Evolving Arctic Security Challenges Shape Discussions in Oslo, Kirkenes and Tromsø

01 December 2021

➡️ Photos of the visit

For decades, shrinking ice sheets have driven rising speculation about the Arctic region’s unfrozen potential: increased access to the region’s vast resources and shorter transit routes for global shipping. These developments have raised fears that future competition for the Arctic’s potential wealth will be both fierce and globalised. The reality, however, is far more complex and nuanced. The late November fact-finding mission of the Defence and Security (DSC) and Science and Technology (STC) Committees to Oslo, Kirkenes and Tromsø, Norway reflects this.  

Norwegian officials and experts highlighted the region’s complexity and put the damper on alarmist views of evolving security dynamics: Challenging issues are regional, and hyped-up media and think tank Cold War rhetoric is not helpful. In fact, experts agreed: Arctic cooperation remains strong, despite the rising great power tensions elsewhere.  

Such assessments, however, do not mean Norwegian officials are not clear-eyed about changes in the region’s security environment. Russia’s significant political, economic, and military investments, alongside China’s recent forays for economic investments, scientific research, or military exercising with Russia have made it clear the region is not immune from great power rivalries.  

Norway’s Defence Minister, Odd Roger Enoksen, highlighted key security challenges rising in the European Arctic; “large-scale Russian military modernisation, extensive regional naval exercising, the testing of new dual-use missile systems, and destabilising military brinkmanship, all seek to disrupt NATO’s freedom of movement in the region.”   

“Russia’s Zapad 2021 exercise demonstrated Moscow’s continued focus on maintaining the ability to dominate the High North,” he continued.  

While Norwegian officials and experts agreed China’s military activity in the High North is limited and remains principally scientific, there was consensus China’s evolving relationship with Russia will influence its role in the region. All agreed Russia remains the main security actor in the region due to the size and scope of its military presence and thereby sets the tone. 

Faced with burgeoning Arctic realities, Norway favours a resolute though pragmatic approach. Defence and Foreign Ministry officials stressed Norway’s desire to remain as essential an Ally to NATO as NATO is essential to Norway – each noting a preference to see NATO’s new Strategic Concept capture Nordic defence concerns and continue to strengthen NATO’s collective defence and deterrence, but to also be cautious in the characterisation of the Russia and China challenges to NATO. Allies should maintain the possibility for mutually-beneficial dialogue and cooperation where possible, they stressed. 

The Barents Sea area of Norway’s northern coast is becoming a particular focal point in the souring relations between NATO and Russia. It represents not only the European terminus of the Northern Sea Route and a region rich in maritime and seabed resources, but also an area of acute Russian military focus.   

Russia’s Northern Fleet, as well as a significant portion of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent are just over the border with Norway on the Kola Peninsula. As a result, much of the region falls within the heavily defended bastion of Russia’s ‘Bastion’ defence concept.  

Russia’s recent military modernisation efforts have had an outsized impact on the Barents region. The Northern Fleet was upgraded to military district, one of Russia’s five, on 1 January 2021. As the Northern fleet has grown in importance, so have its supporting ground, air and air defence components. Briefers at a border station outside of Kirkenes reminded the delegation that Russia’s 200th Motorized and the 61st Marine Infantry Brigades were just over the border. Both have significant combat experience in Syria and Ukraine. In addition, Russia has reactivated or constructed new military bases across the region in recent years. 

Officials in Oslo said Russia’s heavy military investment in its Barents region reflects a shift to an active defence posture to attempt to gain an edge over Allies. Supporting this posture are new multi-role vessels and advanced missile systems.  

According to Thomas Nilsen, Editor of the Independent Barents Observer, the region has become the main testing ground for Russia’s new ‘exotic’ nuclear weapons systems. Russia’s new nuclear-powered nuclear-armed cruise missile (the Burevestnik), Nilsen noted, “uses an open system for cooling – which means nuclear pollution trails any test.” The Poseidon, a new nuclear-powered nuclear-armed autonomous underwater vehicle, also uses an open propulsion system to use sea water as a coolant and contributes to an already significant nuclear waste problem in the Barents Sea dating back to the Cold War. 

Beyond the challenges of Russia’s new regional military footing, Norwegian officials note significant levels of pragmatic cooperation with Russia remain. They stressed that Norway is, after all, locked into the geographic reality of sharing a border with Russia, and High North, low tension is a necessary motto for a modus vivendi. 

Interlocutors across Norway’s Barents region reflected this position – a region shared with Russia means shared responsibilities. This translates into long-standing cross-border economic and political cooperation and resource and environmental stewardship on land and at sea.  

While the regular level of cross-border exchanges was significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, Jens Arne Høilund, Norway’s Border Commissioner told the delegation “At the regional level, the Russians are interested in maintaining good cooperation - the border and division will remain, but it is in our mutual interests to solve any issue in a productive manner. There is a clear will, despite the broader international challenges, to ramp cooperation back up post-COVID." 

The joint DSC-STC visit to Norway included meetings in Oslo, Kirkenes, and Tromsø. Alec Shelbrooke (United Kingdom) and Philippe Michel-Kleisbauer (France) led the delegation of 13 members from 8 NATO member states. The visit capped off important year-long studies by the Defence and Security Committee on the evolution of security challenges in the High North and their impact on NATO Allies and by the STC on defence innovation imperatives. In addition to focusing on NATO’s northern flank and Norway’s attendant security priorities, members also received comprehensive briefings by Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace, the Norwegian Defence and Research Establishment, as well as the Norwegian Polar Institute.  Visits to Kirkenes and Tromso provided an opportunity to discuss Norway-Russia cooperation in the Barents region as well as Arctic environmental and economic issues. 

A summary report of the visit will be available on the NATO PA website in the coming weeks. 

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