NATO Needs a Strategy for Countering Russia in the Arctic and the Black Sea

It is important that, during the forthcoming Brussels summit, the alliance recognizes the threat Russia poses in these neglected areas.

Expert comment Published 2 July 2018 Updated 21 April 2020 2 minute READ
A new Russian frigate, the Admiral Makarov, is prepared for joining Russia's Black Sea fleet. Photo: Getty Images.

A new Russian frigate, the Admiral Makarov, is prepared for joining Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Photo: Getty Images.

The NATO summit in Brussels on 11-12 July is likely to be highly political. The Atlantic alliance is increasingly polarised due to disagreements over burden-sharing arrangements, national contributions and transatlantic solidarity. But NATO members cannot let these disagreements get in the way of addressing the ‘Russian challenge’ – the increasing tensions with Moscow as the Kremlin explores the boundaries of escalation with the alliance and tried to destabilize it.

Prospects for improving relations with Moscow are minimal, especially in light of recent developments. The latest meeting of the NATO–Russia Council on 31 May (the first since October 2017) and the meeting between the chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, and the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, on 8 June achieved very little. Although a welcomed addition to the NATO architecture in Europe, the recent approval of the ‘Four Thirties’ plan, aimed at strengthening NATO troops and increasing combat-readiness, will further antagonize the Kremlin.

Since 2014, the alliance has adapted to focus on Russia’s actions in eastern Europe, notably in the Baltic region and in Poland. The agreements made during the NATO Warsaw summit of 2016, notably the ‘3Ds’ of ‘defence, deterrence, dialogue’, are sound and should be reinforced.

But strengthening NATO’s eastern flank is not enough. Little has been done to work out a coherent vision for how to protect NATO interests in the Arctic or in the Black Sea. This is worrying since Russia is emboldened in both regions, as seen through brinksmanship such as provocative air manoeuvring, an assertive force posture and constant military drilling.

The Arctic and the High North

In the Arctic and its broader neighbourhood, known as the High North, Russia is projecting military power and anticipates competition with Arctic countries as well as China. The Kremlin defined its Arctic strategy back in 2008 and named the High North a region of strategic importance in its 2017 naval doctrine.

Russia has been increasing its military footprint there since 2014, through force and equipment deployment – reopening military bases in northern Siberia and Novaya Zemlya, and on Franz-Josef Land – and more drills and patrols, including submarine activities. This has implications for trade routes and lines of communication between the Arctic and the North Atlantic.

NATO by contrast lacks any comparable strategy for the High North: its 2010 Strategic Concept does not even mention the region and discussions on the North Atlantic do not automatically include the High North. The creation of a new NATO North Atlantic Joint Force Command this February, without a proper Arctic angle, proves this point. Furthermore, the ‘GIUK gap’ (Greenland, Iceland and the UK), connecting the North Atlantic to the Arctic region, is often overlooked.

The Black Sea

In the Black Sea, Moscow has been militarizing Crimea since its annexation in 2014 and the peninsula has been transformed into a military fortress. Russia is deploying air defence coastal systems, surface vessels and strike aviation capabilities. NATO now has to deal with the unpalatable fact that members Romania and Bulgaria share de facto maritime borders with the Russian Federation.

The Kremlin is also counting on disunity between NATO members which border the Black Sea, especially Turkey and Bulgaria. Both are playing an ambiguous game with Russia and their disagreements are an obstacle to strengthening NATO’s Black Sea presence.

The most recent NATO deployment in October 2017 – a 4,000-strong multinational land, air and sea brigade-sized force based in Romania – has increased NATO’s presence on the Black Sea but falls short of being a genuine deterrent.


As NATO does not have a clear, united strategy for the Arctic or the Black Sea, both regions will face heightened risks as the Kremlin further builds up its military capabilities. These risks include restricted freedom of access and operation in this contested environment due to Russia’s strengthened air defence and interdiction capabilities.

The risk of miscalculation and tactical errors is also present. An unintended incident could spark disastrous military escalation between Moscow and the alliance.

Therefore, for the Brussels summit, NATO members should:

  • Place the Arctic and the Black Sea high on the agenda, as the security environment in both areas is becoming a weak point for the alliance. The aim should be to give both regions the same strategic weight as the eastern flank.
  • Systematically apply the ‘3Ds’ to the High North and the Black Sea. The Kremlin should not be led to believe that it has military superiority across these regions or that NATO’s access can be contested.
  • Develop NATO forces and capabilities to foster greater military mobility and situational awareness, including air policing missions, air and sea patrols and reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare activities, air defence capabilities and coastal defence systems.
  • Update the 2011 NATO maritime strategy according to recent developments and taking into consideration the risk of miscalculation.
  • For the Arctic, create a special Arctic task force either within NATO’s North Atlantic Council or as a stand-alone. Include non-NATO partners Finland and Sweden as well as relevant multilateral stakeholders such as the EU and the Arctic Council. Low tension in the region should remain a priority.
  • For the Black Sea, develop a stronger naval presence with Romania as a spearhead and attempt to get compliance from Turkey and Bulgaria.