The Polar View

Norway’s mini-NATO initiative in the Arctic

March 11, 2015

The purpose of this article is to examine Norway’s initiative of creating a Nordic Defense Alliance in the Arctic and the consequences it may have for Russia and Arctic cooperation.

Author: Elodie Testa, Research Intern at RIAC, graduate student at MGIMO-University


It is a well-established fact that the Arctic region is undergoing significant environmental changes. On August 26, 2012, the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) recorded a new record minimum in Arctic sea ice extent[i], and scientists predict an Arctic Ocean free of ice in summer before the year 2040[ii]. Climate change facilitates access to Arctic natural resources and opens new maritime trade routes, which represents great economic opportunities for the states to develop. Nevertheless, unlike Antarctica, which is administrated by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, the Arctic region lacks a specific legal framework to regulate states’ activities. In 2008, in the Ilulissat Declaration, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States (the Arctic Fives) rejected the European Parliament’s proposition to create an Arctic treaty, confirming their will to remain committed to the legal framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLOS) – signed in 1982 and entered into force in 1994 – which is for now the only international legally binding document that regulates states’ activities in the region. Arctic institutional framework is also fragile since its main organizations, such are the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council are only regional forums, of which primary goal is to discuss Arctic issues and promote Arctic cooperation. Consequently, the lack of an Arctic specific treaty and decision-making institutions fiercely encourages the states to adopt a realist behavior to ensure their sovereignty and protect their national interests in the region. One can thus question whether the Arctic will remain a zone of peace and cooperation, or whether the region is likely to become a hot spot conducive to military conflict over natural resources. 

Norway militarizes its part of the Arctic to assert its sovereignty

In 2006, Norway introduced a High North Strategy, which qualifies the Arctic has “Norway’s most important strategic priority area”[iii]. Norway wants to maintain a visible military presence in the Arctic in order to exercise its sovereignty, and to maintain stability and security. In July 2013, Norway accordingly conducted a large Arctic maneuver – Cold Response Exercise – in which more than 16 000 troops from 14 countries are believed to have participated[iv], involving also servicemen of the Air Force, Navy, Army and special tasks forces of NATO member states. Norway also plans to hold one of its largest military exercises in Finnmark, a Norwegian territory adjacent to the Russian Federation. The exercise, called “Joint Viking” is scheduled for March 2015 and will involve the participation of 5000 soldiers from all branches of Norway’s Armed Forces[v].


Modern defense technology is becoming increasingly expensive[vi], which makes it more difficult for Nordic countries to fund a modern defense system on their own that can compete with the one of their Russian neighbor. Consequently, in February 2009, then Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg expressed the idea of creating a defense alliance between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, which will not only contribute to NATO-led operation, but also enable Nordic countries to maintain their armed forces at their current size and quality[vii].

Norway relies on NATO to secure its national interest in the Arctic

Norway sees NATO as “the essential source of security and stability in an unpredictable world”[viii], and is thus actively promoting NATO’s role in the Arctic, mostly to counterweight Russia’s military rebuilding programs in the region. Norway also considers that “only NATO can provide the necessary deterrence and reassurance” in the region. One of the main objectives of the military exercise in Finnmark is accordingly to “show the world, and of course (Norway’s) neighbor in this East, that NATO is present and that NATO is both relevant and able to defend Norway if it should become necessary”[ix].


The North Atlantic Alliance does view the Arctic as a strategically significant region, and regularly issues research papers and reports on how to cope with the region’s challenges and opportunities. Yet, none of the Alliance’s official document or declaration (i.e. 2010 Strategic Concept or 2012 Chicago NATO Summit declaration) mentions the word Arctic[x].  NATO military activities have increased in the Arctic since 2006[xi], particularly in the framework of the Cold Response Exercises regularly organized at Norway’s initiative. Nevertheless the Alliance does not have military bases in the region.


Although Britain, which is an important member of NATO, supported Norway’s initiative, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Alliance has no plans to extend its presence in the High North[xii]. Yet, Norway will continue to strengthen its High North defense capabilities, as well as to encourage NATO to play a greater role in the Arctic. In 2014, Norwegian Minister of Defense offered to host NATO’s large military exercise High Visibility, which will then be held in Norway in 2018 with the participation of 25,000 soldiers[xiii].

The consequences for Russia and Arctic cooperation

Russia’s position in the Arctic is paradoxical. Because of the large extend of its coastlines in the region, and the vast deposits of energy resources and the presence of a strategic maritime route (e.g. NSR) under its sovereignty, Russia is at the same time the most influential and vulnerable Arctic nation. In the Arctic, Russia also stands alone between five NATO members that include two members of the European Union. Russia is thus in a strategic unsteady position, and further NATO presence or enforcement in the Arctic is likely to reinforce Russian feeling of being a surrounded nation. Therefore an enhanced role for NATO in the Arctic is likely to have the following results:


§ More NATO presence in the Arctic is likely to be viewed as a direct threat to Russia’s national interest in the region, which will accordingly encourage Russia to increase its military capabilities even more. In accordance with the security dilemma theory present in international relations studies, other Arctic nations will also increase their military forces in return, which is likely to foster instability and tension instead of ensuring security and stability.


§ The creation of a Nordic cooperation in the defense sector corresponds to a new military block building. It contradicts Russia’s priority to maintain peace and cooperation in the Arctic[xiv]. Consequently, Arctic bilateral and multilateral cooperation between Russia and other Arctic nations is likely to be deterred, which may negatively affect Arctic’s development and cooperation. 


§ In the foreseeable future, Arctic nations will have to cope with new global security threats. Isolating Russia from military cooperation in the region is a counterproductive strategy, especially if one considers Russia’s expertize and historical experience in the defense sector.


To conclude, one can say that Norway’s initiative to establish a Nordic Defense Alliance in the Arctic region highlights the fact that realpolitik still prevails in states’ strategy when it comes to exercising their sovereignty and protecting their national interests. Therefore, Arctic coastal states, including Russia, continue to increase and to modernize their military capabilities, leading to Arctic militarization. Nevertheless, Arctic coastal states are aware that maintaining the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation[xv] is necessary to ensure the region’s profitable and sustainable development. In this respect, Arctic affairs should be considered through the prism of realist cooperation between state actors therein. In other words, states are ready to cooperate as long as their national interests and sovereignty are secured.




[ii] ANDERSON Alun, After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic, Harper Collins Publisher, New York, 2009, p. 96.


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