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Sweden and Finland Will Help NATO Counter Russia in the Arctic
Russian Navyâs lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov, is towed to the 35th squadron shipyard for maintenance and repair works in Murmansk, Russia on May 20, 2022. (Photo by Semen Vasileyev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Russian Navyâs lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov, is towed to the 35th squadron shipyard for maintenance and repair works in Murmansk, Russia on May 20, 2022. (Photo by Semen Vasileyev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Sweden and Finland Will Help NATO Counter Russia in the Arctic

Arthur Herman

Three Russian submarines, seemingly equipped to carry 16 ballistic missiles with multiple nuclear warheads, simultaneously broke through the ice near the North Pole in March 2021. The boats were soon joined by two MiG-31 aircraft and ground troops participating in Umka-2021, a Russian Arctic military exercise that signaled a new and dangerous era for the polar region and the world. But Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization provides an opportunity to contain the Kremlin’s strategy for domination of the Arctic and North Pole.

Thanks to climate change, the Arctic has increasingly become a navigable sea route. The maximum ice coverage hit the lowest level on record, 5.57 million square miles, in 2017. One model suggests the Arctic Ocean could be largely free of ice in summer by 2035, although some experts say the mid-2040s is more realistic. This means that nations bordering the Arctic, including the U.S. and Russia, will have an enormous stake in who has access to and control of the resources of this energy- and mineral-rich region as well as the new sea routes for global commerce the melt-off is creating. Forty-three of the nearly 60 large oil and natural-gas fields that have been discovered in the Arctic are in Russia, according to a 2009 American Energy Department report. Eleven are in Canada, six in Alaska and one in Norway.

With this in mind, Russia has been active in taking advantage of the retreat of sea ice to militarize the region. U.S. Alaska Command reported that it intercepted more Russian military aircraft near the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone in 2020 than at any other time since the Cold War. In 2007, Artur Chilingarov, a Russian Duma member, led a submarine expedition to the North Pole and planted a Russian flag on the seabed. Later he declared: “The Arctic is Russian.”

While China isn’t an Arctic country, Beijing has also shown a keen interest in the region. Besides eyeing the Arctic’s rich energy deposits (perhaps 30% of world’s unexplored natural-gas reserves), the Chinese know new shipping routes through the Arctic would provide a route from East Asia to Europe that is about 8,000 miles long. The one most often traversed now, which runs through the Suez Canal, is roughly 13,000 miles. Ships would save between 10 to 15 days of travel.

Chinese business interests have made bids for Arctic real estate. In 2016, China attempted to buy an old military base in Greenland before Denmark blocked the purchase as a favor to the U.S. In 2018 a Chinese company even tried to build an airport near the U.S. base at Thule, Greenland, again without success. More alarmingly, Chinese officials tried to buy Finland’s Kemijärvi air base in Lapland, ostensibly to conduct Arctic research. Finland blocked the sale, reasonably fearing that plans to expand the airport to handle large Chinese aircraft could have other, more sinister purposes.

The U.S. has been slow in developing an Arctic strategy of its own. The region is mentioned only once in the 2017 National Security Strategy and not at all in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Although the Biden administration has yet to make public its 2022 National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon did issue an Arctic strategy document in 2019, and the Air Force and Navy have their own versions. But these are isolated documents with no plans for coordination of operations or resources—let alone with fellow members of NATO, such as Canada, that also have a vital stake in the Arctic.

NATO hasn’t done much better—its joint statement after the 2021 summit mentioned “the High North” exactly once—but that could change. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine made the allies acutely aware of the threat Russia poses, and in Sweden and Finland, it will gain nations capable of leading Arctic strategy. Until now, the loudest advocate inside NATO for security in the Arctic has been Norway. In March it conducted Cold Response, a 30,000-strong Arctic military exercise, including forces from Finland and Sweden.

Now all three Nordic nations will be able to work to secure the Arctic through NATO. Both Finland and Sweden bring quite a bit to the table. Finland is a leader in icebreaker ship building, while the Swedish navy has a quiet and highly effective submarine fleet, which will be crucial for polar defense. Of the eight nations that are permanent members of the Arctic Council—the principal intergovernmental forum for coordinating Arctic policy—all but Russia are or soon will be NATO members (the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland). The alliance has an opportunity to develop a robust Arctic strategy to contain Russia and China. It’s vital that NATO protect freedom of navigation and the Arctic’s abundant natural resources for the future.

The first order of business for NATO should be conducting joint exercises in the Arctic, especially naval exercises and ballistic-missile-defense drills. Russia could use long-range missiles and naval assets in the Russian Arctic to threaten NATO in the Atlantic or the Baltic. The alliance needs to demonstrate a capability to meet that threat, which ought to include working with non-Arctic NATO members like the Baltic republics.

The alliance should also develop an outreach program for the Arctic’s indigenous peoples, who are also represented on the Arctic Council as permanent members through various indigenous peoples’ organizations. Norway, Denmark (which governs Greenland) and Canada already work with their indigenous populations to improve relations, which includes military operational procedures. NATO should do the same and make clear that a strong and resilient alliance presence benefits all the people living in the region.

NATO would also be wise to use its June summit in Madrid to establish an Arctic Strategy Task Force that can plan and coordinate a joint response to Russian aggression, among other things by creating a network of high-altitude unmanned aircraft to keep persistent watch over the region and share intelligence and data, including satellite links, among allies.

The alliance should also hold its next summit above the Arctic Circle. Choosing a Norwegian city such as Tromsø or Bodø would clearly demonstrate that NATO takes threats to this region seriously.

Mr. Putin believes the Arctic is Moscow’s exclusive enclave. NATO and Washington need to demonstrate the opposite: Keeping the Arctic region free and open is the best policy for our respective national interests as well as global stability and peace.

Read in The Wall Street Journal

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