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Why NATO isn't establishing an Arctic presence

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
NATO’s reluctance to create a direct presence in the Arctic shows that the general feeling in the region is one of cooperation, but on the Arctic’s periphery, there will still be moments of tension. Photo courtesy: Senior Airman Joshua Strang

DefenseNews has a thought-provoking analysis of NATO’s announcement in May that it had no plans to establish a direct presence in the Arctic. On May 6-7, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and ambassadors from the North Atlantic Council visited Bodø, Norway, where the Norwegian Armed Forces’ operational command center is located.

Rasmussen stated, “At this present time, NATO has no intention of raising its presence and activities in the High North.” Moscow was probably content with Rasmussen’s statement, as in 2010, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed, “The Arctic can manage fine without NATO.” Earlier this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov affirmed, “The situation in the Arctic is not complicated from the point of view of military units, which are not there (though some of our partners are trying to invite NATO) … We object to that. We believe that such a move would be a very bad signal to the militarization of the Arctic, even if NATO wants to just go there and get comfortable. Militarization of the Arctic should be avoided by all possible means” (Google Translate’s translation from a mail.ru article).

It’s interesting to note that Rasmussen uses the Norwegian term for describing the securitized space of the Arctic: the “High North.” Norway released its High North strategy in 2006 (PDF), making it somewhat ahead of the curve among countries in designing a security and foreign policy strategy for the Arctic. Rasmussen added, “The Arctic is a hard environment. It rewards cooperation, not confrontation, and I trust we will continue to see cooperation.”

To support his belief in the continuation of cooperation in the Arctic, Rasmussen pointed to the fact that four of the five Arctic littoral states are NATO members. The fifth Arctic littoral state, the one which is not in NATO, is Russia. Aside from a few instances, tensions have been relatively low between NATO and Russia in the Arctic thanks in large part to Norway’s efforts to enhance cooperation with its neighbor to the east. Norway’s High North strategy mentions Russia 79 times, showing the importance the country carries in Norwegian foreign policy. The first section of the strategy is “Deepening and renewal of cooperation with Russia.” By contrast, NATO is only mentioned twice, once in the context of Norway’s promotion of a “renewed focus on the Alliance’s core areas – including those in the north – based on long experience that a clear security policy creates stability and predictability for all parties.”

Rasmussen neglected to mention that Sweden and Finland are not in NATO. The security dimensions of the Arctic are more complicated than just NATO versus non-NATO, for even though they’re not in the military alliance, NATO members would surely come to the rescue of Sweden and Finland if Russia were to attack. These very issues were brought to the fore in March 2013, when Russian jets flew through the international airspace located between the Swedish islands of Oland and Gotland. Although Russian forces allegedly notified their Swedish counterparts in advance that the exercises would take place, the Swedish Air Force was incapable of scrambling any Gripen jets to ward off the Russian bombers. Danish planes based in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing station in Siauliai, Lithuania, stepped in instead, although they arrived too late. NATO air forces in Siauliai are generally meant to defend the airspace over the three former Soviet states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The fact that jets stationed in Lithuania had to defend Swedish airspace also shows the relatively interconnected nature of the Baltic Sea area and the Arctic.

Of course, it’s possible that Sweden could one day join NATO. Svenska Dagbladet reported that 32% of Swedes are in favor of joining NATO, up from 23% in 2011. But still, Swedes might be reluctant to join a military alliance though, since their country has been neutral since World War I. Sweden’s military has been downsized over the past years, with its budget being slashed. Compounding any reluctance to join NATO is a possible sense of complacency within Sweden. First, Defense Minister Karin Ekstrom stated in April to EUObserver, “If you really read it, the Lisbon Treaty says you must support your EU neighbours with all the necessary means.” Second, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt stated, ” The Russian military has neither the will nor the capacity to attack Swedish territory.” Norway is busy both beefing up defense in the north and increasing dialogue with Russia, while Sweden is noticeably less active in both areas. Sweden also has the benefit of Finland being sandwiched in between its eastern border and Russia – not that it stops jets from flying over. That doesn’t mean Swedes aren’t concerned, though. An article in the Russian newspaper Pravda explores the various worries expressed by the Swedish media, with Svenska Dagbladet asking, “Will there be war?”

NATO’s reluctance to create a direct presence in the Arctic shows that the general feeling in the region is one of cooperation, but on the Arctic’s periphery, there will still be moments of tension. Essentially, the episode in Sweden recalls the situations in 2009 and 2010 when Russian jets buzzed Canadian airspace. In these instances, however, fighter jets from the Alaskan NORAD Region and Canadian NORAD Region were able to intercept. Last year, Russian military officials were also welcomed into NORAD headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson during a simulated anti-terrorism exercise above the Arctic Circle, perhaps showing that relations are better in the Russian-North American space than in the Russian-Northern European arena.

Speaking to the lurking vestiges of the Cold War mentality on the borders of Russia, veterans of Russia’s Border Guard Service have erected an 8-million ruble (~$252,000) monument in Murmansk to the guards who defended the Kola Peninsula during World War II. The statue of the three towering bronze figures and a dog standing atop a pedestal that says, “Arctic Border Guards” was unveiled on Border Guards Day, celebrated nationwide on May 28. An article in Komsomolskaya Pravda opined, “It’s been 68 years since VE Day, and the guards are still protecting the northwestern borders of the country. After all, these days Murmansk region borders directly with the two countries -- Norway and Finland, and is a basis for the protection of sea borders Russia in the Arctic. By the way, the border between Russia and Norway is the oldest on the terms set. Of all our neighboring countries, Norway is the only one that is a member of NATO, the bloc that is still hostile to us. So the border guards have to keep the border closed.” (More excellent photos of the new statue are available here.) Thus, unfortunately for cooperation in the Arctic, at least some in the Russian media are still focusing on Norway’s military build-up and membership in NATO rather than the country’s more peaceful overtures.

Mia Bennett administers the Foreign Policy Association's Arctic Blog, and writes about Arctic issues for Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.