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Governments who operate according to different standards are seeking to exploit opportunities in order to impose their own set of values on the future development and governance of the Arctic region.

Writing an article about NATO’s northern approaches and how to protect the Arctic seems an almost impossible task given the ever-increasing interest in the region. For the sake of simplicity, I will define NATO’s northern regions as the Arctic, comprising those countries possessing a legal right to the territory or those who simply have an interest in the region based on security reasons. In the NATO context, this means Norway, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Canada and the United States. But there are other countries who also share an interest, either for security or economic reasons and these are Russia and China.

The Ambassadors

The US Ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands, penned an article earlier in the year about the Arctic, entitled: “Wake Up to the Arctic’s Importance”. She wrote that the majestic landscape of the Arctic – from the snow-capped peaks of the Brooks Range in Alaska to the vast Greenland Ice Sheet – creates the impression of permanence and timelessness. But she added that with new sea lanes opening and milder inland climates, the Arctic’s landscape is rapidly changing. There is much truth in this and the United States is not alone in holding this view.

But for Denmark, another ambassador holds equal importance as Carla Sands and perhaps even more so, at least from a historical perspective. I am referring to the Danish ambassador to the United States during the Second World War, Henrik Kauffmann. He acted independently from the government in Copenhagen during that period as he claimed that the Danish government was not acting freely since Denmark was occupied. In April 1941, he signed an agreement granting the United States certain rights in Greenland which Washington required in order to secure its defence. According to Article X of that agreement:

This agreement shall remain in force until it is agreed that the present dangers to the peace and security of the American Continent have passed.

In one fell swoop, and without any discussion, the United States became an Arctic nation. The Arctic security environment does indeed have direct implications for US national security interests and in 1951, the 1941 agreement was superseded by the agreement; “Defence of Greenland: Agreement Between the United States and the Kingdom of Denmark, April 27, 1951.” This agreement remains in force.

The Geography

Geographically, the Arctic comprises the northern approaches of the United States and represents a potential vector both for attacks on US soil and for US power projection.

Approaches to the Arctic Ocean to both the east and west of the United States form strategic corridors for maritime traffic. Arctic sea routes transit through the Bering Strait between the United States and Russia, while the so-called Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom – Norwegian (GIUK-N) gap represents a strategic corridor for naval operations between the Arctic and the North Atlantic.


Historically, the Arctic region, and the issue of who it belongs to, has long been a source of debate and contention. In 1933, Norway and Denmark agreed to settle their dispute over Eastern Greenland in what became known as the “Greenland Case” at the Permanent Court of International Justice in The Hague. Norway lost the case and following the ruling, abandoned its claim. In the context of this ruling, it was also mentioned that if one wants to enjoy legitimacy and exercise effective control over an area, then one has to be visible.

In 1941, the so-called “Northeast Greenland Sledge Patrol” was established, before changing its name to “The Sirius Patrol” in 1952.

Today the Danish Joint Arctic Command is headquartered in Nuuk, Greenland, with a Liaison Unit based in Torshavn on the Faroe Islands. Its main tasks include surveillance and enforcement of Denmark’s sovereignty and the defence of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Other tasks undertaken include the inspection of fishing vessels, Search and Rescue, maritime pollution prevention, hydrographic surveys, and miscellaneous support for civilian society.


The discussions about the region have intensified now that climate change is having a serious impact on resource obtainability in the Arctic Ocean and the navigability of the northern passages. Of the eight countries lying within the Arctic Circle – Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States (Alaska) – only the US has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, the US regards UNCLOS as customary law and as such, abides by it. According to UNCLOS, countries can claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which grants the state exclusive rights to the natural resources in the area. The EEZ area ranges up to 200 nautical miles but can be extended up to 350 nautical miles in the case of a natural prolongation of the territory on a so-called continental shelf. The most recent claim by Denmark overlaps with the claims by Russia and Canada, which can be a potential source of conflict.

Economy Viability

There is much debate about how soon the melting Arctic ice is transforming the centuries old idea of the northern passages into an economically viable reality. Even though the Northeast Passage (NEP, the sea route north of Russia) makes the route from Rotterdam to Yokohama up to 37% shorter compared to the Suez Canal route, it is unclear whether the route will be economically attractive any time soon.

A US submarine breaking through Arctic ice. With the 1941 Greenland Agreement, the US became an Arctic nation. (Photo: Bundeswehr)

There are several challenges when it comes to the NEP. First, the ‘just-in-time’ principle of global supply chains is at odds with the unpredictability of the NEP. Second, and somewhat surprisingly, the Suez Canal allows for the passage of larger ships than the coastal part of the NEP due to its shallowness. The route for bigger ships lies more to the north, where more sea ice is present. The third challenge is the lack of intermediate ports. Container ships rarely sail from one port to another; the Suez Canal route from Rotterdam to Yokohama passes many large ports on the way, where cargo can be dropped off and picked up and where maintenance and support are possible. Fourth, is the need to make ships ‘Arctic-ready’ in terms of equipment and crew. Currently, there are Russian icebreakers and Russian pilots for hire to help navigate ships through the NEP, incurring additional costs for shipping companies. Not surprisingly, Russia is building new icebreakers.

The White House has ordered a review of America’s ageing and small Coast Guard icebreaker fleet. In the meantime, the Coast Guard is currently planning to build six new icebreakers to substantially increase the size of its fleet, but this review could actually mean even more ships being ordered.

The economic feasibility therefore depends on the navigation time through the NEP, Russian fees, and fuel prices. While the opening up of the northern passage will slowly be realised, it is improbable that it will become a major game changer in the period up to 2030-35. The NEP has historically been a Russian internal waterway and for practical purposes it is likely to remain as such for at least the coming decade.

Strategic Challenges

Even though it is unlikely that the Arctic will become a vital maritime highway in the period up to 2030-35, it is still important to monitor developments in the region. As maritime traffic develops, the first challenge will be the search and rescue capacity, since the current infrastructure is not up to the task. This issue will primarily be the responsibility of the littoral Arctic nations.

A more strategic challenge lies in the classification of the waterways. Canada and Russia both argue that the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage respectively are internal waters according to the UNCLOS framework. Designating these areas internal waters will give the respective countries full sovereignty over the area, which allows for the control of transiting vessels. As a case in point, in December 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law providing the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom control over traffic and infrastructure in the Russian part of the Arctic. All foreign vessels that wish to enter and navigate the water area of the Northern Sea Route are now required to obtain prior permission.


Different observers note that the prospects for conflict over the Arctic region remain limited. First, the Arctic is governed by eight countries, of which six are littoral Arctic nations. Except for Russia, all littoral Arctic countries are NATO allies and are organised in the Arctic Council, a body dealing with the governance of the Arctic, though with the explicit exclusion of military security. Second, the countries involved are all wealthy and politically stable countries (again, with Russia being something of an outlier), thereby likely posing a lesser challenge to resource governance. Third, almost all natural resources lie within internationally accepted borders, meaning that conflict over these resources is unlikely. Lastly, history has shown that Arctic disputes have so far been resolved through diplomacy rather than through military means. The resolution of the longstanding border dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea is one such example. The greatest risk for unrest in this area lies instead in the fact that confrontation between Russia and NATO elsewhere might spill over to the Arctic.

The Arctic Council

The establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996 among the eight Arctic states – Denmark, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States – was a landmark accomplishment that continues to serve its members well by providing a multilateral forum for shared, peaceful, governance. Because of the Arctic Council, the eight Arctic countries have largely respected each other’s sovereign interests in the region.

Danish military forces patrolling Greenland with a dog sledge (Photo: via author)

International agreements on scientific research, maritime traffic, search and rescue, and environmental protection are all concrete examples of successful “low tension” regional cooperation. But changes in the Arctic’s physical environment are presenting new and complex opportunities and challenges. In this context, it should be noted that Russia is acting according to the rules established by the Arctic Council and therefore all other nations in the Arctic Council are sensitive about implementing changes that might upset the balance and disrupt the current Rules of Engagement.


While Greenland stands on the cusp of a new era of productivity, governments who operate according to different standards are currently seeking to exploit opportunities to bring their own set of values to the future development and governance of the region. As an Arctic nation, and a longstanding partner, the United States wants nothing more than to see Greenland and the greater Arctic region prosper, but this development cannot be at the expense of regional safety, security, or sustainability. Russia’s pattern of aggressive behaviour and increasing militarisation in the Arctic is a looming global concern, despite the fact that Moscow abides by the existing rules, as established by the Council. It has restored many of its Cold War-era bases, established a new Arctic command, created four new Arctic brigades, refurbished old airfields and other infrastructure in the Arctic including deep-water ports, and established new military bases along its Arctic coastline.

In 2018, Russia opened an Arctic airfield at Nagurskoye able to accommodate bombers capable of reaching the Thule Air Base in northwest Greenland with little to no warning.

Furthermore, Russia is currently expanding the base’s 2,500m runway up to 3,500m, far longer than the length required for defensive fighters. These investments in new military capabilities reveal Russia’s growing ambitions that challenge the West’s shared goal of a peaceful, prosperous region.

The People’s Republic of China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) self-identifies as a “near Arctic state” despite a distance of nearly 1,500km separating the country from the region. The PRC is trying to insert itself into the region because it sees the Arctic as another place to advance its predatory economic interests and project its government’s values. It is attempting to gain a physical foothold in the region by building icebreakers, including working on a nuclear-powered icebreaker, deploying unmanned ice stations, and engaging in large and sophisticated data collection efforts in countries throughout the region, including the United States, Canada, Iceland, and the territory of Greenland.

According to its 2018 White Paper “China’s Arctic Policy”, the PRC seeks to establish a “Polar Silk Road” by developing Arctic shipping routes. This presence could enable the PRC to project its government’s values and advance its self-serving economic interests. The PRC is also trying to seize the region’s valuable resources by pursuing dual use, civilian-military infrastructure and securing mining licences for several mineral deposits throughout the region, including uranium and other rare-earth minerals. This is also known as “dollar-diplomacy” whereby PRC pours money into indebted countries, thereby providing the PRC with newly gained leverage.

According to John Bolton, former security advisor in the White House, this PRC policy was the reason behind President Trump’s offer to buy Greenland in 2019. After this went public, intensive diplomatic activity between the United States and Denmark took place resulting in the reopening of the US consulate in Nuuk in June 2020. The consulate will serve as the primary platform for increasing daily interaction between United States, the people of Greenland, and the Danish Joint Arctic Command.

Arctic War Theatre

When trying to envisage the Arctic war theatre, it is important to consider that the Arctic’s huge sea territories are mostly inaccessible during its harsh winters. The infrastructure is scarce, except in parts of the Kola Peninsula and it is difficult to launch operations.

There are two probable Russian priorities when looking at the Arctic as a potential war theatre. The first is sea control actions in the Barents Sea, to support strategic nuclear missile armed submarines (SSBN) and sea denial actions in the Atlantic. Second, if a war escalates to exchanges of intercontinental ballistic missiles, a Russian priority in the Arctic will probably be situational awareness and missile defence, from its radar stations and airstrips in the region.

Russian Assets

In a war against NATO, Russia would face the naval forces of a peer adversary, above, on, and under the surface. In order to support the six available SSBNs, the ambition of the Russian Northern Fleet would probably be to undertake sea control actions in the Barents Sea, with surface ships, naval aviation, and attack submarines, plus some 200 stand-off missiles for sea targets, 30 of them land-based, with 40 on surface ships and 50 air-launched. The remaining assets, mainly submarines with some 90 sea-target standoff missiles, would probably deploy on sea denial actions against trans-Atlantic sea transports to Europe or along the Northern Sea route. Limited infrastructure, one double-tracked railway only, possibly reduces reinforcements for a land operation against northern Scandinavia. The assessment is that the available forces for battles and standoff strike assets, bases, and transport infrastructure make the Arctic war theatre less suitable for a regional war. The emphasis will be on naval actions. In a regional war with NATO, the Arctic is vital for the naval component of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Challenges for NATO

However unlikely a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO might seem, it cannot be dismissed out of hand. But if a confrontation or crisis did break out in another region, then the North Atlantic and Arctic theatres could be involved. In this case, the ongoing Russian military build-up in the Arctic creates some challenges for NATO.

First, in a crisis, or in the event of a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO, the US and Canada would need to use the North Atlantic in order to move troops and military materiel to the European continent. Russian submarines, operating in the North Atlantic, would look to counter this while there is also the possibility they could cut transatlantic communication cables on the seabed. To reach the North Atlantic however, Russian submarines would need to navigate the seas between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom, the so-called Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap (the GIUK gap). The GIUK gap acts as a bottleneck where it is easiest to track Russian submarines.

Secondly, in a crisis, or in the event of a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO, Russia could threaten North America (and Europe) with submarine-launched nuclear strikes, land-based missiles, and bombers. Russian strategic submarines would use the EEZ control zone to launch missiles undisturbed. Russia might also use its position in the Arctic to weaken the United States missile defence system by attacking the land-based radars, so crucial for the system’s early warning capability. As an example, and as mentioned above, would it be possible for Russian fighter bombers, with an aerial refuelling capacity, to reach the Thule radar in northwestern Greenland from the Nagurskoye Air Base in Franz Josef Land?

Furthermore, Russia might opt to occupy the territory of the NATO northern states in a crisis or in the event of a direct military confrontation. The Russian EEZ control zone and Russia’s military in the Arctic could be used for military operations on the ground against the Nordic countries, including NATO member, Norway and it should be recalled that parts of the territory of the Nordic countries are in fact located within the Russian EEZ control zone. Military experts have been monitoring the use of military capabilities and have warned that Norway would have difficulty preventing Russia from occupying the northern part of the country.

Finally, Russia might be tempted to occupy the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. In this scenario, Russia would be able to strengthen and expand its control in the Arctic and North Atlantic by stationing aircraft and missiles there.

Credibility and Conclusions

As mentioned previously, although a military confrontation between Russia and NATO countries is unlikely, even in peacetime, the three challenges mentioned above serves to weaken NATO in one way or another. NATO can only be a credible alliance if it can show that it can defend itself and is able to prepare defence postures for those different scenarios.

The ability of NATO countries to provide a credible military response is limited by various considerations or caveats. NATO circles are aware that a NATO military presence in the Arctic would be perceived in Moscow as a provocative move. This could help trigger an arms race in the region and undermine the diplomatic cooperation taking place in regional institutions such as the Arctic Council. At the same time, non-Arctic NATO states believe that the alliance should prioritise other challenges and regions. NATO countries have sought to resolve this by operating with a dividing line between the Arctic (where NATO is not present) and the North Atlantic (where NATO is present). Arctic security issues have therefore been addressed by the five Arctic NATO countries (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the United States) outside of a NATO framework. The most interesting observation is that this area has never had the same focus since the day President Trump offered to buy Greenland.

Bo Leimand