‘NATOization’ Of The Arctic Theater: Implications Of Changing Nordic Strategy – Analysis
By K.M. Seethi
Finland’s accession to the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) is a significant game changer in European security architecture which has palpable implications for Arctic geopolitics and Nordic security. While Sweden’s application for NATO membership is pending—which can be expected any time this year—it’s almost certain that Russia will be left alone, in the Arctic Council, without the Atlantic Alliance’s security card.
Paradoxically, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, accelerated the process of NATOization—with Finland and Sweden applying for the Atlantic Alliance membership—with Moscow persistently arguing that Ukraine’s attempts to join NATO actually triggered the war. Perceptibly, Russia’s fear of NATO’s eastward expansion had a legitimate geopolitical dimension when the post-Soviet republics started joining the Atlantic Alliance, one after another.
In fact, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in 2014, was a natural fallout of this threat perception which continued to impact the security architecture of Europe. Today, amid the Ukraine war, the Nordic states—mainly Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland—seem determined to go beyond the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO), and thereby reinforce NATO’s strategy in the High North. This has obvious geopolitical consequences for the Arctic-Baltic regions and their security architecture.
Finland’s NATO membership has several strategic implications. First of all, it has a long border (nearly 810 miles) with Russia (stretching from the Baltic Sea up above the Arctic Circle), which means NATO has multiplied its frontier with its adversary in the east. The four NATO countries having a direct border with Russia are Norway (121 miles in the far north), Finland (810 miles in the east), Estonia (183 miles in the east), and Latvia (133 miles in the east). While Norway became a NATO member way back in 1949, Latvia and Estonia joined the Atlantic Alliance in 2004. Finland’s border with Russia is the longest of any NATO member.
For several decades since World War II, both Finland and Sweden sought to follow a neutral posture amid Cold War entanglements. Finland has also a history of subtly negotiating with its former entity. Being part of the erstwhile member of the Russian Empire (and, then, as a silent partner of the successor Soviet state), Finland was under the pulls and pressures of Moscow. However, while maintaining neutrality, Finland had to engage within the limits set by Moscow during the Cold War. Yet, as Erwan Lagadec at Georgetown University noted, “the USSR had a gun to Finland’s head.” Public opinion in Finland was also against joining any military alliances. Then, the Ukraine war changed the mindset of the people. The Finnish public opinion suddenly shifted in favour of joining the Atlantic Alliance, as surveys indicated.
When Finland (and Sweden) applied for NATO membership in 2022, there was a hitch. As per Article 10 of the founding Treaty, any decision on a new member is taken on the basis of consensus among all allies. Turkey and Hungary—NATO members—had reservations about Finland and Sweden, and Finland’s case was subsequently sorted out after the meeting of the Finnish President with his Turkish counterpart. Sweden’s membership will also be considered as soon as Turkey’s concerns about the Kurdish groups in the country, as also the anti-Islamic activities in Sweden, are addressed. However, even as Finland joined the Alliance, Sweden is already an official invitee and takes part in NATO’s deliberations. While the NATO membership has grown from 12 to 31, the Allied leaders expect that Sweden, Georgia, and Ukraine, which were engaged in “intensified dialogues with NATO” will sooner or later become members.
Even before joining NATO, Finland was a major non-ally partner of the Alliance. Now that the Finnish accession is a reality, Article 5 of the founding treaty becomes operational with a guarantee of mutual defence and protection: “an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all…” And it has a specific provision for collectively assisting such countries by taking action, including “the use of armed force” to restore and maintain peace. On 4 April, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that “Finland will be covered by NATO’s ironclad security guarantees.” He also noted that Finland’s accession showed the world that President Putin failed to “slam NATO’s door shut.” “Instead of less NATO, he has achieved the opposite; more NATO and our door remains firmly open,” Stoltenberg said.
NATO called upon all members to commit 2% of their GDP to their defence outlays, and Finland has already adhered to this stipulation. It maintains a huge well-trained army with high-level readiness and resilience. Its conscription-based reserves have reached almost 9,00,000 with a wartime strength of 2,80,000. Finland also has a huge civilian military infrastructure, developed as part of its comprehensive security strategy that could be put in place if contingency arises.
In fact, Finland’s Civilian Total Defense (which included strategic stockpiles and bomb shelters) was set up in the wake of the Soviet invasion during World War II and its usefulness has been tested in critical times. According to Robin Forsberg et al., “Finland’s artillery forces are the largest and best equipped in Western Europe and will be a key strategic asset to the Alliance. With some 1,500 artillery weapons, including 700 Howitzer guns, 700 heavy mortar, and 100 rocket launcher systems, the Finnish artillery has more artillery firepower than the combined militaries of Poland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden can currently muster.
Europe’s largest artillery training area, Rovajärvi, in Northern Finland, and other training areas offer NATO strategic military opportunities for capability training with plenty of artillery pieces, which still dominate the modern battlefield. NATO enlargement inherently creates more space to defend for the Alliance…” They noted, “As a member of NATO, Finland offers robust defenses for the Alliance in the northeast flank, notably in its proximity to St. Petersburg, the Baltic Sea, and the Arctic near Russia’s Kola Peninsula.” They also underline that “From a military strategy perspective, the additional geographical depth that Finland and Sweden create for regional defense is extremely valuable for all the Nordic countries, as well as for the Baltics.”
Conflicts in the Arctic theatre are likely to escalate even as the Arctic ice melts and major stakeholders in the region will continue to dominate. This might call for NATO’s intervention in the emerging strategic situation. Finland with its robust maritime industry would be a major player in the Arctic. Robin Forsberg et al. noted that “Finland is the world’s leading icebreaker designer, having designed some 80 percent of the world’s icebreakers, and is currently operating nine state-owned icebreakers. These icebreakers can carve paths through the cold, blistering winters with its thick ice in the regions surrounding the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean.
At present, NATO members only have a handful of icebreakers at their disposal, with most in Canada. In contrast, Russia has approximately 40 icebreakers, and China just obtained its second, this time domestically constructed, icebreaker. Finland’s specialized experience in icebreaking technology was born out of necessity — all of its ports freeze in winter months and approximately 90 percent of Finland’s imports and exports are via sea.” According to them, “With Finland’s impending NATO membership, its shipyards will no longer be seen only as a national treasure to Finns but as a vital boon to the Alliance of Arctic shipbuilding know-how and decades of engineering and operational experience. If a conflict emerges in the Arctic, NATO will be better equipped to address this challenging environment with the aid of Finland’s icebreaker fleet.”
Nordic states’ changing strategy, as Cem Demirci noted, “will provide NATO, and particularly the United States, with significant leverage against China and Russia.” The expansion of NATO to the Nordic region will certainly pose a major challenge to Moscow and its role in the High North, and thereby tilt the Arctic balance of power in favour of the Atlantic Alliance. The Arctic Council, though it excludes military security, will witness fresh strategic bargaining with Norway setting to take over the chairmanship of the Council in May this year. Currently, the activities of the Council are put on hold amid the Ukraine war even as Russia continued to be on the chair.
Significantly, NATO expansion will impact Russia’s hold in the Arctic region. The Kola Peninsula is, for example, strategically located in the far northwest of the country, jutting into the Arctic Ocean. It is home to Russia’s critical military infrastructure with several vital bases, airfields, and defence installations. What worries Moscow is its direct borders with Norway and Finland, the key members of NATO in the High North. Russia’s strategic interests in the Arctic are protected by its Northern Fleet of the Navy which is positioned in Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula. Moscow considers that the huge military infrastructure on the Kola Peninsula is vital to protect and reinforce Russia’s security interest in the Arctic. It’s because the region is rich in natural resources, with immense deposits of hydrocarbon reserves, including oil, natural gas, coal, and various metals and minerals.
Russia is very much sensitive about the Kola region’s economic opportunities and energy security, particularly due to the fact that it provides strategic access to the Northern Sea Route (NSR) which is a significant maritime shipping route connecting Europe and Asia through the Arctic region. With Finland joining the Atlantic Alliance, the region has become more vulnerable to NATO’s expanding interests in the High North. Way back in 2014, President Putin said in a meeting that “almost all facets of national security are concentrated here: military-political, economic, technological, environmental and resource.” During the same year, Moscow’s military policy, for the first time, underlined the significance of “safeguarding Russian interests in the Arctic.”
In response to Finland’s decision to join NATO, the Russian Ambassador to Belgium said that it was a strategic mistake as such a policy was fraught with the risk of a direct confrontation between nuclear powers. He said, “This course toward whipping up confrontation with our country has been adopted by all of NATO’s European countries. This is a strategic mistake, a policy, which, regrettably, adds to the threat of a direct conflict between nuclear powers,” he said in an interview. A Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the United States had long been “promoting everything that destroys European security” on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. “As a matter of fact, this is what has happened to Northern Europe,” she said, emphasizing that, for many years, these countries’ neutrality had guaranteed them an “aura of safety.” “The move to drag them into NATO has ended this era,” she pointed out.
A Russian military expert, Vladislav Shurygin, said that Russia is “resurrecting the Leningrad Military District. It will clearly encompass two theaters of potential combat operations, that is, Estonia and Finland. New military bases will be established along the border, which is going to be strengthened. The Baltic Fleet and its naval infantry units will be beefed up. As soon as Finland celebrates its NATO membership, it will become a target for our nuclear carriers based on route maps for our nuclear warheads,” he noted. These responses are clear indications of the shape of things emerging in the Arctic theatre.
Meanwhile, the United States is acutely aware of the geopolitical significance of the Arctic region and the Sino-Russian attempts to gain complete control over the NSR. So far NATO has been careful in countering the Russian strategy in the Arctic, but the continuing war in Ukraine might prompt the Alliance to go for a flip-flop in their strategy, particularly when the Russian President has taken an aggressive posture, including its nuclear strategy. The sudden shift in the regional balance of power will certainly impact on the dialogue process (with Moscow) on the Arctic governance. Many fear the situation may invite even military encounters in the Polar region.
This scenario is anticipated given the climate change in the Arctic, which may induce military escalation and a scramble for natural resource extraction. The warming in the Arctic is estimated to be three times the rate of the rest of the world, “causing rapid sea ice and permafrost melt.” This is particularly significant when Russia’s northern border embraces over half of the Arctic coastline. Washington, thus, sees the Sino-Russian collaboration in the Arctic as a new threat—with NSR being developed along Russia’s northern coastline and more and more economic and military activities getting underway.
Thus, the geopolitical implications of Nordic states’ accession to the Atlantic Alliance are clear enough. The most perilous terrain of this expanding role of NATO and Russia would be the Arctic theatre in the High North. The continuing war in Ukraine will only add fuel to the fire.
The author, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India.