The Militarization of the Arctic

NATO states expand their military maneuvers and bases in the Arctic - against Russia. German Bundeswehr also involved.

BERLIN/REYKJAVÍK/OSLO (Own report) - Growing military tensions in the Artic overshadow today's Arctic Council ministerial meeting. In recent years, the Arctic has increasingly become the theater of global rivalries. The melting of the polar ice facilitates access to natural resources and opens new maritime trade routes, thus exacerbating competition between the states involved. At the same time, Russia's Arctic coast is gradually losing its protective barrier of ice and extreme cold and is becoming vulnerable. Moscow feels compelled to reinforce its defenses and has built new military bases in its Arctic regions. German government advisors concede that Moscow's approach is "fundamentally defensive." However, according to NATO, today Russia poses a "threat" to the entire region. With the active support of Berlin and the Bundeswehr, the war alliance is accelerating the militarization of the Arctic Ocean. NATO member Norway has announced that the largest maneuver in the Arctic since the end of the Cold War will be held in 2022.

Arctic Rivalries

For years, Germany's foreign policy has increasingly focused on the Arctic since, due to climate change, the polar ice is melting and is progressively opening up the Arctic Ocean to navigation. This facilitates the extraction of Arctic raw materials. According to the US Geological Survey about 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil may be found north of the Arctic Circle. New maritime trade routes are opening up. Most famous is the Northeast Passage north of the Russian mainland, which connects Europe and East Asia and is shorter than the route through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. Once the Arctic ice has melted enough to allow easy navigation, it could become a real alternative to southern maritime routes - a fact most recently highlighted when the "Ever Given" container ship blocked the Suez Canal in March.[1] Due to the Arctic's growing economic importance, numerous countries are publishing their own Arctic strategy documents - Germany, France and Canada in 2019, Sweden, Norway and Poland in 2020 - increasingly with also military considerations.[2]

"Fundamentally Defensive"

For some time, the Western debate has paid particular attention to the Russian Arctic Strategy, which had been adopted in October 2020. "Russia’s strategic objectives in the region are fundamentally defensive," a recent analysis published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) notes.[3] It essentially aims at developing the infrastructure of the Russian Arctic, which holds a large portion of Russia's natural gas reserves, to boost the economy and to end the population decline. In addition, climate change is exposing Russia's Arctic coast, which previously had been protected against potential attacks through ice and extreme cold. "In a sense Russia is acquiring new external borders that need to be protected from potential aggressors," SWP writes.[4] Moscow has therefore "reactivated many of the Soviet-era bases that had been closed since 1990 and constructed new ones," for example deepwater ports, airfields, radar and sea rescue stations. Russia exhibits "a defensive stance in the Arctic," but, in the event of conflict, is prepared "for rapid escalation," which, "for the defense" could include "offensive operations."

"Regaining Arctic Dominance"

Russian anxiety over the vulnerability of its northern coastline is not least of all nourished by military activities of the United States, which has already presented several Arctic strategy papers, for example by the Pentagon, the Navy, the Air Force, a joint paper by the Navy and Marine Corps and a paper by the Army. In addition, US combat exercises in the Arctic have notably increased. For example, in October 2018, for the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union, the US Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group cruised through Arctic waters - in the European Arctic Ocean, potentially a launching pad for an attack on Russia from the north.[5] Since this training cruise, the US military has expanded its maneuvers in he High North. The April 16 agreement with Norway provides for the US armed forces establishing its own installations at 4 Norwegian military bases, including at a naval base and an airfield in the far north of the country.[6] The US military's Arctic strategy - adopted January 15, 2021 - is published under the motto "Regaining Arctic Dominance."[7]

"The Crucial Role"

In the run-up to today's meeting of the Arctic Council [8] in Reykjavik, the discussion around the militarization of the polar region escalated. On Monday, Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, explained in reference to western complaints about Russian military activities in the Arctic that they are necessary for "keeping the Arctic coast safe." "This is our territory." It will be protected. NATO, on the other hand, is behaving “offensively” in the Arctic Ocean.[9] Lavrov again demanded, for the sake of reducing tensions that direct talks between the Arctic Council members' general chiefs of staffs be resumed. NATO, on the other hand, contends that Russia's military measures to defend its northern borders constitute a "threat" to the region. The western war alliance will take measures against them. The precise procedures will be deliberated at NATO's June 14 summit in Brussels.[10] Also on Monday, during US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's visit to Copenhagen, Denmark's Prime Minister, Mette Fredriksen declared the intention of establishing "that the Kingdom of Denmark, the United States of America and NATO - and no one else - play the crucial role in the Arctic."[11]

600 Kilometers to Russian Northern Fleet

The western claims to dominance have been reinforced by an increase in military activity, with the Bundeswehr's active participation already since years. ( reported.[12]) Most recently, the German Navy participated in missile target practice off the coast of Andøya Island in northern Norway. The combat exercise, for which a maritime region the size of the Kola Peninsula was placed off limits, had been carried out from May 7, to 9 - which marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, an important holiday in Russia.[13] Next year, Norway will host the "Cold Response 2022" maneuvers, with around 40,000 soldiers - the largest maneuver in the Arctic since the end of the cold war. It is due to take place in the vicinity of the Ofoten - where the Norwegian military regularly carries out training for foreign troops, alongside the Bundeswehr, also for units from Great Britain and the USA. This is also where the United States is being permitted to install its facilities at Norwegian military bases. Already in March 2020, the German military had participated in "Cold Response 2020" maneuvers - in spite of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The training area for the "Cold Response 2022" maneuver - with the presumed participation of the Bundeswehr - is about 600 kilometers from the Kola Peninsula where the Russian Northern Fleet’s nuclear submarines are based.[14]


[1] Salvatore R. Mercogliano: Lessons From the Ship That Nearly Destroyed 12 Percent of World Trade. 09.05.2021.

[2], [3] Michael Paul: Die neue Arktistrategie der EU. SWP-Aktuell Nr. 14. Berlin, Februar 2021.

[4] Janis Kluge, Michael Paul: Russlands Arktis-Strategie bis 2035. SWP-Aktuell Nr. 89. Berlin, November 2020.

[5] Megan Eckstein: Truman Carrier Strike Group Operating North of Arctic Circle; First Time for US Navy Since 1991. 19.10.2018.

[6] Chad Garland: US can build military facilities in Norway under new defense cooperation pact. 16.04.2021.

[7] United States Army: Regaining Arctic Dominance. Headquarters, Department of the Army. 19 January 2021.

[8] The Arctic Council includes the United States, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Spain, the United Kingdom, China, South Korea, Singapore and India all have observer status.

[9] Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Republic of Sierra Leone David John Francis. Moscow, May 17, 2021.

[10] Matthias Koch: Arktis wird Thema beim Nato-Gipfel im Juni. 03.05.2021.

[11] Kai Strittmatter: Destination Arktis. 17.05.2021.

[12] See also Germany in the High North.

[13] Thomas Nilsen: German warship tests missiles outside northern Norway. 07.05.2021.

[14] Thomas Nilsen: Norway to host biggest exercise inside Arctic Circle since Cold War. 14.04.2021.