Op-ed

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How the Warsaw NATO Summit Altered Arctic Security

by Rob Huebert

Arctic Deeply
July 18, 2016

The recent NATO summit in Warsaw will be remembered as one of the most important events of the post-Cold War era for the future of international Arctic security. At this summit, the alliance officially acknowledged the distance that now exists between itself and Russia. As a direct result, it is highly unlikely that the cooperation of the last decade and a half between Russia and the Arctic NATO countries – Canada, United States, Denmark, Norway and Iceland – can be maintained.

The final Warsaw communique states,

“Russia’s aggressive actions, including provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force, are a source of regional instability, fundamentally challenge the Alliance, have damaged Euro-Atlantic security, and threaten our long-standing goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.”

Given such a direct condemnation of Russia, how can anyone believe that the current Putin administration will simply look the other way and continue to treat Arctic cooperation as business as usual? Furthermore, there are three issue areas – some public and others not so public – flowing from the NATO summit that demonstrate the seriousness with which the member states regard the Russian behavior and see it in terms of a threat.

Troops on the Ground

First, the Canadian and United States governments, along with the United Kingdom and Germany, have committed to sending troops to the Baltic region to reassure NATO allies there. The Russian government knows this is entirely directed at them. The Baltic states are not in the Arctic, but the willingness of two North American 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. Furthermore, both North American countries have also sent military trainers into the Ukraine and have been very clear in their support of the Ukrainian government.

Boosting its Maritime Profile

Second, Norway has been pushing NATO for some time to place greater emphasis on common defense in the Arctic. It has become more and more concerned that the increased Russian military activity in the region has not been receiving adequate attention from the alliance, specifically with regard to the maritime dimension. While there is no specific mention of the Arctic in the communique, this initiative is now gaining more traction within NATO. Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper had been the biggest opponent of this initiative, but his government has since been replaced. While the new Canadian government has not stated its specific position on this issue, it has been making a point of distancing itself from most of the policies of the Harper government.

The communique makes it clear that NATO will improve security at all of its borders. This will have to include the North, even if it is not mentioned specifically:

“In the North Atlantic, as elsewhere, the Alliance will be ready to deter and defend against any potential threats, including against sea lines of communication and maritime approaches of NATO territory. In this context, we will further strengthen our maritime posture and comprehensive situational awareness.”

This suggests that the Norwegian efforts to focus the alliance’s attention northward is beginning to succeed – and will be duly noted by Moscow.

New Northern NATO Members?

Third, and perhaps most critical to the hopes of maintaining the era of cooperation, the Warsaw communique underscores NATO’s growing relationship with Finland and Sweden.

“We appreciate the significant contributions of Finland and Sweden to NATO-led operations. We are dedicated to the continuous process of further strengthening our cooperation with these enhanced opportunities partners, including through regular political consultations, shared situational awareness, and joint exercises, in order to respond to common challenges in a timely and effective manner.”

Additionally, both President Sauli Niinistö of Finland and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden attended the summit, demonstrating the importance of the meeting to both countries. Following the Ukrainian crisis, both countries have reported increasing violations of both their airspace and maritime zones by Russian forces. Sweden has been increasingly wrestling with the issue of self-defense to the point where the former chief of its armed forces in 2013 openly stated that Sweden could not defend itself against attack. The secretary-general of NATO immediately followed up with a statement pointing out that the alliance would only come to the assistance of full members – and Sweden is not a full member of NATO.

There are emerging signs that both Sweden and Finland are seriously considering seeking membership of the alliance. The Nordic Summit that took place in Washington, D.C., in May, included delegations from Finland, Sweden, Norway Denmark and Iceland, and focused on the defense needs of all Nordic countries in the face of Russian actions. It seemed to indicate American support for a Finnish and Swedish application to NATO.

Five of the Arctic Council’s eight members are part of NATO. If Sweden or Finland applies for full NATO membership and Norway continues to push for a greater Arctic focus, Russia may begin to feel fenced-in. The challenges for maintaining Arctic cooperation on matters other than traditional military security will be substantial. Some of the most important cooperative initiatives to come out of the Arctic Council may be maintained, such as the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, as a limited means of confidence building. But with the alliance directly blaming the crisis in the Ukraine on Russia and taking clear military steps to reinforce itself as an alliance, it is difficult to see how Arctic cooperation will continue in the same fashion as in the last decade. It is difficult to think of any meaningful areas of cooperation that will not be impacted by the new tone presented in the Warsaw Communique and inevitable Russian reaction.

Image: AP/ - Markus Schreiber

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