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New Atlanticist July 9, 2024

NATO needs a strategy to address Russia’s Arctic expansion

By David Babikian and Julia Nesheiwat

This week, NATO will hold its landmark seventy-fifth anniversary summit. The Washington, DC, event is expected to focus on trade security, the war in Ukraine, and the organization’s greatest adversary, Russia. This comes on the heels of news that a record twenty-three out of thirty-two NATO countries will reach the Alliance’s defense spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product this year, according to NATO statistics published on June 17. This increase in spending is in large part a direct response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

At the same time, the danger Russia poses extends well beyond Eastern Europe. The Washington summit provides the Alliance an opportune moment to develop a strategy to address Russia’s growing, and unsettling, Arctic presence, which is connected with Moscow’s complex cooperation with China in the region and with new sea lanes opening due to accelerated ice melting in the region.

Russia has long viewed the Arctic as a crucial source of income, national pride, and strategic importance. The Russian military has continued to establish an outsized Arctic presence even during its war in Ukraine, now consisting of the Northern Fleet, nuclear submarines, radar stations, airfields, and missile facilities. A large share of this presence is concentrated in the Kola Peninsula, near NATO allies Finland, Sweden, and Norway. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Russia operates one-third more military bases in the Arctic Circle than all NATO members put together. 

Moscow’s interest in securing its trade routes in the High North has been boosted by Russia’s alignment with Beijing.

NATO members should note that Russia has outpaced the Alliance in its establishment and usage of trade corridors in the Arctic region, funded heavily by Chinese investment. Transporting energy and mineral commodities via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) presents strong advantages to Russia: staying within its territory and circumventing the Suez Canal shortens Russian tankers’ trips to China by about ten days per journey. As climate change warms the Arctic at a pace far exceeding other parts of the world, the viability of the NSR will increase and the region’s strategic importance will continue to grow. Historically, Russian energy in the High North has been dispatched using ships specially built to navigate sea ice, but in September 2023, the first shipment was sent using a conventional, non-ice class oil tanker due to high levels of summer ice melt, an increasingly common phenomenon. 

“The energy crisis that has emerged from the Ukraine war has been building for decades,” Paul Sullivan, an energy and international relations professor at Johns Hopkins University, told us. “Russia’s development of Arctic LNG [liquefied natural gas] and usage of the NSR should be of top concern to NATO countries with concerns about the precarity of energy sources and trade routes, respectively.”

Russia’s economic dependence on exporting its extensive energy and mineral resources has led to strengthened cooperation with China, an imperfect relationship based on mutual need. Chinese state-owned energy enterprises have in the past five years invested billions of dollars in Russian oil and gas ventures and mineral projects in the Arctic. Since facing Western sanctions, Russian reallocation of its crude oil supply to a discounted Chinese market cemented the partnership between the two nations. Since then, this infrastructure investment for ports, pipelines, mines, and railways has surged. Moscow’s interest in securing its trade routes in the High North has been boosted by Russia’s alignment with Beijing, which has affirmed its own involvement in the region as a “near-Arctic state.” For example, Russian and Chinese vessels were spotted in August 2023 conducting joint military exercises near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. That said, NATO members rethinking Arctic strategies should take a clear-eyed approach as to the extent of the “no limits” partnership between Moscow and Beijing. At the beginning of June, the Russian gas market announced a pause of the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline to China. The deal has reportedly stalled over monopsonistic Chinese demands to pay drastically lower prices for lower quantities of gas.

NATO’s Arctic member states—the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland—remain intent on maintaining free and navigable Arctic shipping lanes and are exploring their own energy and mineral resource projects in the region. Jennifer Spence, the project director of the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, explained to us that “in these remote areas, military and economic infrastructure development go hand in hand—securitization of the Arctic can help facilitate investments in a more diversified economy for Arctic states.”

Recent European Parliament legislation to facilitate the construction of new mines to secure critical minerals has been a boon to Swedish mining companies, which have discovered mineral resources in the country’s north. In the United States, the ConocoPhillips Willow project is set to commence in northern Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, and in Canada, the federal government recently announced new investments in Arctic defense. Separately, the province of Alberta has worked with the state of Alaska to promote energy development ties. Per Spence, “commercial progress in the North American Arctic is comparatively more rhetoric than action, though signals of permanent infrastructure investment seem to be not too far behind.”

NATO’s Arctic member states have increasingly focused on the region as an important operational theater—and this trend should continue. Nordic countries have announced major NATO exercises in the High North as well as training events with the United States. Canada is procuring and deploying new Arctic-proof military aircraft and ships, and recently conducted joint exercises with the United States, demonstrating an independent investment in regional security. The United States has also increased its Arctic presence. This has included an initiative by the US Coast Guard and the US Navy, which built three Polar Security Cutters, upgraded versions of heavy-duty icebreakers replete with advanced sensors and equipment. 

As of now, Russia’s pause in its Arctic developments reflects the status of commercial investment progress in the region. International sanctions, most of which were initiated by countries that are also NATO members, have taken a major toll on Russian Arctic commercial expansion (for example, Russian energy behemoth Novatek suspended production at its Arctic LNG 2 project in the spring due to sanctions and a shortage of ice-class gas tankers). As for NATO progress, according to Sullivan, the Johns Hopkins expert, the accession of Sweden and Finland “increases NATO’s Arctic footprint massively and thereby significantly improves its position.” With a vastly larger Arctic footprint and record levels of military spending, the time is ripe for NATO to further address the looming security consequences of Russia’s Arctic expansion. The NATO Summit in Washington provides the perfect moment for the Alliance to forge an even more unified approach to the future of security in the High North. 

David Babikian is a graduate from Princeton University in economics. His research practice spans from work with policymakers, investment firms, and nongovernmental organizations, pertaining to climate resilience, commodities, and critical minerals. He is a fellow at Climate Cabinet.

Julia Nesheiwat is a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, a member of the Atlantic Council board of directors, vice president for policy at TC Energy, and the former US homeland security advisor.

Further reading

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Novatek CEO Leonid Mikhelson attend a ceremony to launch the first natural gas liquefaction line on a gravity-type base for the Arctic LNG-2 project as he visits the Novatek-Murmansk's Offshore Superfacility Construction Center in the village of Belokamenka, Murmansk region, Russia July 20, 2023. Sputnik/Alexander Kazakov/Kremlin via REUTERS