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NATO’s Cold Response and the Implications of Militarization in the Arctic

a tank rolling through the Norwegian Arctic
A Dutch tank in the 2016 Cold Response. Credit: Ministerie van Defensie/ Wikimedia Commons

On April 1, NATO concluded its largest Norwegian-led Cold Response training exercise to date. Cold Response training is a long-standing military operation conducted by NATO member and partner nations, typically held every four years. But, it was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war and the prospect of Arctic militarization loomed large as participants gathered.

This year’s two-week cold-weather training included military personnel from 23 out of the 30 NATO countries. Partner countries Finland and Sweden also participated. It was conducted in several different areas of Norway including Bodø and Narvik, home to many glaciers such as Svartisen (Norway’s second-largest glacier) and Frostisen. 

The Cold Response takes place in extremely difficult conditions, and this year, four US marines died during a training accident. They were killed in a transport plane crash during the exercise, likely due to the low visibility in the area. High winds combined with heavy snow and ice from the storm may also have contributed to the crash. This area’s danger is amplified by landslide risk, which inhibited the rescue operation. Many European countries, including non-NATO partners, rely on this training to maintain their standing military strength and expertise in brutal winter conditions. 

35,000 soldiers participated, and all partner and member countries, including Russia, were invited to observe the training. Russia, however, declined this year’s invitation. There were also 5,000 fewer soldiers in the Cold Response due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Preben Aursand, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Armed Forces Operational Headquarters. Russia’s decline of the observer invitation and the deaths of the marines underscore the seriousness of the circumstances which surround the event this year. 

The Norwegian military forces gathered for Cold Response 2009.
Norwegian military personnel in Cold Response 2009. Credit: Jaran Gjeland Stenstad/ Wikimedia Commons

Although the Cold Response is a longstanding and non-combative practice, the exercise raises questions about how increasing militarization in the Arctic may affect regional cooperation and future relations of NATO members with Russia. The Cold Response had been planned before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but there were initial concerns about whether moving forward with the already-scheduled Cold Response would provoke a Russian response in the context of the new war. However, NATO members decided to move ahead on the basis that it might deter Russia from invading a greater swath of land. Before the Cold Response began, Russia conducted a military exercise in the Arctic, which was seen as a “warning to the West.” One week later on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Two NATO partners, Finland and Sweden, participated as a combined brigade in Cold Response for the first time and have now been exploring joining NATO in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. NATO had already been sharing intelligence about the Ukrainian invasion with both countries since March and the two countries have also been joining NATO meetings. Additionally, NATO began another military exercise with Finland and Sweden on June 5. US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed that the US and other countries needed to “show solidarity with both Finland and Sweden in this exercise.” 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed that Finland and Sweden could be added to NATO “quite quickly,” although the path for that step is not clear. A further complication is that Turkey’s President Erdogan expressed intent to block Finland’s application to NATO, and the vote has to be unanimous. This move comes from his concern about the Scandinavian support for Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Western countries rely on to fight ISIS. President Erdogan views the SDF as a terrorist organization. Although both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that Turkey’s concerns could be mitigated, it provides further uncertainty for Finland and Sweden’s admission to NATO.

This expansion of NATO is not without its risks, however. Russia asserted that there would be “serious military and political consequences” if NATO were to admit Finland and Sweden. Additionally, Russia has raised a territorial dispute over the autonomous Åland Islands which lie between Finland and Sweden, due to Finland’s intent to join NATO. The Åland Islands have been autonomous since 1856, as a concession from the Crimean War. Both Finland and Sweden have formally submitted applications to NATO on May 18, but further militarization will have significant consequences, not solely due to increased militarization from Russia as a counter, but also for economic and environmental treaties in the Arctic. 

Dutch tanks rolling through Norway in Cold Response 2016.
Dutch military forces participating in Cold Response 2016. Credit: Ministerie van Defensie/ Wikimedia Commons

There is great potential for economic activity in the Arctic region, as receding sea ice is increasing access to fossil fuels, mineral resources, and easier transportation, and glacier retreat exposes new areas for military bases. With increasing economic potential, countries have been rushing to claim newly exposed routes and territory for themselves. Although the Cold Response itself is unlikely to increase tensions as it is a long-standing practice with high transparency, further militarization from either side has the potential to cause geopolitical issues. 

Russian militarization in the Arctic has already been increasing significantly in recent years and further militarization from other countries increases the risk of disrupting long-standing Arctic cooperation and joint governance. Russia has been conducting numerous Arctic military exercises, and since 2014, it has built over 475 new military structures. Additionally, Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at the Arctic University of Norway, explains in a past GlacierHub post that the receding sea ice opens the Arctic to NATO forces, so Russia is looking to use new land as an opportunity for expanding the scope of action of its military forces to increase the defense of its nuclear weapons and submarines

If militarization continues to increase, tension and secrecy could increase the risk of a miscommunication that would jeopardize cooperation and lead to a breakdown of the Arctic Council’s governance, crucial environmental treaties, and other essential standards. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental assembly of the eight countries with Arctic territory. The forum cooperates to establish rules in the region and solve issues such as economic territory, environmental protection, and other regional problems. There has already been a scramble for Arctic resources, particularly minerals and fossil fuels, due to the volatility of energy prices dependent on the geopolitical climate. Existing conflicts about territory, shipping routes, and claims to mineral resources are already testing the limits of the scattered governance of the Arctic

The Arctic Council is limited in its power and it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage these conflicts. The Arctic, governed by treaties and intergovernmental organizations, has very limited powers in enforcing specific guidelines and cannot resolve large-scale conflicts, particularly the type that may arise due to increased militarization. 

The tensions that have risen from a routine exercise like the Cold Response demonstrate that the threat of militarization and conflict in the Arctic is becoming increasingly dangerous—and increasingly complex as climate change alters glaciers and sea ice in this remote region. 

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