Security Challenges in the Arctic and their Implications for NATO

Gesprächskreis Transatlantische Beziehungen: Sicherheitspolitische Konsequenzen des Wandels in der Arktis

27/10/2016 | 08:30 - 10:00 | DGAP Berlin | Invitation only

Permanent Discussion Group

Category: Arctic, NATO

The impact of climate change on the Arctic as well as the strained relations between Russia and NATO make a reevaluation of Arctic security necessary. The participants of the Transatlantic Roundtable discussed how the Alliance could and should respond to developments in the region.

Heather A. Conley emphasized a lack of international institutions in which security challenges in the Arctic could be discussed. She noted a reluctance to talk about security issues in the Arctic due to a traditional conceptualization of the region as a space of cooperation immune to geopolitical tension. However, recent geostrategic developments would make such a dialogue necessary.

She characterized Russia as an Arctic ‘superpower’ that gradually increases its foothold in the region: Moscow’s plans to have 50 operational Arctic airfields by 2020, it is beefing-up the Russian special-forces’ presence in the region, it has created an Arctic Command in 2014. Furthermore, adjustments to Russia’s military and naval doctrines that define the Arctic as a strategically important region would highlight the new priority of the Arctic for Russia. Russian politicians would increasingly include the Arctic in their nationalistic narratives. Adding to this, the Kremlin has staged major military exercises in the last three years that exceeded NATO activity – Conley emphasized the unannounced March 2015 snap-exercise in the Arctic. She also stressed the fact that many of Russia’s exercises include nuclear capabilities. In total, investments in missile and submarine technology would be of concern due to their role in strengthening Russia’s nuclear posture. Generally, Moscow was said to be developing an A2AD-arc aimed at NATO that spans from the Kola Peninsula in the north to Russia’s Tartus base in Syria.

The U.S. awareness of its own Arctic role was claimed to be underdeveloped. Conley advised that the consequences of receding ice and Russian military activities required a heightened awareness. The latter raising questions on Moscow’s intentions, because their extent could not solely be explained by rising needs in light of climatic changes. NATO should increase its focus on the North Atlantic area and reemphasize traditional tasks such as reinforcement strategies to ensure maritime access. The Arctic – not discussed in the North Atlantic Council so far – should become a topic. According to Conley, the Alliance should exercise in the north, the Trident Juncture 2018 drills in Norway being a good (but temporally distant) step in this direction.

In response, Jonas Kassow commented that NATO planned to include a paragraph on the Arctic at its 2009 Summit in Strasbourg and Kehl, an undertaking reportedly blocked by Canada. Kassow did not expect the Trudeau Government to change course. Recently, Canada would have emphasized cooperation with Russia in the Arctic. Ottawa would hardly endanger its rapprochement by agreeing to a higher NATO presence in the Arctic. Norway, the leading advocate for an Arctic role of NATO, was also reported to be able to strike deals with Moscow in the Arctic, as would be evident in the prospective agreement on joint seismic mapping in the Barents Sea. Kassow concurred that Russian military activity created uncertainty. Moscow’s actions would cast doubt on President Putin’s accommodative rhetoric regarding the Arctic. According to Kassow, one could speculate whether a need for exchange with the West in the realm of research and technologies for Arctic resource extraction is behind Putin’s cooperative narrative.

The discussion placed Russian motivations in the spotlight. The impact of receding ice on border security would make an increased Russian emphasis on this sector understandable. A strong role of Russia’s military-industrial-complex in resource extraction and an emphasis on developing infrastructure to support the Northern Sea Route (NSR) would also be explainable through the changes in the region. However, the overall extent of Russia’s military activity would surpass these aforementioned needs. Nevertheless, participants cautioned against the use of polemic rhetoric on Arctic security threats. For states with large Arctic populations, issues of quality of live and accessibility, forgotten in the geostrategic discussion, would be in the foreground. This could explain Canada’s support of the non-discussion of security at the Arctic Council, as such debates may put the body’s functioning at risk. Regarding the rising number of applicants for observer status, a trade-off was said to be evident. While an increase in observers at the Arctic Council would account for the global importance of the region and could reduce Russia’s influence, it could also damage the effectiveness of the institution.

Regarding institutions to discuss security issues, the creation of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum was praised as a US signal of cooperation to Russia. Venues such as the European Security Roundtable or the Arctic Chief of Defense Meeting were said to be of little substance. The Arctic Security Forces Roundtable was seen as promising for the discussion of security issues in the region if Russia were to rejoin it.

The economic potential of the Arctic for Russia was also discussed. Traffic on the NSR was described as low and China was said to be focusing on the tariff-free Transpolar Sea Route. Russian investments in icebreaking capabilities could reportedly prove unlucrative due to a trend toward ice-strengthened ships. In light of low traffic, the lack of consensus over the territorial status of the NSR would not be a pressing issue. In terms of energy extraction, sanctions would have made long-term financing difficult. Moscow would be looking to China, and other potential investors, but Sino-Russian cooperation was said neither to be proceeding at the pace nor under the conditions expected in Moscow. In light of current oil prices, offshore extraction would not be economically sustainable. However, Russia was deemed to be taking a long-term view. Finally, there was concern that Russia may be running higher environmental risks in oil extraction in light of Western sanctions on technology. The Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society and limitations in the granting of access to US scientists were also reported to have limited Washington’s ability to assist Russia in managing the consequences of climate change, e.g. with regard to its impact on permafrost.

Heather A. Conley is the Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jonas Kassow is a Program Officer with DGAP’s Program on USA/Transatlantic Relations. Dr. Henning Riecke, Head of DGAP’s Program on USA/Transatlantic Relations, chaired the discussion with 20 participants. The event was supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

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