As the situation in Ukraine continues to worsen, Canada is under increasing pressure to include the Arctic as part of NATO’s strategy to counteract Russian aggression. In the following, we content that it should continue to resist this pressure—even in the wake of events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The efforts to increase NATO’s common interests in the Arctic began as far back as 2010 with Norway broaching the subject at a NATO Summit. At that time, Canada requested that the Arctic be removed from the Summit’s agenda as Canada felt that NATO had no place in Arctic affairs.
Recent events in Ukraine have evoked concern among NATO allies about Russia’s potential interest in expanding its borders. In a recent meeting of the Russian Security Council, Russian President Putin highlighted the “special” place of the Arctic in Russia’s sphere of influence. Referring directly to Russia’s future Arctic strategy, Putin noted: “We need to take additional measures so as not to fall behind our partners, to maintain Russian influence in the region and, maybe in some areas, to be ahead of our partners.” Russia is in the process of continuing its militarization of the Arctic and this week’s comments regarding Russia’s future Arctic interests is cause for concern.
Having mishandled the crisis in Ukraine for so long, NATO’s response can now be defined as “neo-containment” in which NATO bolsters its military presence in Poland and the Baltic states in an effort to dissuade Putin from going any further with his quest for what he has called “New Russia.” However, it would be incredibly unwise for NATO to include the Arctic as a component of the neo-containment strategy moving forward.
The idea of extending NATO to the Arctic theatre is not a new one. Canadian officials raised the possibility of such an extended mandate in the 1950s when Soviet bombers posed a threat to North America through Arctic airspace. Canada’s concerns at the time, however, were shaped as much by the relationship with its southern neighbour as they were with the Soviet threat. Indeed, Ottawa was hoping to deflect living under an exclusively bilateral (NORAD) umbrella by including our European allies in the plan. The Americans and NATO's European members took little interest in the Canadian request and the matter was dropped.
The situation today is completely different. Russian interests in the Arctic are not primarily about a global competition for power through territorial expansion (despite the indirect implications of power accumulation); it is about pressing territorial and resource claims to their most extreme limits. At the same time, every other Arctic state is pressing similar claims. While military power is not insignificant in asserting and defending such claims, it has not been the exclusive, nor even primary, means employed thus far. Diplomatic and institutional measures are still a viable option for resolving these territorial disputes. A NATO presence in the Arctic would severely undermine these non-military measures and would likely provoke Russia into a game of brinkmanship.
To date, Arctic relations have been entirely diplomatic, with no genuine hint of armed conflict on the immediate horizon. It is true that Arctic states have invested significant domestic resources into Arctic scientific exploration, resource extraction technology and military assets but thus far relations in the Arctic Region have been cooperative. For the first time since the crisis in Ukraine began, though, the Arctic became a component of a broader strategic discussion when Canada withdrew from the meeting of the Arctic Council’s task force on black carbon and methane held in Moscow. Even so, it is likely that Canada’s withdrawal from the proceedings had more to do with the fact that the meeting was being held in Moscow and not a sincere effort on Canada’s part to goad Russia on policy issues concerning the Arctic.
The disputes at play in the Arctic are also fundamentally different from those being played out in Ukraine. Any attempt to link them would be counterproductive on many fronts. Much has been made in the weeks since the implosion in Ukraine on the effects that NATO expansion has had on Russian foreign policy. Regardless of how one interprets the effects of NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia, extending the alliance into the Arctic would only confirm the perception in Moscow that the alliance’s primary objective has been to encircle Russia and deny what it views as legitimate security interests on its borders. If Russians weren't paranoid about being trapped before, such a move by NATO would surely reinforce such a view.
Turning the Arctic into a new military front is also surely not in Canada's interests given the paucity of our capacity to mount a military presence in the region. Despite repeated rhetorical commitments to shore up our security presence in the Arctic, little has been accomplished and even less seems likely as budget surpluses and elections loom. Militarizing the region further by bringing it within NATO, while leaving the military response to others, only diminishes Canadian sovereign claims over its underlying natural resources and shipping lanes.
Finally, making the Arctic part of NATO’s area of interest would also provide European member states with a direct interest and involvement in the region. The EU has been pursuing a seat at the Arctic table for some years, a pursuit that has been strongly resisted by Canada and others. Bringing NATO to the Arctic would provide the EU with that long sought after foothold in the region that would make their future exclusion difficult, at best. One could only begin to speculate how other interested parties, specifically China, would respond.
Canada’s resistance to a NATO presence thus far has been far more about protecting its national interests than anything else, but in this instance Canada would be wise to maintain its stance against NATO involvement. Balancing Russia in the Arctic is more about U.S. interests than Canada’s and committing NATO member states uninterested in armed conflict in the Arctic to a hardline stance is utterly nonsensical. The goal should be to contain Russia in Europe and let the Arctic remain a space for mutual cooperation for as long as possible.