The Arctic is a place that gets attention from the international community every so often. It’s the second-most austere region on earth. This is one of them. The imminent additions of Sweden and Finland into Nato makes this a momentous occasion.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin of the UK Armed Forces boldly declared that Russia had “strategically lost the war in Ukraine” just four months after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin cited the first reason for his statement as the fact that the war had unified Nato.
The alliance was in a state of uncertainty before the invasion. The US, its senior member, asked why it was still paying for the umbrella, while European countries who had benefited from it for so many years but paid little, offered EU-style alternatives. The Europeans were promoting bad ideas and the US wasn’t impressed.
Putin invaded Ukraine again, and suddenly everyone’s attention was focused on the strongest military alliance in the world. Sweden and Finland, two Arctic nations, asked to join the alliance not long after.
Nato will include all countries in the Arctic except Russia once they have joined. This is important for the same reasons that every maritime trade zone in the world is important – routes, and resources.
The speed at which the Northeast Passage, (Russia and Norway), and Northwest Passage, (Canada and Alaska), will become viable as commercial shipping routes remains uncertain. Met Office figures indicate that sea ice is now less than it was between 1981 and 2010 (when the most dire predictions of ice retreat were made), but that in the last five year, the trend reversed. The Arctic ice has proven difficult to predict. If the passages are open and available to be used for two or even three months per year by 2030 as many forecasters believe, they will then become more commercially active, with all the associated insurance and operational issues. The treaties and dispositions of the countries that border these routes are important at this stage.
But it’s not only commercial shipping. Russia’s military presence in the Arctic is significant, and includes its nuclear-deterrent submarine. The Northern Fleet is the core of Russian navy and has 16 nuclear-powered submarines, ranging from “old, noisy, and ineffective” to “new, extremely capable”. When I was in command of a Royal Navy anti submarine frigate, I faced these latter when they were “old and noisy”. I can attest to their capabilities.
The Russian flotilla of submarines, autonomous vehicles and drones, sensor systems and other underwater systems – collectively called Gugi or the “Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research”, is increasing in size and capability. Gugi isn’t a scientific organization: it’s actually one of Russia’s most secretive parts. The Northern Fleet has also more than 30 surface ships intended for Arctic usage, including two nuclear missile battlecruisers – the largest surface warships on the planet. The Kalibr is everywhere, taunting Westerners with its outstanding design and interoperability.
Northern Fleet Command also boasts powerful land forces. Two arctic motor rifle brigades, Naval Infantry, Special Forces and Reconnaissance assets, as well as maritime patrol aircraft and over 70 fast jets are all located in the north. The Russian north has a wide range of conventional warfare capabilities. The combination of sanctions and corruption, along with the loss of personnel and equipment reallocated to Ukraine, has degraded many of Russia’s Arctic capabilities.
There is no shortage of resources in the High North. The High North is known for its oil and gas reserves, which could account for 20 percent of the world’s hydrocarbons. But there are also other resources, such as nickel, zinc and diamonds.
It’s not only natural resources that are at risk. The Nord Stream Attack showed how vulnerable the undersea infrastructure can be. This infrastructure is all over the Norwegian continental shelf. It has been the target of Russian “activities”, from drones flying overhead to fishing boats without fishing gear.
It does not have to be conventional in order to pose a serious threat.
Over the years, the governance of the Arctic has been a problem. All regulatory bodies or treaties either lack a legally-binding mandate, are not signed by all countries relevant to the issue or have a low level of international significance. This issue is perhaps best illustrated by the Arctic Council which was established in September 1996, but has no legal charter. The Council has been suspended because of the invasion. Both the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Maritime Organisation have regulatory elements, but they do not have universal signatories.
The Arctic is a perfect example of “out-of-sight, out-of mind”. Most people don’t really care about flag-planting stunts and polar bear documentary films, or apocalyptic predictions of ice.
There is always one country that has the resources and power to make a real difference. The US released their first “National Strategy for the Arctic Region” in October 2022. It focuses on security, climate change, sustainable economic development and international cooperation/governance. The document is fourteen pages, but Russia appears twenty-one different times.
Is the US finally committing resources to the High North after the invasion?
Other countries have an interest in seeing that Russian misbehavior in the Arctic is curbed. The Arctic Five countries of Canada, Denmark, and Norway are obvious, but Iceland, Finland, and Sweden, as Arctic Council States, also have a vested interest. Both Iceland and Finland, now Nato candidates, are also Arctic Council States. All conversations must include the six permanent participants, who represent the actual residents of the Arctic. By the time you reach the 38 Arctic Council Observers there is an extensive list of countries that have been opposed to the invasion. The UN and EU are also interested in the stability of the region.
When Putin is up to mischief in the Arctic it will not only be Nato who has to face him down, but everyone.
What can the UK Do in this Environment?
The UK is also a member of G8, G20 and Commonwealth, and has a prominent position in Nato, the G20 and the G8. The UK is a member of many lesser Arctic organizations, including the Arctic Ocean Science Board and International Arctic Science Committee. It also has a comprehensive membership in the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation Programme. The Arctic Circle is not far away from the Shetlands. The UK hosts the International Maritime Organisation, and is a strong advocate of maritime security. Since the whaling days, Britain has been involved in commercial operations throughout the Arctic.
The UK has a responsibility to help shape the sustainability of the region and to contribute to Arctic science via internationally respected organizations such as the British Antarctic Survey, which, despite its name also has a mandate for the Arctic. UK Hydrographic Office has a role to play in bringing to bear its expertise in charting.
Militarily, the story is well known to those who are familiar with UK Defence. We have excellent equipment that we can use there but it’s not enough. Since their conception, our attack submarines operate under the ice. Our frigates have detected and deterred Russian submarine activity near the crucial trans-Atlantic cables infrastructure since the Cold War. At best, one sub is assigned to each task. The new fleet auxiliary Proteus vessel was also purchased to protect our underwater cables. She is a valuable asset, but she’s the only one and her dance cards will be full the moment she deploys to the day she pays back. We need more.
HMS Protection is our only ice patrol vessel. In 2021 she set a record for the northest latitude of an RN ship. However, her schedule in Antarctica prevents regular work. We only have nine of the RAF’s new P-8 Poseidon naval patrol aircraft. The list goes on.
The UK’s role is the same everywhere. It is strong in soft power, diplomacy and science, but has a minimum amount of military hardware.
Does it matter? This is not relevant to the Arctic. In this case we are the only major European country that has not increased its defence spending in a meaningful way.
As Russia crosses international norms, it will face a united diplomatic and military response from all those who live and operate there.
Admiral Radakin had it right: Russia’s reinvigoration Nato is a failure in every strategic area, including the High North.