Bringing NATO Into the Fold: A Dilemma for Arctic Security

The amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima passes under the northern lights during exercise Trident Juncture 2018 in the Norwegian Sea, Oct. 26, 2018. The NATO-led exercise is designed to increase interoperability among nations. Photo Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Leitner/US Navy.

When many people consider the Arctic, they think not only of its ecological fragility but also its potential to host some kind of military conflict that either arises within the region or spills over from an adjacent area. That there is presently no forum to flexibly resolve such escalation risks as they emerge weighs heavily on regional stability, leaving Arctic states to define varying and sometimes incompatible paths for securing their interests in the circumpolar north. One possible path leads to a formal NATO role in the Arctic, but regional complexities necessitate that the Alliance walk a fine line between engagement and detachment.

The Arctic Strategic Environment

Western commentary over the past decade has often drawn a line between the Arctic’s abundant natural resources, made increasingly accessible by climate change, and the potential for conflict to arise from competition over those resources. However, many experts agree that such a conflict is unlikely. By and large, Arctic states have a good idea of which state owns what in the region, since the majority of shipping lanes and natural resources falls squarely within Arctic states’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).[i]  In the wake of Russia’s now (in)famous planting of its flag on the North Pole seabed in 2007, the five Arctic coastal states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States—signed the 2008 Ilullisat Declaration, committing themselves to the “orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.”[ii]  In this spirit of cooperation, Russia and Norway in 2010 signed a treaty settling their jurisdictions in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean.[iii] Moreover, extended continental shelf claims submitted by all of the aforementioned states except the United States are being negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[iv] Taken together, the measures help dispel the myth of a “scramble” for resources in the Arctic as a hotbed for conflict, although that does not mean the region is without its tensions.

A more likely scenario to occur is one in which great power competition comes to a head in the Arctic, a situation made increasingly possible by the fact that both Russia and the United States have core economic and security interests there. For Russia, the Arctic plays an important role in cementing the country’s status as a great power, which is tightly intertwined with its national security. Moscow views its international influence as being based on its military might, which is predicated on the strength of a nuclear arsenal nearly on par with the United States. The sea leg of Russia’s nuclear triad, which comprises the country’s strategic ballistic missile submarines, has a prominent presence in the Kola Peninsula in the Northwestern Russian Arctic. In Alaska, the United States has stationed ground-based anti-missile systems to intercept potential missile launches from Asia.[v] Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and heightened tensions between Russia and NATO, the United States also acknowledged a renewed need for surface capabilities in the Arctic, increasing military cooperation with its Alliance partners in the north and reactivating the Second Fleet.[vi] Much as is the case elsewhere in Europe, the dynamics between Russia and the United States in the region introduce a security dilemma wherein the latter’s Arctic European allies are caught in the middle, as Russia’s increasing militarization of its Arctic territory to protect its nuclear deterrent against US anti-missile capabilities strains Europe’s defense forces.[vii] The fear among Arctic security experts is that the existing balance in this environment can be easily tipped by extra-Arctic tensions, pitting the United States and its Northern Atlantic allies against Russia in the region.

Calls for Formal NATO Arctic Involvement

No mechanism currently exists to address emerging hard security issues in this strategic environment, leaving the Arctic vulnerable to conflict. Despite being the region’s foremost intergovernmental institution and the only forum in which all eight Arctic states routinely come together to discuss shared circumpolar concerns, the Arctic Council does not deal with military matters.[viii] Nor does the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, which in any case focuses primarily on the Barents region and consequently does not count Canada and the United States in its full membership.[ix] Annual meetings of the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Staff, furthermore, which some hoped would help fill the security void,[x] never really took off after the inaugural conference in 2012. Against this backdrop, it has been suggested that NATO should step in to “function as an arena to discuss the new geopolitical climate in the Arctic.”[xi] However, a NATO-driven Arctic security forum seems unlikely to bring the right mix of players to the table; too many non-Arctic states would now have a seat, while key Arctic states who are not Alliance members—Sweden, Finland, and Russia, to be precise—would presumably be sidelined to some degree or another.

Given the lack of an institution to discuss concerns emanating from a growing security dilemma in the Arctic, there is a sense that, because NATO lacks an official Arctic strategy, North American and Northern European Arctic states’ interests are left unsecured in the High North.  While it is true that the 2010 Strategic Concept, NATO’s current strategic guidance document, does not mention the Arctic,[xii] NATO’s principle of collective defense is still operative there.  All the littoral Arctic states—with the obvious exception of Russia—and Iceland are founding NATO members, meaning that they are covered under Article 5. Sweden and Finland, as Enhanced Opportunities Partners, have a close relationship with the Alliance that allows them access to NATO-only ministerial meetings and participation in military exercises. NATO’s trust in these partnerships is strong, and the Alliance has even prepositioned supplies in Sweden.[xiii] 

While some attest that NATO needs to give the region more strategic weight, such as has been given to Eastern Europe,[xiv] others argue that the Warsaw Summit in 2016, in deploying troops on the ground in NATO’s eastern flank (the Baltic states and Poland), was an important step in framing the Alliance’s relationship with Russia in the Arctic despite the region’s absence from the agenda. As Robert Huebert writes for Arctic Deeply, “the willingness of two North American states [Canada and the United States] to send troops into the region to deter Russia does more to set the stage for their relationship with Russia than any ongoing cooperation in the Arctic.”[xv]   Furthermore, in keeping with NATO’s mission to provide extended deterrence to its member states and uphold its commitment to collective defense, the Alliance last year launched its largest military exercise since the Cold War, Trident Juncture 2018, in northern Europe, including in areas above the Arctic Circle.[xvi]

Reasons for Taking it Slow in the Arctic

But formalizing NATO’s role in the Arctic should be carefully considered.  For one thing, the wariness with which Arctic states view internationalization of the region—meaning, non-Arctic states’ involvement—would apply here, as a NATO officially engaged in the Arctic would bring with it 24 states from outside the region. While NATO may be a club looking for new members, the Arctic states are not necessarily looking to apply. Moreover, NATO has a fine line to walk between keeping the threat level in the Arctic low and preparing for conflict with Russia, whose zero-sum geostrategic worldview leads it to regard NATO as an existential threat. Russia’s circumpolar neighbors are understandably threatened by the hybrid methods the country has deployed in the Arctic, including “airspace incursions, GPS jamming, cyber activity, ominous diplomatic communication, energy politics, and the organization of refugee flows.”[xvii] For Arctic states who depend on the NATO deterrent, the ambiguity in not having an explicit strategy for the region can erode confidence in the Alliance. Or, it could provide NATO with the flexibility for measured responses to these hybrid threats, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg alluded to when discussing cyber defense: “So, we have clearly stated that a cyber-attack can trigger Article 5. Then, we will never give our potential adversaries the advantage of specifying exactly what triggers Article 5. They have to live with the ambiguity that we decide when we trigger Article 5.”[xviii]

It is important to remember that conflict in the Arctic would serve no Arctic states’ interests. Arctic states should thus seize on this and pursue cooperation and dialogue, first and foremost among themselves. Regardless of whether NATO adopts a formal Arctic strategy, it would be helpful for the Alliance to resume practical cooperation in the NATO-Russian Council, which was suspended in 2015 following Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and open the limited lines of communication that remained operational to Arctic security issues as they arise. NATO should also continue to hold exercises in the Arctic, and in the future will need to monitor increases in Arctic military cooperation among potential adversaries such as Russia and China,[xix] as well as any moves to change the shape of Arctic governance, specifically away from the purview of Arctic states.[xx] The day might come when NATO will have to get formally involved, but until then, it is likely to continue threading a narrow policy needle. 


[i] “Maritime Jurisdiction and Boundaries in the Arctic Region,” Map, Durham University Department of Geography, Center for Borders Research, July 2019,

[ii] “2008 Ilulissat Declaration,” Adopted at the Arctic Ocean Conference in Ilulissat Greenland, May 28, 2008,

[iii] “Treaty Between the Kingdom of Norway and the Russian Federation Concerning Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean,” Signed in Murmansk, Russia, September 15, 2010, English translation available:

[iv] “A Quick Start Guide to the Law of the Seas in the Arctic,” The Arctic Institute, April 2016,

[v] Thad W Allen, “The Arctic is Integral to U.S. National Security,” Interview by Jonathan Masters, Council on Foreign Relations, March 22, 2017,

[vi] “Great Power Competition in the Arctic,” (Panel at the 8th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations, Wilson Center Polar Institute, Washington, DC, July 17, 2019),

[vii] Harri Mikkola, “The Geostrategic Arctic:  Hard Security in the High North,” Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), Briefing Paper 259, April 2019, 8,

[viii] The Council’s mandate explicitly omits security issues:  “Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council, (“Ottowa Declaration”),” The Arctic Council, Ottowa, Canada, September 19, 1996, see footnote #1, page 6,

[ix] “Members of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Barents Regional Council,” Barents Euro-Arctic Cooperation, accessed October 11, 2019,

[x] Olin Strader, “Arctic Chiefs of Defence Staff Conference: An Opportunity to Formalize Arctic Security,” The Arctic Institute, April 6, 2012,

[xi] Anna Wieslander, “It’s Time for NATO to Engage in the Arctic,” Defense One, September 16, 2019,

[xii] “Active Engagement, Modern Defense: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Adopted by the Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon 19-20 November 2010, NATO,

[xiii] Azita Raji, “The Partnership for Peace: A Quiet NATO Success Story,” War on the Rocks, April 8, 2019,

[xiv] Mathieu Boulègue, “NATO Needs a Strategy for Countering Russia in the Arctic and the Black Sea,” Chatham House, July 2, 2018,

[xv] Rob Huebert, “How the Warsaw NATO Summit Altered Arctic Security,” Arctic Deeply, July 18, 2016,

[xvi] Jonathan Masters, “NATO’s Trident Juncture Exercises: What to Know,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 23, 2018,

[xvii] Mikkola, 8.

[xviii] Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, “NATO:  Maintaining Security in a Changing World,” Speech given September 26, 2019, New York City, NY, Columbia University Ambassador Donald and Vera Blinken Lecture on Global Governance,

[xix] For example, China participated in Russia’s biggest military exercise this year, Tsentr-2019, parts of which were held off of the latter’s Arctic coast.  See: Atle Staalesen, “As Russia Launches War Games Tsentr-2019, Arctic Troops Advance on Bolshevik Island,” Barents Observer, September 16, 2019,

[xx] Limiting observer states’ involvement in the Arctic Council—as is presently the case—could make them inclined to seek more active participation in venues in which their voices can be better heard. See: Piotr Graczyk et al, “Preparing for the Global Rush: The Arctic Council, Institutional Norms, and Socialisation of Observer Behaviour,” 131, in: Governing Arctic Change, K. Keil and S. Knecht (2017); Before China was admitted as an observer state to the Arctic Council, some Chinese scholars debated whether it would be in the country’s best interests to join an organization in which they would have “more obligations but fewer rights.”  See: Peiqing Guo, “An Analysis of New Criteria for Permanent Observer Status on the Arctic Council and the Road of Non‐Arctic States to Arctic,” KMI International Journal of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Vol. 4, Iss. 2, December 2012, 21.

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