The Kremlin’s increasing military activities in the Arctic worry many countries, but especially Norway—the only NATO member state that borders Russia north of the Arctic Circle—and Denmark, whose kingdom includes the world’s largest island, Greenland.
Ambassadors representing both countries in Washington spoke during a March 19 webinar, “Looking North: Conference on Security in the Arctic,” hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
‘If you really want to understand the dynamics of the Arctic, the best way is to go there,” said Anniken Ramberg Krutnes, Norway’s ambassador to the United States. In fact, the Norwegian Embassy and the Atlantic Council have organized at least 10 trips to Norway for researchers, reporters and policymakers, giving participants insight into the realities of the Arctic.
“The Norwegian Arctic has bustling cities, airports, universities, hospitals, award-winning restaurants and innovative industries,” she said. “Our Arctic has ice-free waters due to the Gulfstream, which is different from the North American Arctic. This has an impact on what kind of activities can take place. Norway is NATO’s eyes and ears in the north. That is a responsibility we take very, very seriously.”
Keynote speaker Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norway’s minister of defense, noted that as climate change opens up new sailing routes and ice-free areas, the Arctic becomes more strategic.
“Russian armed forces have significantly modernized during the last 10 to 12 years. Its capabilities are increasingly integrated, giving Russia more flexibility,” said Bakke-Jensen, a former European Union official who served in the Norwegian Parliament and was once a soldier in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
“The Russians have modernized their underwater capabilities,” he said. “They’ve improved their ability to deploy troops rapidly over great distances. Russia is now also more capable in terms of conventional long-range precision weapons. Together, this reduces the warning time for NATO countries to hours and days.”
Also concerning is stepped-up Russian maritime activities just off Norway’s coast, he said.
“From its new airbase on Franz Josef Land, Russia is now able to conduct air operations over vast areas in the Arctic,” Bakke-Jensen warned. “This Russian ability to reduce NATO’s freedom of movement is particularly worrying for transatlantic security.”
While the threat from Moscow shouldn’t be exaggerated, NATO must remain “clear-eyed” about Russia’s military intensions in the Arctic, said Lone Dencker Wisborg, Denmark’s ambassador to the United States.
“Even though the focus is mainly defensive, some elements might be used for more offensive purposes, and we have also seen China’s increased ambitions and interests in the Arctic relating to their desire for access to natural resources and sea routes,” she said. “We have generations of experience and know-how in operating 24/7 all year long in the Arctic.”
Wisborg said Denmark recently approved a $240 million spending bill to boost Danish military surveillance, communications, and command-and-control operations in the Arctic.
“This is for us a testament to the importance we attach to this region,” she said. “Our military purpose is not to increase tensions, obviously, but to monitor and safeguard our national territory.”
Bakke-Jensen said Norway welcomes the September 2020 establishment of Joint Force Command Norfolk, as well as the resurrection of a US Second Fleet.
“The Arctic is a very important area for cooperation between the United States and Norway. As we speak, the US Air Force is conducting operations with four of its B-1 bombers from Ørland Air Base in central Norway,” he said. “Allied activity in the region shows Allied cohesion, as well as our shared interest in maintaining the Euro-Atlantic space as a region characterized by freedom, peace and stability. At the same time, the scope of allied activities must be measured to avoid unnecessary escalation and misunderstandings.”
Besides cooperating with the Pentagon, he said, “we are working closely with Sweden and Finland, which are not NATO countries but part of the Western defense cooperation. We see the Barents Sea but also the Baltic countries and the southern part of the Nordic coastline involved.”
From the Canadian point of view, the Arctic “is a fundamental part of our heritage and identity, and part of our future,” said Peter Hammerschmidt, assistant deputy minister for policy at the Department of National Defense in Ottawa.
It also represents “tremendous opportunities” as temperatures rise due to climate change, he said.
“As we look out 50 years from now, we see ourselves as likely to be in a bit of a climate sweet spot for human activity: more arable lands, more accessible natural resources, more open Arctic transportation routes,” he said. “It’s really a very attractive place to be on the planet, from the point of view of resources, climate and migration. So we stand to gain, but from my perspective, to be able to take advantage of all the opportunities, we’re going to need to protect our north.”