NATO Summit 2016: Time for an Arctic Strategy

Report Global Politics

NATO Summit 2016: Time for an Arctic Strategy

June 16, 2016 5 min read Download Report

Authors: Luke Coffey and Daniel Kochis

The upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, offers an opportunity for the alliance to finally focus on a region it has long ignored: the Arctic. Economic, oil and gas, and shipping opportunities are increasing in the region—as are Russian military capabilities. Even so, NATO does not have an agreed Arctic strategy. The U.S. should use the July summit to place the Arctic firmly on NATO’s agenda and ensure that the alliance agrees on a common policy concerning the region’s security.

Strategically Important

The Arctic, commonly referred to as the High North, is a strategically important region. The possibility of decreasing ice coverage during the summer months, and advances in technology, mean that shipping, natural resource exploration, and tourism will bring an increase of economic activity.

Although the Arctic region has been an area of low conflict among the Arctic powers, NATO should consider the implications of Russia’s recent aggressive military behavior. NATO is a collective security organization designed to defend the territorial integrity of its members. Five NATO members (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the United States) are Arctic countries, and each has territory above the Arctic Circle. In addition, two closely allied nations (Finland and Sweden) also have Arctic territory.

Internally Divided

NATO has no agreed common position on its role in the Arctic region. The Wales Summit Declaration did not even mention the word Arctic, and neither does the alliance’s most recent Strategic Concept published in 2010.

NATO has been internally divided on the role that the alliance should play in the High North. Norway is the leading voice inside the alliance for promoting NATO’s role in the Arctic. It is the only country in the world that has its permanent military headquarters above the Arctic Circle, and it has invested extensively in Arctic defense capabilities.

Canada has likewise invested heavily in Arctic defense capabilities. However, unlike Norway, Canada has stymied past efforts to have NATO take a larger role in the region. Generally speaking, there is a concern inside Canada that an alliance role in the Arctic would afford non-Arctic NATO countries influence in an area where they otherwise would have none.

As a sovereign nation-state, Canada has a prerogative to determine what role, if any, NATO should play in Canada’s Arctic region. However, as a collective security alliance, NATO cannot ignore the Arctic altogether, and the alliance should not remain divided on the issue.

Russia: Militarizing the Arctic

While the Arctic region remains peaceful, Russia’s recent steps to militarize the Arctic, coupled with its bellicose behavior toward its neighbors, makes the Arctic a security concern. Russia’s Maritime Doctrine of Russian Federation 2020, adopted in July 2015, lists the Arctic as one of two focal points, the other being the Atlantic.[1]

Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is based in the Arctic, now counts for two-thirds of the Russian Navy. A new Arctic command was established in 2015 to coordinate all Russian military activities in the Arctic region.[2] Underwater, Russian submarines are operating at a rate not seen since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, stated in 2015 that the navy had ramped up submarine patrols by 50 percent from just 2013.[3]

Over the next few years, two new so-called Arctic brigades will be permanently based in the Arctic region, and Russian special forces have been training in the region. Soviet-era facilities have been re-opened; Russia is expected to have nine operative airfields in the Arctic by 2018.[4] Russia has reportedly also placed radar and S-300 missiles on the Arctic bases at Franz Joseph Land, New Siberian Islands, Novaya Zemlya, and Severnaya Zemlya.[5] Russia’s ultimate goal is to deploy a combined arms force in the Arctic by 2020, and this plan appears to be on track.[6] In early June, the Russian Navy showed off its first new icebreaker in 45 years.[7]

As an Arctic power, Russia’s military presence in the region is to be expected. However, it should be viewed with some caution in light of recent Russian aggression in its neighborhood. The former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, General Philip Breedlove, described Russian activity in the Arctic as “increasingly troubling,” stating: “Their increase in stationing military forces, building and reopening bases, and creating an Arctic military district—all to counter an imagined threat to their internationally undisputed territories—stands in stark contrast to the conduct of the seven other Arctic nations.”[8]

The Warsaw Summit and the Arctic

The July summit is the time to finally take seriously the need for the alliance to recognize the Arctic as a vital piece of the collective security puzzle. To become better focused on Arctic security, the U.S. and NATO should:

  • Officially acknowledge NATO’s role in the Arctic for the first time. The 2016 summit declaration should include a section devoted to the Arctic. This does not need to be a strategy, but it should acknowledge that the Arctic matters to the security of the alliance.
  • Work with allies to develop a NATO Arctic strategy. The alliance should agree at the Warsaw summit that it is time to develop a comprehensive Arctic policy to address security challenges in the region. This should be done in cooperation with non-NATO members Finland and Sweden.
  • Work with NATO’s non-Arctic members, such as the U.K. and the Baltic states, to promote an Arctic agenda. The U.K. takes an active interest in the Arctic. Geographically, the U.K. is the world’s closest non-Artic country to the Arctic Circle. The Baltic states work closely with the Nordic countries, which are Arctic powers. The U.S. should leverage its relationships with these countries to advance an Arctic agenda inside NATO.
  • Continue participating in training exercises in the region. Exercises above the Arctic Circle, such as Cold Response 2016, are vital to ensuring that the alliance is prepared to meet potential threats to Arctic security. The U.S. should also consider hosting NATO exercises in Alaska.
  • Call for the next NATO summit to be held above the Arctic Circle. This would bring immediate awareness of Arctic issues to the alliance. Perhaps the Norwegian city of Tromsø would be most appropriate.


An Afterthought, No More

In the Arctic, sovereignty equals security. Respecting national sovereignty in the Arctic would ensure that the chances of armed conflict in the region remain low. Since NATO is an intergovernmental alliance of sovereign nation-states built on the consensus of all of its members, it has a role to play in Arctic security. Ignoring the importance of the Arctic region for collective security is shortsighted. The U.S. should take the lead on rectifying this blank space, and drive forward a greater role for the alliance in the region. In addition, the military coordination and resources that NATO could contribute to the Arctic region would offer benefits beyond the alliance, such as increased search-and-rescue capabilities.

Without American leadership, NATO will remain mute in the Arctic. This is not good for the alliance or for the region.

—Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation, and Daniel Kochis is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Davis Institute.

[1] “Russia Revises Navy Doctrine,” Agence France-Presse, July 26, 2015, (accessed June 13, 2016).

[2] Dave Majumdar, “Russia to Standup New Arctic Command,” USNI News, February 18, 2014, (accessed March 27, 2015).

[3] Demetri Sevastopulo, “Russian Navy Presents US with Fresh Challenge,” Financial Times, November 2, 2015, (accessed June 14, 2016).

[4] Trude Pettersen, “Northern Fleet Gets Own Air Force, Air Defense Forces,” Barents Observer, February 1, 2016, (accessed June 13, 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] RIA Novosti, “Russian Commandos Train for Arctic Combat,” October 14, 2013, (accessed March 27, 2015).

[7] News release, “Russia Unveils New Navy Icebreaker in Arctic Military Focus,” Agence France-Presse, June 11, 2016, (accessed June 13, 2016).

[8] General Philip Breedlove, “U.S. European Command Posture Statement 2016,” testimony before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, February 25, 2016, (accessed June 10, 2016).


Luke Coffey
Luke Coffey

Former Director, Allison Center for Foreign Policy

Daniel Kochis
Daniel Kochis

Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom