The Militarization Of The Arctic: Emerging Reality, Exaggeration And Distraction – Analysis


By Adam MacDonald*

With the end of the Cold War and the softening of a geopolitical lensing of the region, a new political paradigm emerged in the Arctic, based upon institutional frameworks supporting and facilitating cooperation on mutual interests and challenges.1 However, over the past decade, the Arctic potentially is once again at an inflection point with the pendulum swinging back towards a more strategic-military orientation. This is most evident by the augmenting presence, capability development, and employment of military forces by all Arctic-Five (A-5) states;2 a phenomenon characterized by some commentators as the ‘militarization’ of the Arctic.3 These analyses, however, are more of a detailed description and cataloguing of military activities, and they stop short of intensively investigating their underlying explanatory components. Instead, there is a simple narrative made that militarization stems from an emerging perception in the region that relations are becoming more confrontational and hostile, specifically over contested maritime exclusion zone claims. Opening accessibility and resource potential in the region, it is commonly argued, is driving the latest (and last) great scramble for sovereign control in the world.

The presence of military forces does not in and of itself necessarily signal a shift to more adversarial approaches in diplomacy. Moving beyond descriptive accounts, examination of the use and intentionality of military power in Arctic affairs reveals three distinct trends impacting the regional landscape. First, the increasing training, capability development, stationing and employment of military forces in the North are an emerging reality. Second, the current discourse with respect to the militarization of the Arctic exaggerates both the military build-up and the intentional underpinning of it. Power projection capabilities of the A-5 states remain limited beyond their own borders, and most training and exercise scenarios are focused within national boundaries developing a broad base of competencies. Furthermore, certain capability developments, although residing within the Arctic, have extra-regional causes. Third, as has been demonstrated by past events, the introduction of military forces into Arctic issues (regardless of their rationales) may alter relations onto a more competitive stance. In this respect, the larger geopolitical relationship between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – of which the other four A-5 states are members – must be carefully addressed to ensure military developments do not become a distraction to the continued functioning of the Arctic regional regime. This is particularly relevant within the context of degrading military relations between Moscow and NATO following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and ongoing turmoil in Eastern Ukraine, issues which may produce negative ripple effects impacting Arctic diplomacy and co-operation.4

In addressing these issues, forums, either within existing institutions or in new venues, need to be established. Their purpose is not to dissuade the use of military forces in the Arctic, as they are legitimate power resources, but to explain their political underpinnings and deter employment in regional disagreements. Managing the selective inclusion, not complete exclusion, of military aspects into the Arctic regime is warranted to support and not derail efforts that address the complex challenges confronting the region.

Emerging Reality

The Arctic is an augmenting strategic priority for the A-5 states. Over the last decade, all of them have promulgated multi-dimensional strategies that explicitly state that their primary (although not only) interest is exercising sovereignty over their northern territories and achieving other national security interests, including a stable regional order. Furthermore, some, such as the United States and Russia, have created Arctic-specific defence policies. It is evident from these documents that the military emphasis in the region will increase, although there is careful consideration to portray their presence and employment in non-confrontational terms.

Canada’s Northern Strategy, published in 2009, promises to put “…more boots on the Arctic Tundra, more ships in the water, and a better eye in the sky.”5 Recent Danish defence policies focus upon the changing geo-strategic significance of the Arctic and promulgate the establishment of a new Arctic military command headquartered in Nuuk, Greenland.6 Norway’s 2007 Soria Moria Declaration asserted that the Arctic is their strategic priority in national defence and led to the associated redeployment of most military headquarters from the south to the north of the country.7 Russia’s Arctic strategy emphasizes the region as the country’s primary area for natural resources by 2020, and the concomitant need for a strong regional military component.8 Finally, the United States, over the past year, has revamped both its Arctic and Arctic Defense policies with plans to become more active and to modernize certain capabilities, such as ice breakers.9

Stemming from these policy declarations, all A-5 states have increased their military training, capability development, and employment regionally. Of these, Russia has been the most active, resuming regional naval surface and air patrols in 2007-2008. Furthermore, the planting of the Russian flag at the bottom of the North Pole in 2007 not only stirred sensitivities over ownership of the Arctic, but it demonstrated Moscow’s capability advantages vice those of their neighbours. Russia conducted the region’s first ever amphibious assault as part of a larger military exercise in 2012 involving over 20,000 soldiers.10 In September 2013, a ten-ship naval armada made the 2000 nautical-mile journey via the Northern Sea Route from Severomorsk (home to the Russian Northern Fleet) east to the New Siberian Islands in support of refurbishing and opening old military facilities. Furthermore, there are plans to expand these projects to Russia’s other northern islands, including Franz Joseph Land and Novaya Zemlya. These developments signal a particular focus upon combat readiness and mobilization.11

Canada has been active on a number of fronts to augment its military presence and experience in the region as well. Since 2007, Canada has conducted annually Operation Nanook, a multi-service training exercise designed to protect and to exercise capabilities within its Arctic national borders. The continued development of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, although somewhat uncertain of particulars, is a new region-specific capability for the Canadian Navy.12 Plans for new surveillance systems, including satellites and underwater aspects, further demonstrate Ottawa’s determination to increase its monitoring of Arctic movements in its waters.13

Also contributing to the regional trend, Denmark has been building its capabilities in the construction and use of naval platforms. The Thetis, Absalon, and Ivar Huitfeldt class frigates are combat capable vessels which are increasingly being used to patrol Greenland’s waters. F-16 fighters have also been redeployed to Greenland, a first for the Danish military.14 Likewise, Norway has built a number of offshore vessels and frigates capable of being equipped with advanced combat systems, such as the American designed Aegis air-defence system on their Fridtjof Nansen class frigates. Oslo also hosts the bi-annual Exercise Cold Response, aimed at increasing operational and survival knowledge in the Arctic. The least active of these countries is the United States, which has largely avoided Arctic specific capability development, but the continued basing of F-22 aircraft in Alaska, and the ice breaking capable Seawolf and Virginia class nuclear attack submarines, provides Washington options in the region.15
Current Exaggeration of Arctic Militarization

The actual extent of capabilities and operations of military forces in the Arctic, while growing, is still limited largely to within the A-5 state borders.16 Even the much-hyped Russian armada in September 2013 occurred during ideal weather conditions, and close to shore.17 Furthermore, many military exercises, such as Nanook and Cold Response, occur in the summer months, due to the difficulties of conducting them in the weather extremes, which characterize much of the year.

Procurement and financing issues in building and maintaining such capabilities are also a limitation for some Arctic states. Developing regional expertise and experiences with respect to equipping, training, and stationing forces is a major challenge, and they compete with other military and spending priorities. For example, despite its triumphant tone, some of the procurement and military aspects outlined in Canada’s Northern Defence Strategy have not come to fruition, such as the building of a refueling station in Nanisivik. The Arctic offshore patrol vessels (AOPS) are running over time and budget, most likely implying a smaller number will be completed than originally forecasted, and with fewer capabilities,18 (although a contract was signed with Irving Shipbuilding in January 2015 to manufacture five-to-six AOPS at a total cost of $3.5 Billion – Ed.). Such budgetary restraints have been explicitly stated within the United States’ Arctic Defense Strategy, acknowledging that the current state of fiscal austerity combined with the American military ‘pivot’ to East Asia may derail their renewed strategic approach in the region.19 Even Russia, with steadily increasing military budgets, is faced with decades of infrastructure development in some of its harshest and neglected regions.20

Beyond capability gaps and challenges, militarization implies that military developments have come to dominate the regional discourse, driven by changing and augmenting threat perceptions that the future security environment will become more hostile. Such analyses give a parsimonious, mono-casual picture of the forces behind these issues, which are, in reality, varied and interlinked. The growing military focus upon the region by some A-5 states has more to do with the geographic positioning of the country than with an increasingly pessimistic view with respect to future regional cooperation. Norway and Russia have large portions of their states, including ample natural resources, residing in the Arctic, and thus it makes sense in part why they place military emphasis therein. Concerns remain on the part of Norway regarding Russian posturing in the region, but the 2010 agreement by the two settling their dispute over the Barents Sea demonstrates that positive political and legal action and compromise is possible, even in an environment where strategic suspicions exist.21

Further, the nature of some military exercises are not simply oriented towards developing combat capable forces, but in building and strengthening governmental capacities within these remote areas. For example, with respect to Canada, Operation Nanook conducted in 2013 was devoted to non-warfare scenarios, including evacuations due to natural disasters, coordinating missing person searches, and aviation disaster response. In these, the military operated in a largely constabulary and support role to other domestic agencies. Furthermore, the inclusion of other A-5 states in such exercises, the United States and Denmark in Operation Nanook, and numerous NATO countries in Cold Response, demonstrate a desire to coordinate Arctic knowledge and to develop common operating procedures.

Finally, some military developments in the Arctic are based upon larger, extra-regional factors. Having the United States and Russia in the region, given their wider strategic relationship, blurs the lines between developments which are Arctic specific vice those of a more global nature. For example, the placement of interceptor missiles in Alaska by Washington is not designed to counter some Arctic threat, but that of North Korea’s expanding nuclear missile arsenal. The rebuilding of Russia’s Northern Fleet, particularly its nuclear ballistic submarine component, while conducting operations in the Arctic is designed to upgrade Moscow’s largest Fleet for global operations and to shore up its nuclear deterrent.22 Also, the use of multi-role combat naval ships in the region by the smaller A-5 states – Canada, Denmark and Norway – may not be driven by an augmented security posture as much as by necessity, due to the limited availability of platforms. These nations do not have the luxury of regionally defined fleets, leading them to build and use multi-purpose vessels in a variety of global operational theatres.

A Detrimental Distraction

The only territorial dispute (not to be confused with maritime zone claims) ongoing in the Arctic is that of Hans Island between Canada and Denmark. For years, the debate over this barren rocky island with no population or economic resources was low key and non-threatening. All this changed in 2003 with the introduction of naval vessels by both sides to the island, alongside planting national flags and visits by senior government officials, which stifled relations and greatly antagonized the issue onto a zero-sum geopolitical grounding.23 A 2005 agreement was reached by Ottawa and Copenhagen in New York to cease the regular military visits to the island and to return to the status-quo: one of dispute, but now of low political importance.24 This is perhaps the greatest demonstration of the manner in which the introduction of military forces, regardless of the underlying intent, can generate hostility and tensions, creating a chain reaction of ‘tit-for-tat’ uses of military power greatly inflaming what was historically a non-issue between the two nations. Therefore, with the increasing presence of military forces in the region, the potential remains for them to become a detrimental distraction away from the needed regional cooperation and engagement to tackle the plethora of real and complex challenges at hand.

All A-5 states must continue to clearly define their rationale for the employment of military forces to the North, but it is the lack of clarity regarding Russia’s geopolitical perception which generates the most concern. A 2013 study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded the Russian military was not prepared to ‘repel aggression’ in the region.25 The unclear threat in this circumstance was further clouded when, a day after Canada submitted its official United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) exclusion zone claim (including the North Pole), President Putin ordered the Russian military to redouble its efforts in the Arctic, making the region a military priority.26 As a result of the timings of such a move, it is uncertain how Russia will incorporate and utilize its growing military power in the Arctic. Will it be employed for exercising authority and defence within its territories, or for supporting regional political and economic claims, perhaps in a confrontational manner?

Russian perceptions, however, also stem from their wider relationship with the United States and NATO. Moscow is concerned with respect to NATO’s growing interest in the region, especially since the other A-5 states are all alliance members. Therefore, individual, uncoordinated, and national specific military actions by them may be interpreted as a larger, intentional NATO strategy, altering the balance of power at the expense of Russia.27 NATO and its Arctic members must be mindful and empathetic to such strategic suspicion. Russia is an outlier in Arctic military cooperation, as the other A-5 members are increasingly working together via military exercises. In particular, Canada and Denmark, in the wake of the early-2000s flare-up over Hans Island, have developed a strong military connection with regular exercises, exchanges, and port visits between their navies and coast guard forces. However, even within NATO, there is disagreement with respect to the organization’s future involvement. Norway advocates it would positively contribute to regional security, but Canada is wary that non-Arctic members in the alliance would get an unfair voice in the region at the expense of the Arctic states.28

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and ongoing unrest in the Ukraine has cast a chill in military and strategic relations between Moscow and NATO, which threatens to spill over into the Arctic region. NATO states have committed military forces to Europe for training and ‘presence operation’ purposes, shoring up support for NATO’s Eastern European members wary of a more assertive and potentially militarily aggressive Russia. However, due to the geopolitical realities of European dependence upon Russia for natural gas, the intensity and commitment of these responses varies by NATO states, with Germany and France remaining largely mute on the matter, but Canada being the most vocally critical of the Putin regime. Further, NATO members are trying to determine whether territorial aggrandizement in Crimea is a product of regional specific factors, or a new direction in Russian foreign policy which may impact how Moscow conducts its Arctic affairs. Norway, for example, is increasingly calling upon NATO to focus and establish an alliance regional presence to counteract such a potentiality, but Canada remains concerned with respect to any NATO role in the region, coincidently congruent (but for different reasons) with Russia’s position. However, tensions in Canada-Russia relations may motivate Ottawa to reconsider such a stance.29

So far, the ‘ripple effect’ in strategic relations with Moscow has not dramatically impacted the Arctic regional regime, with member states publicly stating their desire to keep regional relations separate from others around the world. That said, Ottawa’s boycott of the April 2014 Arctic Council meeting in Moscow demonstrates how the region is not hermetically sealed from disputes and tensions with respect to other aspects of the Arctic states’ relations.30 It also remains unclear whether a NATO presence in the Arctic would stabilize or inflame relations, placing the region on a more confrontational military setting with extra-regional issues increasingly influencing Arctic policies and diplomacy.

The potential for security dilemmas and arms races in the Arctic is not only an academic observation, but one explicitly acknowledged by some of the regional actors, including the United States and Canada. In Washington’s Arctic Defense Strategy, for example, it states: “Being too aggressive in taking steps to address anticipated future security risks may create the conditions of mistrust and miscommunication under which such risks could materialize.”31 The universal agreement by the A-5 states that security matters exist in the region, and that military forces can be employed in part to address them, must be balanced by the challenges of how to use them in a manner which does not in and of itself cause unnecessary hostility and tensions, ultimately inhibiting the ability to address the issues they were originally designed to combat.

Inclusion, not Exclusion, of Military Issues

These military developments exist within an Arctic regime populated by institutional frameworks which have been emerging since the 1990s. Of these, the Arctic Council is the premier institute, bringing together all eight Arctic countries (the A-5 states plus Iceland, Finland and Sweden) along with a number of northern community groups, in establishing forums to address a number of transnational issues, such as: increasing economic activity and shipping; indigenous communities; mapping and surveying; and the overall sources and impact of climate change to the region. Security matters- specifically those pertaining to military developments – are barred from the institution’s mandate.32 However, the A-5 states have constructed other avenues over the past number of years to address some of these concerns.

The 2008 Ilusissat Declaration signed by all A-5 states proclaims the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the legal framework of the region and the instrument through which their conflicting exclusion zone claims shall be concluded and governed. Over the past decade, maritime disputes – including exclusion zone claims and the legal status of major transport routes – have augmented in priority for the A-5 states as the increasing accessibility and potential resource profitability motivates them to secure access and control to the furthest extent. As a result, competitive arenas, largely absent in the 1990s, are beginning to emerge. This is not surprising or unexpected, but the manner in which these competitions, including those conducted between close allies such as Canada and the United States over the status of the Northwest Passage unfold will have major ramifications to the wider regional relationship, especially since final adjudication on many of these issues will not be forthcoming any time soon.

The creation of the annual meeting of Northern Defence Chiefs in 2012, attended by senior military officers of the Arctic states, has to date been the most substantive endeavour to include military issues into the regional framework. However, these meetings, while discussing common security interests and solutions, avoid raising matters that are contested between the aforementioned states. There remains, therefore, the need to include, not just senior military officers, but political and defence officials to discuss the strategic and political dimensions driving their current policies and actions. Reforming existing or establishing new venues to create this diplomatic space would assist in easing misunderstandings and also create mechanisms to address tensions and uncertainties. Allowing members to voice strategic concerns, for example, Russian concern with respect to a greater NATO interest in the region, would contribute towards providing meaningful levels of security to all Arctic states.


The Arctic regional regime and its membership must create room for the inclusion, not exclusion, of military matters. Military forces are a valid and needed resource, particularly as they are possibly the only government organization with the capability to operate in the harsh regional environment and to provide services such as search and rescue and human and natural disaster assistance. The stationing and establishing of military units and centres may also be useful as logistics and transportation hubs, and could create much needed regional infrastructure which can be used for other purposes, such as for shipping.33

The inability or unwillingness to include and address military matters permits the danger that the augmenting use of military power, regardless of its original purpose, leads to the militarization of the region. To that end, the reasons for their employment changes from addressing national and transnational issues – search and rescue, maritime and aviation disasters, and possibly illegal activities, such as smuggling and terrorism – to that of responding to the military designs and initiatives of each other. It is not clear that it is changing threat perceptions which are driving current military developments, but it is accurate to predict that their increasing presence may result in changing threat perceptions if they are not addressed in an open, transparent, and reciprocal manner.

Explaining the presence of combat capable forces in the region, acknowledging extra-regional influences upon military developments, and deterring any use of naval and air patrols over contested exclusion zone claims are the most immediate military-diplomatic challenges which confront regional leaders. In the end, the overarching objective is to ensure that the regional security discourse is not dominated by traditional balance of power calculations, the territorialisation of the Arctic Ocean, and boasts of sovereign pride compromising the cooperative and multilateral approaches that have been established to address transnational issues, which demand a coordinated, region-wide response.

About the author:
*Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic regularly getting published in Canadian and international journals. His research interests include Canadian foreign and defence policy with respect to the Arctic and East Asia; political developments in Myanmar specifically pertaining to the military; and Chinese naval modernization. He lives and works in Halifax.

This article was published in the Canadian Military Journal Vol. 15, No 3.


  1. Adan P. MacDonald, “Deep Freeze or Warm Peace? Canada’s Arctic Strategy in a Changing Regional Regime,” in Canadian Naval Review, Winter 2012, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 4-9.
  2. The Arctic-Five (A-5) states are those which border the Arctic Ocean: Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States. These nations are the most active in the region in terms of military developments, and when combined with the various maritime dispute claims between them in the Arctic Ocean, these elements shall constitute the focus of this article. The three other Arctic countries – Iceland, Finland, and Sweden – that are full members of the Arctic Council (for they reside in part north of the Arctic Circle) do not border the Arctic Ocean and have no outstanding claims with any other Arctic state.
  3. Michael J. Cole, “Militarization of the Arctic Heats Up, Russia Takes the Lead,” in The Diplomat, 06 December 2013. Available at Accessed 10 January 2014; Abhijit Singh, “The Creeping Militarization of the Arctic,” in The Diplomat, 16 October 2013. Available at . Accessed 10 January 2014.
  4. Libby Leyden-Sussler, “Canada’s Arctic Council Protest: Ripple Effect?” in World Policy Journal, 07 May 2014. Available at . Accessed 10 July 2014.
  5. Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future: Canada’s Northern Strategy, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2009, p. 13.
  6. Siemon T Wezeman, “Military Capabilities in the Arctic,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, March 2012, p. 5. Available at Accessed 09 January 2014.
  7. Soria Moria Declaration on International Policy, Office of the Prime Minister of Norway, 02 February 2007. Available at Accessed 09 January 2014.
  8. John Drennan, “Russia’s Persistent Ambition,” in The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2013. Available at . Accessed 10 January 2014.
  9. Wezeman, p. 11.
  10. Singh.
  11. Drennan.
  12. Rob Huebert, “The Newly Emerging Arctic Security Environment,” The Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, March 2010, p. 7. Available at
    . Accessed 10 January 2014.
  13. Adam Lajeunesse, and Bill Carruthers, “The Ice Has Ears,” in Canadian Naval Review, Winter 2013, Vol.9, No.3, pp. 4-9; Wezeman, p. 3.
  14. Wezeman, p. 5.
  15. Huebert, pp. 10-19.
  16. Katarzyna Zysk, “The Evolving Arctic Security Environment: An Assessment,” in Russia in the Arctic, Stephen J. Blank (ed.), pp. 91-138. Available at Accessed 10 January 2014; Wezeman.
  17. Drennan.
  18. Eric Lerhe, “The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy: An update,” Canadian International Council, 2013, p. 5. Available at The_National_Shipbuilding_Procurement_Strategy_-_An_Update.pdf?1413683798 Accessed 09 January 2014.
  19. Arctic Strategy, United States Department of Defense, November 2013, p. 12.
  20. Drennan.
  21. Tore Henriksen and Geir Ulfstein, “Maritime Delimitation in the Arctic: The Barents Sea Treaty,” in Ocean Development & International Law, 2011, Vol.42, No.1, pp. 1-21.
  22. Huebert, p. 5; Wezeman, p. 14.
  23. Huebert, p. 11.
  24. “Canada, Denmark Agree to Resolve Dispute Over Arctic Island,” CBC News, 19 September 2005.
  25. Drennan.
  26. Stephan Blank, “Russia’s Arctic Policy: Between Commercialization and Militarization,” in Eurasia Daily Monitor , 2013, Vol. 10, No. 225; Thomas Grove, Russia’s Putin orders military complete Arctic plan by year end,” Reuters, 10 December 2013.
  27. Zysk, pp. 109-111; Nigel Chamberlain, “Increasing Military Activity in The Arctic,” in NATO Watch, 2013, Briefing Paper No. 32. Available at . Accessed 10 January 2014.
  28. Luke Coffey, “NATO in The Arctic: Challenges and Opportunities,” The Heritage Foundation, 22 July 2012. Available at Accessed 09 January 2014.
  29. John Ivison, “Crimea forcing Harper to rethink NATO, Arctic defence,” in The National Post, 17 March 2014. Available at Accessed 10 July 2014.
  30. Leyden-Sussler.
  31. Arctic Strategy, United States Department of Defense, p. 13.
  32. “Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council,” The Arctic Council, 19 September 1996, p. 1. Available at . Accessed 10 January 2014.
  33. Zysk, p. 110.

Canadian Military Journal

Canadian Military Journal is the official professional journal of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence. It is published quarterly under authority of the Minister of National Defence. Opinions expressed or implied in this publication are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Forces, Canadian Military Journal, or any agency of the Government of Canada. Crown copyright is retained.

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