“Arctic Dominance”

NATO membership for Finland and Sweden galvanizes the militarization of the Arctic – also regarding Russia’s Northern Fleet, which ensures that country’s nuclear second-strike capability.

HELSINKI/STOCKHOLM/MOSCOW (Own report) – The imminent NATO membership for Finland and Sweden galvanizes the militarization of the Arctic, with participation of the German Bundeswehr. This is becoming evident by NATO maneuvers in Europe’s High North, which, for years, have regularly been conducted relatively close to Russia’s Northern Fleet bases on the Kola Peninsula. These bases host particularly submarines equipped with ballistic missiles, largely ensuring Russian naval forces’ nuclear second-strike capability. Moscow protects them with a military bastion concept designed to prevent hostile forces any access to the region. By admitting Finland and Sweden, NATO is also reinforcing its strategic position in the proximity of the Kola Peninsula. Russia is reacting with new armament measures. Helsinki and Stockholm plan to present their applications for NATO membership with their respective parliaments votes of approval, expected today, Monday, or tomorrow following this weekend’s final set of decisions.

The Kola Peninsula

With NATO’s imminent northern expansion, the Kola Peninsula in the Russian Arctic will become an increasingly important focus for the western military pact. The Peninsula is of strategic importance, because it houses Russia’s Northern Fleet. Its main base is in Severomorsk near Murmansk, “which is the only ice-free Russian port in the Arctic,” according to a recent analysis by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).[1] Strategic submarines are stationed at the Kola Peninsula, equipped with sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), “which guarantee about two-thirds of Russia’s maritime nuclear second-strike capability.” Because of the nuclear second-strike capability’s tremendous strategic importance, Moscow has revived the “Bastion concept” around the Kola Peninsula, providing for the concentration of military capabilities “effective in denying the enemy access to or power over a geographical zone.” “Russia assumes a defensive position on the Arctic,” SWP notes also with regard to the Kola Peninsula, “but it is ready for rapid escalation in the event of conflict.”

NATO in the High North

As SWP notes, for years, NATO and its member countries have been intensifying their military activities in the Arctic, both in general and in Europe’s High North, in particular. As evidence, SWP makes reference to NATO’s 2018 Trident Juncture maneuver, where around 50,000 soldiers from more than 30 countries, 250 aircraft and 65 warships had participated. The main maneuver area was in central Norway, with aerial and maritime regions of Sweden and Finland included. The exercise was NATO’s second largest since the end of the cold war.[2] The following year, Russia responded with the large-scale Ocean Shield maneuver – with 70 ships and 58 aircraft, some of which “operated just outside of Norway’s territorial waters,” as the SWP indicates.[3] The operation exemplifies the upward spiral of militarization in the High North. The Bundeswehr is consistently involved in this escalation. The United States, whose military branches have begun formulating diverse Arctic strategies, is the driving force behind it. The US Army’s Arctic Strategy was published January 19, 2021 – under the programmatic title “Regaining Arctic Dominance.”[4]

US Patrols in the Barents Sea

The western powers have not only been expanding their maneuvers in Europe’s High North for quite some time – they have also been supplementing them with provocative patrols. The Cold Response combat exercises, for example, regularly take place with a focus on Northern Norway. This year 30,000 soldiers from 27 countries – several hundred from the German Bundeswehr – participated. The exercise was, therefore, NATO’s largest in the Arctic since the end of the cold war. Not least among the participants were two aircraft carrier battle groups – the US American, USS Harry S. Truman and the British, HMS Prince of Wales. Last year, a preliminary report described Norway’s Ofoten region, where the maneuvers took place, as being “of essential strategic significance, in the event of a major global conflict involving Russia in the North Atlantic,” because it is located only “600 km from the Kola Peninsula.”[5] Already back in May 2020, a US Navy destroyer group and the British frigate HMS Kent had advanced even deeper in route to the Kola Peninsula: they had entered the Barents Sea on patrol. According to the SWP, this was the first time since the end of the cold war.[6]

NATO Aerial Operations at the Arctic Circle

Finland and Sweden have not only been regularly participating in NATO’s northern European maneuvers, such as Trident Juncture or Cold Response, they have, from time to time, provided – such as in the case of Trident Juncture 2018 – the area for portions of the combat exercises to be held. This applies also to the Arctic Challenge series of maneuvers, a series of Air Force training exercises carried out for the first time in 2013 – at the time by Norway, Finland, Sweden, Great Britain and the United States. In Arctic Challenge 2021, there were nine countries participating – including the Bundeswehr with ten Eurofighters and around 200 soldiers. Arctic Challenge 2019 focused on diverse aerial operations, wherein NATO combat jets, along with those of the closest allies, took off from Bodø in Norway, Luleå in Sweden, and Rovaniemi in Finland – all polar circle airbases. Rovaniemi, in Finland, where the Bundeswehr was stationed for the maneuvers, lies a little more than a linear 400 km away from Russia’s Northern Fleet’s main base in Severomorsk, in the vicinity of Murmansk. Finland and Sweden’s joining NATO will further increase the significance of combat maneuvers such as Arctic Challenge for the western alliance, in which both countries play major roles.

Arctic Arms Spiral

For its part, Russia is reacting to the militarization of Europe’s High North with new armament measures. Back in mid-April, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, announced that “amid a dramatic deterioration of the military and political situation in Europe” that “more than 500 advanced weapons systems” will be stationed in and around the Barents Sea.[7] Meanwhile, Moscow is demonstrating its seriousness about its announcement. For example, during the May 9 Victory Day Parade in Murmansk, not only the new Monolit-BR, coastal radar, which is to be deployed with the Northern Fleet, but also the 3K60 Bal missile system, to be used to protect the naval base or even serve to control the coastal waters, were on display. If effectively deployed on the Kola Peninsula facing Norway’s radar system in Vardø in the extreme northeast of the country, it has been reported, it could take out the Norwegian radar system with lightning speed.[8] The militarization of the Arctic by NATO and its northern expansion are inexorably driving the arms escalations in Europe’s High North.


More on this theme: NATO’s Northward Expansion (III).


[1] Michael Paul, Göran Swistek: Russland in der Arktis. Entwicklungspläne, Militärpotential und Konfliktprävention. SWP-Studie 19. Berlin, Oktober 2021.

[2] See also Die Zeit der Großmanöver.

[3] Michael Paul, Göran Swistek: Russland in der Arktis. Entwicklungspläne, Militärpotential und Konfliktprävention. SWP-Studie 19. Berlin, Oktober 2021.

[4] See also The Militarization of the Arctic

[5] See also From the Baltic to the Black Sea

[6] Michael Paul, Göran Swistek: Russland in der Arktis. Entwicklungspläne, Militärpotential und Konfliktprävention. SWP-Studie 19. Berlin, Oktober 2021.

[7] James R. Jackson: Russia upgrades northern fleet as Finland debates joining Nato. thetimes.co.uk 20.04.2022.

[8] Atle Staalesen: In Murmansk war parade was presented new coastal radar and missile system. thebarentsobserver.com 10.05.2022.