6. Military Implications for Other Arctic States, NATO and its Partners
Security does not work in a vacuum, and it is today impossible to keep the Arctic isolated from the wider security context involving Russia and the West. In this regard, the Arctic is no longer exceptional.
For this reason, it is time to begin a more inclusive debate and set up a regulatory framework around military security in the Arctic. Arctic states need to address Arctic military affairs. Innovative efforts can be made to strengthen military security and domain awareness in the Arctic, without militarizing the region and while maintaining its ‘low tension’ status.
Dealing with the risk of miscalculation
The wider geopolitical context in terms of relations between Russia and the West has already spilled over into the Arctic and has affected security dialogue. As elsewhere, the atmosphere of mistrust and animosity fosters a lack of appetite for engagement, especially on security issues.
Sources of potential miscalculation are numerous. Russia’s perception of its own strength and superiority in the Arctic could embolden it and make it more assertive, heightening the risk of miscalculation and the potential for policy errors, whether in the soft security or military realms. The recent tightening of navigational conditions along the NSR, for instance, points to this possibility.
Increased human activity in Arctic waters will also undoubtedly lead to more incidents at sea and environmental accidents, which will require careful management to ensure they do not escalate. Conflicting seabed claims between Arctic nations, competition over energy exploration, legal and illegal fishing activities and other issues are further causes for concern. Even day-to-day activities such as routine patrols or the exercise of freedom of navigation can produce misunderstandings that could escalate into tension.
Arctic nations should be aware that more military activity, especially on Russia’s side, could result in the kind of geopolitical and security tensions involving Russia and the West that already exist in other theatres. If an incident spills over from one theatre to another, the Arctic must remain an area of ‘low tension’. To manage the risk of miscalculation, two priorities should prevail: re-engaging Russia and establishing a common military code of conduct for the Arctic.
Re-engaging Russia in the Arctic
The Arctic is a place where military confidence-building measures (CBMs) could be employed in order to maintain the region’s ‘low tension’ status and the sense of the Arctic as deserving of exceptionalism as a zone of peace. The format for such discussions, however, needs careful consideration. The Arctic Council is not equipped for military security discussions, and other existing formats are not quite fit for purpose. Short of a dedicated forum for military security discussions, the best existing format for such engagement is the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASRF).
The ASRF has been meeting since 2011. It includes the Arctic Eight as well as other interested countries such as the UK and France, but Russia has not attended since 2013. The ASRF is an important format where soft security and shared challenges are discussed. It is an important first step towards a regional security architecture, and is also the only format where hard security issues are actually addressed. Russia should be invited to return to this roundtable.
Efforts should concentrate on proving to the Kremlin that cooperation is in everybody’s interest, and that Russia will face the same negative security consequences of climate change as every other state. Regular Track 2 and Track 1.5 discussions on military security matters should be initiated. They should include low-level people-to-people interaction between officers of the Arctic Eight. Dialogue should focus on outlining where parties agree to differ, and a record should be kept of where progress has or has not been made. Bilateral CBMs between Russia and the other coastal states can also be encouraged.
The priority is to promote greater transparency in respect of regional military activity, especially naval deployments. In the event of a major disaster in the Arctic that requires interstate cooperation, civilian and coastguard response capabilities are likely to be overwhelmed, and military assets are therefore likely to be called into play to provide essential support. In such instances, military activity will de facto be present.
Arctic-specific military-to-military channels of communication must be established between regional forces, if only to coordinate during emergency response or critical SAR operations. Furthermore, information-sharing on military domain awareness in the context of the changing environment would be beneficial.
The priority is to promote greater transparency in respect of regional military activity, especially naval deployments.
Addressing the role of military forces in environmental response would strike a chord in Russia. Past efforts, such as the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) project, have proven useful. Moscow is active in the environmental aspect of Arctic cooperation, and Russian troops often take part in environmental clean-ups and mitigation of harmful oil spills.
Developing cooperation will take time, but such efforts are necessary to restore a modicum of trust between Arctic partners with regard to Russian military intentions. This cannot be achieved until a military code of conduct for the High North is defined.
A military code of conduct for the High North
There is an urgent need to define and enforce what should be legitimate and acceptable military practice in the Arctic among stakeholders. Similar conduct has been broadly defined in other areas, for instance in SAR and environmental cooperation, but the field of military security lags behind.
Clearly outlining the ‘rules of the road’ of military conduct would help to promote transparency and decrease the risk of miscalculation. It would also regulate irresponsible behaviour, brinkmanship-prone activities and dangerous military activities. Such a code should be signed by all states engaging in military activity in the Arctic, not just coastal states.
The goal is not to restrict freedom of navigation, peacetime operations or innocent passage. With confidence-building in mind, the code should determine what is considered intentional and unintentional military behaviour. Starting with defining what is unacceptable might be easier, for instance imposing clear restrictions on electromagnetic warfare in peacetime. Conducting GPS and radar jamming in peacetime, as Russia did during NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise, is highly detrimental to civilian aviation and maritime safety, and is prone to causing accidents. Such activity goes beyond what is legitimate in terms of military practice in the Arctic.
A military code of conduct could build on existing arrangements, notably the OSCE Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs). Another relevant consultancy mechanism is the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA), which regulates naval and air military interactions on a bilateral basis. In that regard, INCSEA-type instruments could be expanded to multilateral institutions such as NATO, while including Russia.
If the code of conduct embodies a moral obligation among respectable partners, there is no reason why it could not be enshrined at the level of the Arctic Council. The symbolic value of the document would not betray the spirit of ‘low tension’ associated with the Arctic Council. It would be in Russia’s interest to abide by such a code in order to preserve the ‘low tension’ environment in the Arctic, and to ensure compliance by all parties with international law in the cooperative spirit that the Kremlin values in Arctic affairs.
The Arctic from the perspective of NATO and its partners
In the current context, NATO is not the ideal forum for discussing military security affairs in the Arctic with Russia. The presence of NATO in the Arctic would militarize the region, which goes against the ‘low tension’ understanding, and would further feed the Kremlin’s ‘besieged fortress’ mentality.
However, this does not mean that NATO and its Nordic partners Sweden and Finland (NATO+2) should entirely stay away from military affairs in the Arctic. Keeping a watchful eye, maintaining and exercising capability, and increasing domain awareness are different from ‘militarizing’ the Arctic. NATO and its allies should act now to clear the debate about NATO’s role in the Arctic, as well as to broaden NATO’s overall awareness to issues beyond the North Atlantic.
The Arctic is not a single region in terms of national interests, and NATO+2 members have diverging, in cases even contradictory, ambitions in the region. Coastal allies and partners do not share a common vision of the essentials: Arctic leadership, an agreed definition of the area of operation, and the extent of Russia’s security challenge. These issues might build uncertainty over NATO’s ability to guarantee its commitments and to deploy beyond the North Atlantic. More clarity is needed, especially around NATO’s commitment in the European Arctic.
For now, Russia has been defining the future of military activities in the Arctic. It is time that the West and NATO caught up with Russia: the Kremlin cannot be left to believe it ‘owns’ Arctic military signalling. Nor should Russia believe that it can operate unhampered in a potentially contested environment.
Clearing the debate at NATO level
The creation of the Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFC-N) in 2017 showed that NATO is facing up to issues concerning the Arctic, and also to the complexity of the operational environment. The Alliance nevertheless remains constrained as to how far north it can look. A more holistic and proactive approach to the North Atlantic that includes the Arctic would be beneficial.
NATO engagement on Arctic matters can only start with small steps, such as placing the region on the agenda and carrying out an assessment of NATO’s role and approach there. This could start, for instance, with information-sharing arrangements on domain awareness and best practices in SAR activities among coastal states.
Further ahead, NATO should recognize that the Arctic is an integral part of North Atlantic operations. The idea for an ‘Arctic working group’ was initially pushed at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in 2017, notably with Russia and China in mind. This initiative should be encouraged and deepened: the idea would be to develop policy aimed at addressing common security challenges in the region, as well as at articulating Arctic-specific concepts of operation. Discussions should systematically include Sweden and Finland as Arctic stakeholders, alongside interested members such as the UK and the Baltic states.
For now, Russia has been defining the future of military activities in the Arctic. It is time that the West and NATO caught up with Russia: the Kremlin cannot be left to believe it ‘owns’ Arctic military signalling.
Beyond NATO+2, Arctic nations should be encouraged to strengthen regional defence and military cooperation under the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) framework involving Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. This was established in 2009 as a defence cooperation structure. A new level of cooperation was defined in 2018, notably for intelligence-sharing and defence-sector cooperation. NORDEFCO’s Vision 2025 insisted on improving defence capabilities and military cooperation.
NATO and its partners require a posture that is credible beyond the North Atlantic, as well as the capabilities to prove this posture and to deliver the necessary signalling. Indeed, Russia is increasing the gap with NATO in terms of Arctic operations and capabilities. The more time passes, the more effort it will take NATO to close this gap. A readjustment might be necessary now before the cost of entry to Arctic operations becomes too high.
Maintaining the Arctic’s ‘low tension’ status will require a balancing act on the part of NATO. The Alliance will need to pay a sufficient amount of watchful attention to the region, but without establishing a direct military presence. Such a process will necessarily start with allowing naval access to and beyond the North Atlantic for reinforcements, as well as ensuring freedom of operation in a contested environment. This will include improving the Alliance’s ‘comprehensive situational awareness’ in terms of domain awareness capabilities such as radar and air surveillance/ISR systems, early-warning systems, and radio communication and satellite coverage. The process could be streamlined through the creation of an Arctic surveillance and domain awareness Centre of Excellence (CoE), which could be located in Iceland or Norway.
More domain awareness will improve the security of the GIUK gap and North Atlantic SLOC. The JFC-N serves primarily to keep SLOC open in the North Atlantic for reinforcements and resupplies in the Baltic. If NATO troops were to operate in a contested environment where freedom of manoeuvre were not guaranteed along SLOC, the prospect of being forced into Arctic waters (specifically, the Norwegian Sea and Baltic Sea) would have to be considered in contingency planning.
Closer liaison between JFC-N and the Danish Joint Arctic Command, located in Nuuk in Greenland, would benefit the protection of SLOC, although domain awareness systems would have to be tremendously improved. Greater coordination should be sought between NATO and the Northern Group, as it is now focusing on military mobility and situational awareness.
It might help to invest in Arctic-capable military assets and infrastructure, although this would be a costly endeavour. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is a good place to start, since NATO lacks capabilities, concepts of operation and practice in that domain. This could help with conducting air policing operations ‘with teeth’ to ascertain an awareness beyond the GIUK gap.
Investing in underwater listening posts in the Norwegian Sea to monitor the movement of submarines could be a way forward. During the Cold War, underwater listening operations took place between Andøya in northern Norway and Bear Island in Svalbard under the US Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), since renamed the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS).
Finally, NATO should take stock of existing capabilities and bases in the UK, Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Denmark in order to rationalize defence spending according to existing infrastructure and know-how. For instance, the UK has clear comparative advantages in keeping SLOC open in the North Atlantic. Finland has been participating actively in joint regional situational awareness with NATO, and possesses expertise in that field.
Russian troops have been training for Arctic conditions since at least 2015, have developed specific concepts of operations and maintain high levels of preparedness. Meanwhile, Trident Juncture 2018 revealed logistical and coordination issues in operations on the Northern Flank of the Alliance. NATO+2 should streamline its efforts, while keeping in mind that NATO should train for Arctic conditions but should avoid conducting drills in the Arctic. A more visible NATO presence would fuel Russia’s rhetoric that NATO is indeed getting closer.
The Alliance should focus more on conducting operations in extreme cold-weather environments. Existing endeavours, such as the Centre of Excellence for Cold Weather Operations (CoE-CWO) in Norway, or US troops training for cold weather in Finland, should be supported and broadened.
The UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) could be trained and organized as a fully Arctic-capable spearhead force in support of NATO operations on the Northern Flank. JEF took part in Trident Juncture 2018, and most of the nine participating countries were Arctic (and Baltic) nations. JEF should be made a permanent standing force as part of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), while ensuring the continued presence of Sweden and Finland therein.