NATO in the Arctic

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will be celebrating its 75th birthday in 2024 and its role is more relevant than ever. NATO has a vested interest in the Arctic through its members: Denmark, Iceland, and Norway are three of the eleven founding members of NATO. They have a special arrangement: no permanent military bases, no nuclear warheads, and no uninvited military exercises in their territories. The USAF Thule airbase in Greenland is an exception allowed by Denmark.

Finland and Sweden applied for full NATO membership following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. Twenty-eight of thirty NATO members have ratified their applications, while Turkey and Hungary have complicated and delayed the process for domestic political reasons.

Last week the new Chair of the NATO Military Committee, Admiral Bauer of the Netherlands, was in Iceland for the Arctic Circle Assembly. While there he pointed out that when Finland and Sweden finish their application process, all Arctic nations except Russia will be members.

In August, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote an op-ed for Canada’s Globe and Mail reiterating the importance of the region to the alliance, and reminding us that “Two of NATO’s largest exercises in recent years – Trident Juncture and Cold Response – were in the High North.” The same month he told Germany’s Welt am Sonntag “NATO must increase its presence in the Arctic.”

Russia’s earlier hostilities in Ukraine in 2014 sharpened NATO’s realization that new investments and arrangements in the Arctic are necessary to counter Chinese and Russian ambitions in the region. In 2019 an article in NATO Review was explicit about the fact that while “for the past couple of decades, the Arctic had been viewed as an area of ‘high north, low tension’, events in 2019 were “a series of unpleasant wake-up calls about security in the region.”

This hawkish evolution has been evident in the analyst community as well. David Auerswald penned a 2020 article in War on the Rocks titled NATO in the Arctic: Keep Its Role Limited, For Now. Fast-forward to 2021 and his next installment, A US Security Strategy for the Arctic, definitely took a more assertive tone.

The current attitude is summed up well by Timothy Perry in a July 2022 article in The Hill: “traditional objections to NATO’s involvement in the Arctic have begun to lose their appeal. It is said that NATO leaders have shied from Arctic affairs to avoid provoking Russia in what historically has been a quiescent region. But the Arctic is no longer quiescent; it is stirring. And a measured NATO presence can be no more provocative than Sweden and Finland’s accession to the alliance. The greater risk, history tells us, is failing to deter Russian maximalism.”


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