diplomatic, and maritime activities, as well as significant investment in the region. All these trends are outside NATO’s control but could affect NATO member perceptions and behavior.

While NATO members are facing several challenges to their interests in the Arctic, developing a common policy within the alliance on what to do about this is incredibly difficult. NATO decisions depend on consensus, or at least on members withholding a veto of a pending initiative. Just because there are five NATO members in the Arctic does not mean that each supports a greater NATO role in the Arctic. Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, for instance, repeatedly emphasizes “Canada’s enduring Arctic sovereignty,” and the need to “enhance Canada’s military presence” and “Canada’s domain awareness” (emphasis added), with some references to bilateral security cooperation but no mention of NATO. Canada is not the only country that might object to a stronger alliance role in the Arctic. Alliance members in Southern and Eastern Europe might see an increased Arctic focus as syphoning away NATO resources from security challenges in the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, Ukraine, or the Baltic Sea. In short, a greater alliance role in the Arctic requires convincing skeptical allies, and doing that might not be worth the diplomatic effort.

None of the above, with the possible exception of Russian militarization along the Northern Sea Route, constitutes a military threat to NATO. That said, three military-security threats merit discussion: Russian forces in the Arctic could threaten European NATO members or threaten North America, and China’s scientific activities in the Arctic could lay the groundwork for future military activities.

Russia could attack or attempt to coerce European NATO members from the Russian Arctic. However unlikely, Russia might be tempted to open up a front in the Arctic during a conflict with NATO elsewhere. Moreover, a military crisis that starts in the Baltic states or the Black Sea region could spillover inadvertently into the Arctic. NATO members could threaten or strike Russian targets in the Arctic from air or sea-based platforms if they saw the Russian Northern Fleet or ground forces north of the Arctic Circle as a potential threat during a crisis. A military conflict could also occur due to miscalculation or accidents in the Barents Sea or north Atlantic between each side’s naval or air forces.

Russia could threaten the United States or Canada using long-range assets in the Russian Arctic to deter NATO entry in conflicts or “gray zone” activities in the Baltic states or the Black Sea region. Russia’s recent Arctic militarization does not change the fact that they have possessed the ability to attack North America via long-range weapons (on missiles, submarines and bombers) fired through the Arctic for decades.

Although Beijing does not currently possess sustained military assets in the Arctic, Chinese scientific or economic activities in the Arctic could serve as a Trojan horse for defense activities, intelligence collection, or non-defense influence/aggression. For example, research vessels sailing through Arctic waters could also gather electronic/signals intelligence, map the ocean floor to aid submarine navigation or detection, or plant sonar buoys. Each has potential military applications. Other Chinese activities — like economic influence attempts or control of rare earth supplies — though potentially troubling from a Western security perspective, are not direct military threats relevant to NATO’s charter.

Policy Options for NATO in the Arctic

When considering NATO’s role in the Arctic given this contextual background, four primary options merit consideration: enhance non-NATO training, partnerships, and operations in the Arctic; create a NATO Arctic Command; invite Sweden and Finland to join NATO; and establish a NATO-Russia security forum.

Accelerate Non-NATO Training and Exercises

NATO members could continue or perhaps accelerate current unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral operations and partnerships outside the confines of the alliance. This option is consistent with what the U.S. Navy is already doing with its Second and Sixth Fleets alongside Norway (a marine rotational force, submarine port calls, bomber flybys, and more regular exercises) and with Iceland (rotational presence of P-8 and tanker aircraft). Additional rotations and exercises would build shared expertise in cold weather operations across participatory states and signal western resolve toward Russia. These initiatives would be outside the alliance but consistent with NATO’s focus on training and exercises in the alliance’s Connected Forces Initiative. Last but not least, a significant rotational presence and exercises would allow for more robust monitoring of China’s Arctic activities.

Russia is sensitive to NATO training and exercises in the Arctic. By avoiding an alliance moniker, informal activities by individual NATO states or groups of states will be less likely to trigger a counterproductive Russian response. In the past, Moscow has issued diplomatic statements and conducted military exercises when upset by NATO military activity in the Arctic. For example, Russia blocked GPS signals during NATO’s 2018 Trident Juncture exercise. Russia staged live-fire exercises after a May 2020 NATO exercise in the Barents Sea and in February 2020 just before NATO’s Cold Response exercise in Norway. There are numerous smaller examples of Russian pilots and ships acting in aggressive ways during NATO training operations. Another advantage of this option is that it avoids having to convince southern or eastern European NATO members to devote resources to cold weather training, potentially at the expense of more traditional training, particularly if defense budgets are constrained in a COVID-19 or post-pandemic world.

Establish a NATO Arctic Command

An alternative, alliance-oriented option would be to create a NATO Arctic Command headquarters that would exercise operational control of NATO forces in high latitudes. An Arctic Command could be modeled on NATO’s new Multinational Division North that is tasked with the defense of the Baltic states. The headquarters would add a dedicated NATO planning, command, and control unit with expertise in the high north, which would presumably clarify command relationships within NATO in the event of an Arctic crisis or conflict. And like the Multinational Division North, the alliance could have redundant headquarters facilities, with one in theater (perhaps in Norway) and another facility outside the Arctic.

This option has several downsides. It duplicates some of the existing bilateral capabilities and relationships in the U.S.-Norwegian defense partnership, and in the coordination on north Atlantic defense between the U.S. Second and Sixth Fleets and NATO’s renewed Joint Forces Command. Perhaps more importantly, an Arctic Command would prioritize a collective NATO response to security challenges. In principle, that is consistent with NATO’s purpose and a good thing. Practically, however, it creates problems within the alliance. The Canadians might see prioritizing a NATO response as weakening their sovereign control of their own territory. The Danes might agree with Canadian sentiment. An Arctic Command also goes against the spirit expressed by Arctic coastal states (specifically Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States, to say nothing of Russia) in the Ilulissat and Chelsea Declarations, which emphasized national over multinational control and regulation of the majority of Arctic waters. Finally, having an Arctic Command begs the question of whose forces would be under that command, which brings us back to the reluctance of many NATO members to contribute to an Arctic force. In sum, this option would require building intra-alliance consensus on the need for another command, and then training the forces that would be dedicated to or rotated through it. The former is difficult, and the latter is unnecessary.

Invite Sweden and Finland to Join NATO

In response to heightened insecurity in the Arctic, NATO could formally invite Sweden and Finland to join the alliance. Their membership would mean that seven of the eight Arctic states would be NATO members, and this would present an uninterrupted alliance land bridge across the European Arctic as well as on the Baltic Sea’s north and south coasts. Open source assessment shows that both countries have potent forces. Finland would add significant ground forces to NATO’s capabilities. Sweden has advanced aircraft in its Gripen fighter planes, fast patrol boats, and submarines. In all likelihood, both countries would be welcomed into the alliance with little complaint from current members.

But this option presupposes that Sweden and Finland actually want to join NATO and have the public support to do so. While both countries maintain close ties with NATO, they have decided to remain outside the alliance, in large part due to concerns about how Russia would react in response. Moreover, their membership could actually complicate NATO defense planning, as both countries are within range of many Russian military systems and Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer border with Russia. Reinforcing either country would require crossing the Baltic Sea, flying through contested airspace, or traversing a vulnerable rail bridge from Denmark or the two southern rail routes from Norway into Sweden, or crossing the Scandinavian mountains separating central and northern Norway from Sweden. Even then, NATO forces would still need to cross the Gulf of Bothnia or traverse the inhospitable terrain in Finnmark, Norway to reach Lapland, Finland — all of which is, again, within easy range of Russian firepower.

This option would risk creating a major crisis with Russia. Moscow has repeatedly warned that bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO would be seen as an overt threat to Russian territory. The resulting political crisis could escalate, leading to miscalculation or accidents. Finally, Russian rhetoric aside, adding the two countries to NATO would do nothing to fundamentally change Russian military plans, as they already have to factor Western-leaning Sweden and Finland into their security calculations. Lastly, adding the two would do nothing to alleviate Chinese security threats.

Create an Arctic Security Forum Between NATO and Russia

The final NATO option considered here would be to create a new NATO-Russia forum to discuss Arctic security issues. Proponents of Arctic security forums argue that they could foster better communication and incident de-escalation by establishing a regional military code of conduct, among other things. They also could take pressure off existing non-security Arctic forums, like the Arctic Council, to address military issues. All of this makes a forum attractive.

This option seems infeasible, however, if we are talking about NATO participation in such a forum. The NATO-Russia Council, an existing forum aimed at a similar mission set, suspended military-to-military consultations after the 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea. For better or worse, NATO as an institution shows no signs of relaxing that prohibition. For this option to work, Russia’s military and defense establishment would have to participate at a senior level, and Russian personnel abide by the agreements made. Russia failed to do the former when it came to the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable. Likewise, dangerous Russian flybys and naval activities demonstrate their willingness to flaunt agreed-upon codes of conduct in international waters and airspace, to say nothing of their actions in Ukraine, the Black Sea, and Syria.


The Arctic is receiving increased scrutiny from Western security officials, and the question of NATO’s role in the Arctic is a primary topic of discussion. Given the effects of climate change, Russia’s activities in the Arctic, and a growing Chinese role in the region, it may be tempting for NATO officials to assert a role for the alliance in the Arctic. However, the threat environment does not require a robust set of NATO actions at this time.

For the time being, a collective NATO response to Arctic security challenges is inadvisable. Instead, individual member states should pursue and increase rotational presence operations and regional exercises. These would help to alleviate immediate security threats and, because they involve NATO members, would prepare the alliance for a greater Arctic role in the future, should that be necessary. These would also build on current NATO policy and the policies of NATO’s Arctic members. Alliance members that flank the Arctic should continue to develop military capabilities (e.g. for maritime domain awareness and surface presence, high-latitude communications and positioning systems, and long-term cold weather sustainment) that signal Western intent and support more robust options (i.e., a NATO Arctic Command or inviting Sweden and Finland into NATO) should the security situation deteriorate. These unilateral, bilateral, and coalitional actions would provide Russia with concrete incentives to engage in benign behavior.

Someday, NATO may be forced into action in the Arctic. People will say, “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” Yet today is not that day. For now, willing NATO members and partners should focus on more robust training, exercises, and a rotational presence in the Arctic. If done outside of formal NATO command, these actions could advance the alliance’s own security interests and prepare it for an increased regional role should actions by Russia and China force its hand.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of the National War College, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government entity.

Dr. David Auerswald is a professor of security studies at the U.S. National War College in Washington, D.C. He has published books on International Security Assistance Force operationsCongress and national securityCongress and civil-military relations, the politics of coercive diplomacy, and the Kosovo conflict.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Lance Cpl. Cody J. Ohira)