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With the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO, some of the previous restrictions on defence will be removed as the alliance will be able to cover large swathes of the North. Further militarisation of the region is ongoing.

In the defensive paradigm of NATO, the North is a complex area with several important areas for security. These include the Arctic, the Baltics, and the GIUK gap, a strategically important water area in the North Atlantic between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK. In each of these regions NATO has faced increasing challenges over recent years, against the backdrop of deteriorating relations with Russia. The higher risk of confrontation between the Alliance and the Russian Federation has led to a build-up of the respective parties’ military potential, especially in the Arctic. The West began to react after Russia started rebuilding a network of military bases and airfields, including establishing new bases, along its Northern borders, and modernising their icebreaker fleet, while generating rhetoric that large parts of the Arctic should belong to them. Further anxiety arose in the Arctic following Russia’s illegitimate annexation of the Crimean peninsula in the spring of 2014. After Russia showed that it is ready to alter the internationally-recognised borders by force, NATO Allies have been increasingly reviewing their security agenda, particularly in areas bordering Russia.

However, NATO’s ability to effectively respond to challenges in the North is complicated by climatic conditions and vast areas of water. In particular, the need to manufacture new icebreakers to ensure year-round navigation in remote areas of the Arctic has been repeatedly raised by the United States, since the Allies have significantly fewer icebreakers compared to Russia. This complicates year-round navigation in the Arctic, although it remains possible to deploy submarines and air patrols. Much attention is also paid to preventing the Russian Northern Fleet, especially their submarines, from entering the Atlantic through the GIUK gap.

Another area that NATO is paying more and more attention to is further militarisation of the Baltics, since nuclear-capable ISKANDER-M short-range ballistic missile launchers have been permanently deployed in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The deployment was confirmed in 2016 after the Russian Ministry of Defence issued the relevant order – a move the Kremlin claimed was a response to “NATO actions.”

Until recently, the likelihood of a conflict on NATO’s northern flank was assessed as unlikely, however due to Russia’s recent actions, this is no longer guaranteed, and military activity in the region has been consistently intensifying.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, one of the stated goals of their “special military operation” was to prevent NATO’s eastward expansion. However, it was precisely the Russian war in Ukraine that pushed Finland and Sweden to apply to join the Alliance. Russia’s actions seem to have led to the opposite result, with this expansion shifting the balance of power in favour of the Alliance on its northern flank. Despite this, it cannot be guaranteed that Russia won’t launch military campaigns against these countries, and the possibility remains that Moscow could start an armed conflict with NATO as a whole.
Secondly, it is possible that a conflict that erupting in Eastern Europe could potentially spill over to NATO’s northern flank. Given the belligerent Russian rhetoric suggesting a nuclear threat to NATO, Allies will become more and more focused on the alliance’s northern frontiers.

The Current Situation in Northern Europe and the Arctic

Prior to Finland’s and Sweden’s bids to join the North Atlantic Alliance, the United States and NATO were working to strengthen Norway’s defence capabilities and boost collective defence capabilities on NATO’s northern flank. In 2017, 330 US Marines were deployed in Norway, and by 2018 their number had increased to 700 and the same year Trident Juncture, the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War, was held in Norway. The exercise’s scenario assumed an Article 5 joint response by allies to an act of foreign aggression.
In 2021, the Oslo agreement on regulating American defence operations in Norway was revised, allowing the United States to build defence facilities at three airfields and a naval base. The deal permitted a rapid increase in American military presence in Norway in the event of a crisis or war.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s land, naval, and air forces held the Cold Response 2022 exercise in Norway and the Norwegian Sea. About 30,000 troops from 27 countries, including partner states, took part in the drill. Although the exercises had long been planned, aiming to test allied capabilities to operate in severe climatic conditions of the North, Russia saw such manoeuvres as a threat to itself, primarily due to their common border with Norway and proximity to the facilities of the Russian Northern Fleet. Such a reaction was not unexpected against the background of Russian claims of NATO “encroaching” on Russian borders.

Now the focus is switching to Finland and Sweden, with Finland’s planned accession to NATO due to add more than 1,200 km to Russia’s existing land border with NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Norway. As of 29 July 2022, two-thirds of the Allies have already ratified the relevant protocols on Finland and Sweden’s accession. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to freeze the two bids if the aspiring nations fail to comply with Ankara’s conditions. However, so far it appears that the issue will be resolved for the applicants.

Boasting capable and modern armed forces, Finland and Sweden will radically change the security architecture in the North of Europe and the Arctic, as well as the balance of power in the Baltics. After such an expansion, NATO will attain de facto control of most of the Baltic Sea coastline, which, in the event of a crisis, would allow the alliance greater control over Russia’s presence in the region.

The Balance of Power

The latest NATO expansion is also changing the balance of power in the Norwegian Sea. To Russia, this area is seen as important because in the case of a conflict unfolding, control over the Norwegian Sea provides a passage to the North Atlantic. It should be noted that NATO Command has been cooperating with the Swedish and Finnish armed forces for years. This interaction has intensified after the 2018 establishment of the new Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Virginia to protect maritime routes between Europe and North America, as a response to the growing Russian threat. Norway was one of the NATO members who advocated the re-establishment of the Atlantic Command. The same year, the US Second Fleet was restored, with 75 warships assigned to the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, including six aircraft carriers and several nuclear attack submarines.

Meanwhile, NATO’s zone of responsibility is also increasing, given the length of the Finnish-Russian border. Recognising that the Baltic Sea is becoming a NATO-dominated area, Russia vowed a symmetrical response to the deployment of NATO bases or strike weapons in Sweden and Finland. The relevant proposals were voiced by Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. However, given how the military situation in Ukraine has developed, NATO Command will soon change its approach to threat response by increasing their available rapid reaction forces. Previously, NATO had planned to send reinforcements to Norway or the Baltic states only in case of invasion and war, but Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had reservations about this arrangement. The Baltic states argued that if the Russian leadership decided to start a military operation against one of these nations, this could pose a threat to their very statehood. Given the pace of Russia’s initial advances in Ukraine relative to the size of the Baltic nations, a several-week delay in the deployment of NATO forces could have irreversible consequences.

NATO will work to improve flexibility in responding to such challenges. For example, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) has recently been deploying and participating in exercises in Finland, Norway, and Sweden, with their equipment permanently stored near Trondheim. With the full accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, this infrastructure will only improve. However, this is clearly not enough, since in the event of a real invasion, crucial events can happen in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks. Consequently, the alliance announced an increase in their rapid reaction force troops from 40,000 to 300,000 at their 2022 Madrid summit, as well as an increase in the number of troops permanently stationed in NATO’s Eastern European member states.

A Symmetrical Response

In addition to Russia’s threats of a symmetrical response to NATO expansion in the North, Moscow’s response could also opt for asymmetric responses such as blocking maritime traffic, with Moscow presently preparing the legislative framework to do so. In 2019, Russian officials said they were drafting new rules for passage along the Northern Sea Route shipping lane. According to the new rules, foreign warships must notify Moscow of their plans for passage 45 days prior, while a Russian pilot must be present on board any warship passing through the area. If a warship tries to pass through what the Russian government refers to as the “Russian Arctic” without an official permit, such vessel could be subject to seizure or destruction.

The new edition of the Russian Naval Doctrine, signed by Vladimir Putin late in July 2022, states that the Russian Federation plans to intensify maritime activities in the Arctic and deploy control over the military activity of foreign states in the waters of the Northern Sea Route shipping lane. The updated military doctrine also expands the sphere of Russian strategic interests to include the Atlantic in addition to previously-listed Arctic and the Pacific. This means that Moscow will likely try to ensure its presence in the Atlantic Ocean by deploying nuclear submarines.

At the end of July 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defence prepared amendments to Russian Federal Law regulating the passage of foreign civil and military ships through the Northern Sea Route. If the amendments pass, notifying Russian authorities about the planned passage will no longer be enough. The new legislation will also require that the vessels ask for transit authorisation, with applications to be submitted 90 days prior, rather 45 days in advance originally planned in 2019. Additionally, submarines will only be allowed to pass through the Northern Sea Route while surfaced and flying their respective country’s flag.
Russia has already applied a similar permit system for the passage of foreign ships through the Kerch Strait, in order to monopolise the Sea of Azov, and has repeatedly closed the passage for foreign-flagged warships and government vessels. In 2018, a notorious incident took place during which Russian Coastguard vessels fired upon and seized a group of Ukrainian Navy craft attempting to navigate the Kerch Strait on their way from Odesa to Mariupol. Russia claimed that the Ukrainian vessels had not filed an application for passing through the strait, while the Ukrainian side claimed that such a request was indeed sent, but was refused, and that the boats were engaged as they were already heading back.

In terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Sea of Azov is semi-enclosed and contains no neutral waters, while the Kerch Strait is an international strait, since it directly links the exclusive economic zones of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. However, Ukraine and the Russian Federation have never agreed on the delimitation of borders in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. Moscow considers the strait part of Russia’s territorial waters, while Ukraine, along with the international community, has not recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and insists on the strait’s international status. Now, by adopting appropriate amendments regarding the regulation of passage through the Northern Sea Route, Russia is laying grounds for similar incidents in the Arctic, when foreign vessels attempt to pass through the Northern Sea Routes in Russia’s jurisdiction.

Concluding Thoughts

With the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO, some of the previous restrictions on defence will be removed as the alliance will be able to cover large swathes of the North in deeper defence cooperation. In the short term, although there is a relatively low risk of military conflict between NATO and Russia in the Arctic, further militarisation of the region is ongoing, increasing the region’s potential to see armed conflict in the future. Additionally, there are no guarantees that a conflict won’t spill into the Arctic from an adjacent region. Russia is presently busy with the war in Ukraine, but unfriendly statements toward the Baltic countries have already been voiced in Moscow, and the Russian Federation is likely to continue to gradually increase its military presence on the western and northern borders adjacent to NATO member states. Therefore, security problems in said areas can be seen as complex and long-term, since Russia may potentially remain a threat to the West for the decades to come. As such, the security situation in the north is likely to remain unpredictable and deserving of serious attention.