UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson 30th September announced a new Defence Arctic Strategy, which will increase the Ministry of Defence’s focus on the Arctic.
According to the Ministry, the environmental changes in the Arctic, which it views as "effectively our own back yard", make the region more accessible. This comes with new opportunities, but also threats like the heightened military activity. "The Defence Strategy should be read as offering support to frontline NATO states such as Norway and Baltic Sea states such as Estonia," says Prof. Klaus Dodds of Royal Holloway University of London to HNN.
Focus on NATO
An emphasis of the strategy is on the role of NATO, the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable forum, and security cooperation with allies and partners for preserving the stability and security of the Arctic region. This includes RAF Typhoon fighters patrolling Icelandic skies from 2019 onward and the introduction of new Boeing P-8 Poseidon sub hunter aircrafts in 2020, which can help combatting the increased submarine activity in the Arctic.
Closer cooperation with Norway
Furthermore, a stronger, long-term cooperation with Norway will be integrated into the country’s defence plan, comprising a new base in northern Norway and the annual deployment of 800 Royal Marine and Army troopers for cold weather training from 2019 to 2029.
According to Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide, potential tensions with sources outside the Arctic could easily affect the Arctic. For this reason, Norway has set much weight on NATO’s focus on collective defence of its territory and entered an agreement to double the number of U.S. Marines present in the country.
More funding needed
"However, it is highly likely more funding will be needed to implement such a strategy and that will require new and additional resourcing especially if other things like critical infrastructure protection is to be factored in," Dodds adds.
"To be creditable, the UK government will have to commit more resourcing to defence. The Russians have done that in the case of the Arctic and attempted to restore their armed forces from the ‘decline decade’ of the 1990s."
In addition to investing in military equipment, Russia is conducting more exercises, and has created and reopened six military bases.
An area of low tensions
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeatedly affirmed NATO’s intent of keeping the Arctic an area of low tensions and avoiding an arms race. However, he argued that the increased Russian military presence and assertive pattern of behaviour in the Arctic requires that the alliance is prepared to respond to any threats and will therefore improve its naval capabilities.
Security against Russian military build-up
Dodds explains: "The UK’s new Defence Strategy also follows on from various Ministry of Defence sponsored events calling for a more strategic approach to the Arctic region, in the light of continued distrust between the UK and Russia."
In August, the Defence Sub-Committee of the House of Commons published a report with the title On thin ice: UK defence in the Arctic. The Committee advises to address the changing security situation and the expansion of Russia’s military influence, for instance the "tenfold increase in Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic".
The report was rapidly taken up by media, which emphasized the "serious threat to Britain from Russia on the Arctic flank". This comes after the 2016 report Russia: implications for UK Defence and Security, reaching similar conclusions.
This occurs at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and London after the UK accused Russia of organizing the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in March.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula in 2014 together with its frequent Arctic naval exercises and the simulated occupation and bombing raids on Norway, Sweden and Finland during its "Zapad" exercise also made Svalbard more prominent in NATO’s considerations.
Leadership on climate change
In addition to the potential military threat from Russia, several other arguments for the UK’s involvement in Arctic politics and defence have been brought forward.
In 2013, the UK’s Polar Regions Department issued a framework entitled Adapting to Change – UK policy towards the Arctic, setting the direction for its Arctic policies and justifying its interests in the region as "the Arctic’s nearest neighbour" with the Shetland Islands only 400km south of the Arctic Circle. This includes leadership on some Arctic-related issues, such as climate change.
The Arctic Institute’s Andreas Østhagen commented on the Arctic aspect of the UK’s strategy: "It is interesting that the UK chose to elevate the Arctic as a defence issue instead of talking about the Barents Sea or the North Atlantic. So far, the Arctic states managed to keep the Arctic security component segmented."
"If it becomes a trend that Arctic states start talking about the Arctic in terms of defence and security, intertwined with NATO exercises, we could potentially see the spill-over effect feared since Russia’s annexation of Crimea," Østhagen envisages.
UK media making Russia a threat
This summer, the Russian Embassy alleged that UK media promote the idea that a military build-up in the Arctic and an increased level of defence spending are necessary to counter a potential threat from Russia. In this line of argument, the UK’s new strategy could be seen in the same light as Norway’s military development – arguably leading to an arms race and destabilizing the region.
"I don’t think Norway and the UK are going to be concerned about that allegation per se. What matters more is how the allegation might be used as a pretext for mischief-making in Svalbard for example," Dodds anticipates.
On the contrary, Russia considers the Arctic an "area for constructive dialogue and equal, conflict-free cooperation in the interests of all states," despite becoming a priority for the country’s military, as a spokesperson of the Russian Embassy assured.
Nevertheless, Dodds expects that the "UK Arctic defence strategy will be welcomed by NATO partners such as Iceland and Norway that want the UK to take a stronger lead in the light of the Trump administration’s mixed messages about NATO, Russia and even the Arctic."