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North to the future?

After decades of enforced neutrality, Finland became a member of NATO in April last year, thereby almost doubling the Alliance’s land border with Russia. Helsinki’s accession represents a radical change in Nordic and Baltic security. The country brings to NATO not only enormous combat potential and knowledge of Russia but also a strategic location.

February 12, 2024 - Karolina Zub-Lewińska - Articles and Commentary

Icebreaker in the Arctic. Photo: Katrin York / Shutterstock

The Arctic now appears to come up repeatedly in statements given by senior Russian politicians and military officials. They suggest that NATO countries that militarily support Ukraine could be “dragged into a war” in the High North in retaliation, or openly discuss a “spill over” of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict into the region. Vladimir Putin himself, at the end of January 2023, at a special meeting of the Security Council of the Russian Federation dedicated to Ukraine, was set to announce that “Ukraine is not enough”. He was to announce the goal of expanding the territory of the world’s largest state also in the Arctic.

Threats of conflict in this part of the world were particularly frequent immediately after Finland and Sweden declared their readiness to join NATO. In May 2022, when these two states expressed their willingness to become members, Russia’s representative to the Arctic Council Nikolay Korchunov expressed “concern” about this on behalf of the Russian foreign ministry. He emphasized that such a development would “negatively affect confidence and security in the region”, which could consequently lead to “unintended incidents” that would not only generate threats to the stability of the Arctic but could also cause damage to its fragile ecosystem.

Given that since the start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine there has been an unprecedented return to Cold War rhetoric, as well as the use of nuclear blackmail on an unprecedented scale and a decisive shift in the region away from the paradigm of peaceful cooperation, these threats are taking on a very specific dimension.

Significance of the Arctic region

Arctic territories, due to their geostrategic location, offer the possibility of attacking almost any object on the globe, as well as excellent conditions for hiding and camouflage. As a result, they provide a natural flight path for intercontinental ballistic missiles in a potential nuclear conflict. It is also an excellent place to maintain one of the elements of the strategic nuclear triad – nuclear submarines with long-range strategic nuclear missiles. The region had great importance for conducting military operations during the Cold War period, as battles between the two opposing blocs were also to be fought in the area. In the event of an armed conflict, the Far North was to become an area of military operations that would significantly influence the course of fighting.

However, the strategic importance of the Arctic is not only determined by issues related strictly to security. According to 2008 data from the US Geological Survey scientific agency, the Arctic Ocean floor may hold up to 30 per cent of the world’s as of yet undiscovered but technically accessible reserves of natural gas, alongside 13 per cent of oil. The continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean is also rich in other mineral resources such as zinc, lead, molybdenum, nickel, platinum and even gold and diamonds.

An important aspect indicating the attractiveness of the region is the opportunities related to maritime transport. There are two routes through the Arctic, the Northeast Passage (along the coast of Siberia, the shortest route from Europe to China) and the Northwest Passage (along the coast of Canada). For decades, these routes were of little importance due to the impassable ice cap. However, when the ice cap began to shrink as a result of climate change, new opportunities for the economic exploitation of the region emerged for the Arctic states. The Northwest Passage shortens the route from Europe to East Asia by several thousand kilometres compared to the Panama Canal route, and the Northeast Passage by as much as 9,000 kilometres compared to the Suez Canal route.

Claims to the region’s riches are made not only by the states of the so-called Arctic Eight, i.e., states with territories in the Far North (Russia, the US, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway and, through Greenland, Denmark) but also by states with no territory in the region (China plays a special role here). The Far North plays a particularly important role in the policies of the Russian Federation, which is pursuing the most expansive policy in relation to the area. This fact is not surprising, given that the region generates 15 to 20 per cent of Russian GDP, while as much as 80 per cent of Russian gas is extracted there. The Russian Arctic territories also account for more than half of the Arctic as a whole.

According to the data presented in 2017 by the Arctic Council, by the summer of 2040, the Far North will be completely free of ice. Therefore, on the one hand, climate change presents an opportunity for the countries involved in the “Arctic race” to pursue their economic interests. On the other hand, this is generating a number of new security threats and contributing to increased tensions between the states.

NATO and the Arctic

The North Atlantic Alliance’s approach to the Far North has been gradually changing over the past few years. The impulse to look more closely at the affairs of this strategically important region was caused by unprecedented climate change and the progressive militarization of the Arctic by the Russian Federation starting in 2014. The Kremlin’s hybrid activities in the Far North, as well as Beijing’s growing aspirations towards the polar regions in the “Arctic game”, also began to cause concern among member states.

Allied Command Transformation (one of NATO’s two Strategic Commands whose main task is to transform the Alliance’s military capabilities in line with changing geopolitical conditions) predicts that specifically in 2040, the Arctic will become an important theatre for global superpower rivalry. This will generate a number of new security challenges for the North Atlantic Alliance, as well as the need to develop a new joint strategy to protect interests in the Far North. The Arctic members of the Alliance will have to deal with issues such as electronic warfare, the protection of maritime communication lines, tracking and combatting Russian submarines capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and even terrorist or pirate activities (which may be carried out by private military formations created in the Arctic by Gazprom). Climate and environmental problems will also worsen, generating threats that extend decisively beyond the Far North.

Without a doubt, an important “caesura” in the history of the region and NATO’s increased involvement in Arctic affairs is Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion against independent Ukraine, which began in February 2022. In this case, unlike in 2014, following the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, western states rejected the possibility of cooperating with Russia on existing terms within the paradigm of “peaceful cooperation”. In March 2022, seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council, i.e., the US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Finland, suspended their participation in the Arctic Council, in which the Russian Federation held the chairmanship from 2021 to 2023 (the chairmanship of the Arctic Council rotates among all its permanent members; each member’s term of office lasts two years). In response to the Russian invasion, the majority of NATO members strongly advocated for increased defence spending. The fulfilment of these declarations will undoubtedly contribute to making up for the Arctic deficiencies of Alliance members in the region and strengthening deterrence on the northern flank. Rising energy commodity prices may also contribute to Alliance members’ interests in reserves hidden beneath the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and in the contentious continental shelf.

Russia is currently dulling its imperial claws in the war in Ukraine and there is no indication that it has the military capability to open a new front. However, the Kremlin has an arsenal of means with which it is capable of destabilizing any part of the Earth for long periods of time. Of increasing concern to Arctic NATO states are the Russian Federation’s “below the threshold of war” activities, which intensified in the Far North after February 2022. Underestimated by the West, an element of the Kremlin’s game that strongly affects not only the imagination of policymakers but also of entire societies is nuclear blackmail. We should expect more frequent demonstrations by Russia of its nuclear power and military readiness in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean.

In this context, from the perspective of the North Atlantic Alliance, the fact that a Northern European state has joined its ranks cannot be overestimated.

Finland in NATO

The war in Helsinki’s immediate neighbourhood has forced Finland to revise its security policy. After decades of enforced “neutrality”, first by the USSR and then its successor, the Russian Federation, it became the 31st member of NATO in April 2023. This country, with a population of just 5.5 million people, brought to the largest defence alliance in the world a defence force of 31,500 soldiers in peacetime and, in wartime, a military efficiently reinforced with up to 900,000 well-trained reservists. Importantly, the Finnish army has extensive knowledge of warfare in the Far North’s cold weather in densely forested areas, which contributed to Finland’s victory in the Winter War against the USSR (November 1939 to March 1940). This type of expertise is vital from a NATO point of view, should Russia decide to initiate military actions in the Arctic region.

An important element is also the country’s excellently developed military-technical base, which includes the largest and best-equipped artillery force in Europe (1,500 artillery guns, including 700 howitzers, 700 heavy mortars and 100 rocket launchers). Not insignificant is the strength of the Finnish economy, the high-tech sector, as well as the issue related to societal resilience to the potential effects of a crisis caused by military aggression. When analysing these aspects, it is worth highlighting a particular characteristic of the Finnish people compared to other European nations – a strong and traditionally high willingness to defend their homeland in the face of an enemy attack. Research conducted after the outbreak of the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian War showed that in the event of an attack on their territory, as many as 75 per cent of citizens were prepared to defend the country, regardless of the outcome of the conflict.

The Finns’ added value is also that they understand like few others the operating methods of Russia, whose neighbourhood they have functioned in for centuries. One thousand three hundred and forty kilometres of additional border with NATO represents a strategic defeat for the Kremlin. This is especially true given the fact that Finnish territory is adjacent to a bastion of Russian nuclear forces in the High North, which probably represents one of the most militarized places on Earth.

Russia’s strategic peninsula

Bases for nuclear-powered surface ships and submarines alongside intercontinental missiles; closed cities, shipyards and radioactive waste disposal sites – this makes up the landscape of the Kola Peninsula, which covers an area of 100,000 square kilometres. In this strategically important area for Russian security interests are also located some of the world’s largest nuclear warhead storage facilities and airfields, from which strategic bombers designed to drop nuclear bombs can take off.

In April 2022, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced at a defence ministry board meeting that “in the face of Russia’s bloody war with Ukraine, it is necessary to increase combat capabilities in the Arctic.” He also listed a number of priority areas for operation, including the rearmament of the Kola Peninsula near the borders of Norway and Finland. This was another signal of Kremlin hostility towards Helsinki, which had then decided to join the ranks of the North Atlantic Alliance. In the Kremlin’s rhetoric, there was also the constant “bugbear” that retaliatory action for Finland’s decision to join NATO could even include the use of nuclear weapons. These hysterical reactions by the Russian authorities are not surprising. Extending Moscow’s border with the most powerful defence alliance only further threatens the Russian Federation’s nuclear arsenal. The only overland connection between the strategic peninsula and the rest of the country is the narrow, 700-kilometre-long so-called “Isthmus of Kola” along the Finnish border. It consists of one railway line, one road and high-voltage power lines running close together through forested areas. Damage to these would easily cut off the region from central Russia. It should be noted that this would not be a difficult task, even for a small squad of well-trained soldiers who are, for example, the proud descendants of those who, in 1939, put up relentless resistance to the Soviet Goliath and defended the independence of Finnish statehood.

Finland guarantees NATO a significant strengthening of its collective defence capability on the northern flank. It represents a “gateway to the Arctic” for the North Atlantic Alliance, and not only in the event of a conventional war, which for the time being, should be ruled out due to the tying up of powerful Russian forces in Ukraine. It is extremely important from the perspective of the Arctic members of the Alliance to respond quickly and effectively to the new types of threats generated by Russia in the Far North, which will definitely intensify in the coming years. A state that has paid a huge price for opposing Russian imperialism is changing the balance of power in the Nordic-Baltic region and putting the Russian Federation in a losing position. By attacking an independent Ukraine, the Kremlin wanted “less NATO at its borders” but got unimaginably “more”. In addition, Finland, as a member of the Alliance, should be of far greater concern to Kremlin strategists than the potential accession of Ukraine in the distant future.

Karolina Zub-Lewińska is a specialized translator of Russian (listed in the register of translators of the Polish Chief Technical Organization), Eastern expert looking at the post-Soviet area through the prism of security and business opportunities, and a researcher in the field of security. She is a member of the Polish Society of Sworn and Specialized Translators TEPIS, the Polish Society for Security Studies and Polish Society for International Studies (section on Russia and the post-Soviet area, section on international security, section on studies of polar regions).

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