Arctic Security: Deterrence and Détente in the High North

Arctic Security: Deterrence and Détente in the High North

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Rolf Folland

Sjef Luftforsvaret

The guiding principle for NATO’s political strategy towards Russia for the last 50 years was defined in the 1967 Harmel Report; a dualistic approach based on deterrence and détente.(1) This double-track approach came as a response to intense Cold War relations in the mid-1960s that required a revision of the Alliance’s policy. The Harmel Report is still relevant, but the dynamics on the northern flank have changed. This article offers valuable insight into how Norway must rebalance its Arctic policy against the strategic backdrop of increased global rivalry and Arctic volatility. It argues that Norway should lean its Arctic strategy more towards deterrence to avoid exploitation by a revisionist Russia while continuing to mitigate a potential security dilemma through active dialogue and cooperation on regional matters.*


The Arctic is resuming an important geopolitical role. The primary driver for revitalized interest is the effect of global warming. Declination of the Arctic ice cap is creating economic opportunities as untapped resources become available and new waters become navigable. The resource-rich region is estimated to hold large amounts of undiscovered oil, natural gas and minerals,(2) and shorter shipping routes between Europe and Asia are becoming accessible. Growing signs of great power ‘scramble’ for the Arctic are emerging and Russia has claimed expanded jurisdiction and bolstered its military presence in the region. President Putin is no stranger to illegal aggression and violation of international law. Russia clearly has the military superiority in the Arctic region, and Putin has already shown will to grab territory in Europe. This raises questions of whether Russian revisionist ambitions along its southern European border will metastasize to the Arctic and threaten the cooperative climate that has characterized the region in the post-Cold War era.

Norway has had 1000 years of peace with Russia and the two Arctic neighbours’ relationship has been characterized by dialogue, predictability and cooperation.(3) But the relationship is asymmetrical, and Norway has based its security policy on a balance between deterrence through NATO membership and reassurance through dialogue in combination with self-imposed restrictions on allied presence and activity. The Norwegian policy in the Arctic will remain a combination of deterrence and détente, but Russia’s growing military capability, assertiveness and use of force is calling for a renewed balance.

Russian Intentions in the Arctic

To comprehend fully the new challenges in the Arctic, it is vital to analyse Russia’s intentions in the region. Understanding Russia’s intentions in the Arctic through analysing its policy documents is a challenging enterprise that includes a substantial element of assumptions. Public documents from Moscow offer basic principles and trends but may also deliberately convey misleading signals to influence political dynamics.(4) Even though, this article highlights three main observations driven by the changing physical nature of the Arctic and more demanding security dynamics between key actors in the region. First, the region has emerged as an important resource base vital for bolstering Russian economy. A weak economy has long been Russia’s Achilles heel, and the economic situation has deteriorated even further as a result of sanctions imposed after 2014. This has made the region crucial for Russia’s economic future. Second, Russia will strengthen its control over vast Arctic resources by dealing with the expanded continental shelf and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as within its jurisdiction. The latter is disputed by other Arctic actors, especially the US, because it challenges freedom of navigation. Third, Russia’s regional focus seems to be gradually shifting from cooperation to deterrence. New indications of strengthened Arctic security measures and regional militarization are particularly intensified in policy documents published after 2014.

The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation from 2016 states Russia’s ambition of being a great power in a multipolar world where national sovereignty and force is essential.(5) The Concept reveals a realist view on international relations, where sovereign states are the main actors competing in a zero-sum game of power and security. Reflecting this, force and especially military force is important. A key element in Russian strategic culture is the propensity to use force to achieve strategic objectives, demonstrated lately in Crimea and the Ukraine.(6) On the one hand, the policy documents clearly indicate it wants to pursue Arctic policies that “preserve peace, stability and constructive international cooperation.”(7) On the other hand, it signals that “Russia will be firm in countering any attempts to introduce elements of political or military confrontation in the Arctic.”(8) Herein lies the greatest uncertainty with Russian intentions for the Arctic; its dual-track communication and inclination to use military force to reach political objectives. The recent Russian-Ukrainian conflict revealed Russia’s hybrid modus operandi and its ability to test the Western security framework’s limits. The reassuring argument is that Russia is dependent on international collaboration in the Arctic to realize its economic potential due to lack of investment resources, offshore technology and human knowledge,(9) and therefore will continue to solve questions of Arctic sovereignty through international law and multilateral institutions like the Arctic Council. But Moscow’s Arctic policy is also characterized by fear of Western expansion and a struggle for strategic depth.(10)

Basics of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the Period Until 2020 and Beyond reveals this fear and signals that Russia will build-up and modernize its military capabilities to ensure national security and protect its northern border.(11) The National Security Strategy highlights that NATO’s encirclement through regional build-up, expansion and posture closer to Russian borders is a threat to Russian national security in the Arctic.(Ibid.) Russian military doctrine makes the same point of holding NATO as the main external military threat to Russia, and points at the necessity of increasing Russian military capabilities in the High North.(12) So, although the Russian policy documents emphasis stability and multilateral cooperation in the Arctic, military build-up and offensive behaviour reveals Moscow’s fear and militarized threat assessment.

Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic

Russia has strengthened and modernized both its nuclear and conventional capabilities across the board. Since 2008 it has enhanced its military capability in all areas in the Arctic by investing in mobile systems, special forces, new military bases, infrastructure and long-range precision weapons.(13) In 2019, the Chief of Defence Gerasimov launched the new defence concept ‘active defence’. This concept emphasises high readiness, mobility, strong coordination and massive firepower.(14) As a result the Northern Fleet Command has been modernised and transformed into Joint Strategic Command North, and further developed to be one of five Russian military districts.(15) It has centralized command authority of all the Russian military units in the Arctic, including the Russian navy’s nuclear strike capabilities.

The reinforcement concept has been modernised, and together with improved force readiness it ensures that the northern command relatively quickly can achieve short-term local superiority by reinforcing Kola with troops and equipment by rail and air. Several new long-range precision-guided strike weapons, particularly sea- and air-launched systems, have entered into service. Common for most of them is that they can carry either nuclear or conventional warheads. Different variants of the land- and sea-launched KALIBR cruise missile, the air-launched hypersonic intermediate-range missile KHINZAL together with the land-based mobile SSC-8 Screwdriver pose significant threat to NATO due to their duality, long-range, short warning time and high precision. The deployment of new multi-layered air and coastal defence systems improves protection of the Kola Peninsula as well as the ability to assert sovereignty in the Arctic region. In sum, this interconnected system of long-range precision-guided strike and multi-layered air- and coastal defence orchestrated with cyber and electronic tools forms a Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability from the Arctic to the Baltics and the GIUK gap that calls for reinvigorated NATO conventional deterrence and collective defence.

However, in addition to nuclear and conventional military power President Putin has a third ace up his sleeve; hybrid tools that creates ambiguity and doubt. ‘Hybrid warfare’ has been given much attention by Western security analysts since 2014 and often been viewed as a new Russian tool. It is essential to understand that for Russian decision-makers the hybrid tools are integrated with all the other available instruments of national power that can be utilized from peacetime to wartime.(16) In fact, there is a strong interdependence as Russian hard power supports the elements of hybrid warfare and adds a looming threat to the equation that weakens the adversary’s decision-making.

Russia’s military build-up and posture in the Arctic creates uncertainty about Russian intentions and Former US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has claimed that Russia is taking “aggressive steps” to increase its military posture in the region.(17) In addition, the shift in Russian behaviour on the northern flank has been significant since 2017.

Aggressive Russian military behaviour

The Russian military is operating in a more offensive manner against Norwegian and allied activity in the region.(18) According to Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS) there have been several examples of Russian assets targeting Norway and NATO with simulated weapon usage. In 2018, during the NATO exercise Trident Juncture in Norway, Russia demonstrated assertiveness through deploying surface vessels and patrol aircraft to the exercise area, flying strategic sorties over the Norwegian Sea and performing live firing off the coast of Norway. In addition, there have been several incidents of Russian jamming resulting in lost GPS signals for both civilian and allied air traffic in the northern part of Norway.(19) Russian policy, military build-up and belligerent behaviour in the Arctic signal both the will and capability to reassert its great power status through military strength and Arctic energy. Norway has to adapt to this new reality in the High North to ensure regional stability, national security and maintain its prosperity.

Norway and the Arctic

The Arctic is Norway’s most important foreign policy priority. The region has strategic importance for Norway based on two main factors; economic potential and geopolitical location next to Russia.(20) Norway is a global leader in Arctic petroleum productions, a large exporter of oil and natural gas and half of its undiscovered hydrocarbons are estimated to be found in the Barents Sea.(21) Norway is the second largest fish exporter in the world, and this sector is the second largest industry in the country after oil and natural gas.(22) There is a remarkable military asymmetry between Norway and Russia, and defence against neighbouring Russia is driving Norwegian security. Norway’s militarily inferiority to Russia represents a vulnerability that Russia might exploit. This is the main reason why Norway has been a strong advocate for revitalizing NATO’s focus on collective defence and increased vigilance on the northern flank. According to the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, “Norway constitutes NATO’s northern flank, and our military presence in the north is therefore a significant contribution to the security of the Alliance.”(23) Thus, Norway has emphasized military presence in the High North.

The number of Norwegian high-end capabilities available for credible deterrence is limited compared to Russia’s military capability, and the political authorities have lately allowed greater influx of allied activities on Norwegian territory. Both US and UK forces train and exercise more in Norway than a few years ago. This has led to strong reactions from Russia warning Norway that it will have negative consequences,(24) and it has also sparked debate over Norwegian strategic approach among scholars and professionals in Norway. Despite disagreements on strategic approach in the Arctic, the legal principle that law is the basis of governing is the bedrock of Norwegian policy. As a small state neighbouring a mighty military power, Norway is strongly committed to the international rule of law. This is also the case in the Arctic. Norway’s vision for the High North is “a peaceful, prosperous and environmentally sound Arctic where international cooperation and respect for the principles of international law are the norm.”(25) Russia has so far supported Arctic governance based on international law, and Norway’s strategic goal for the Arctic is to make sure this continues in the future.

Russian and Norwegian cooperation in the Arctic

Norwegian and Russian overlapping interest in the Arctic is based on a shared view that the region should be governed by international law in questions of sovereign rights. Both countries seek stability to pursue their economic interests. The Ilulissat Declaration,(26) signed by the Arctic Five in 2008, demonstrated this and signalled that the Arctic is “governed according to the principles that operate anywhere in the world.”(27) In line with this declaration, after nearly four decades of negotiations, Norway and Russia bilaterally agreed on their maritime delimitation line in the Barents Sea in 2010.

The rule of law is paramount for a small state, and like other Allies, Norway has suspended bilateral military cooperation with Russia since Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea. However, Norway continues to cooperate with Russia in other areas that are important for safety and predictability in the region, such as fisheries, search and rescue, coast- and border guard, the Incidents at Sea-Agreement, environmental protection and people-to-people contact in the north. The two neighbouring Arctic nations also have a hotline between the Norwegian Joint Operational Headquarters and the Northern Fleet to avoid unnecessary escalation and misunderstandings. And despite differences, there is enough “common interest to provide a favourable climate for extended future cooperation.”(28) Nonetheless, the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions against Russian Arctic energy interests have complicated cooperation and increased regional tension.

Potential for conflict in the Arctic

This article analyses two factors that can lead to an Arctic spill-over; increased domestic unrest in Russia and an intensified great power rivalry in the region.

Economic set back from sanctions, low oil prices and the ongoing pandemic can result in domestic unrest that drives Russia towards a more confrontational track in the Arctic. Domestic and foreign policy is intertwined in Russia, and it is centred around Putin. “Putin believes that only a Russia that is strong at home can be strong abroad, and vice versa, and that the strength of the state derives in part from its stability and unity of purpose.”(29) Russia’s economic growth has internally been explained as a result of Putin’s great leadership whilst periods of recession have been blamed on western malign forces.(30) Criticising the West, and especially the US, has become a tool for stabilizing domestic politics in difficult times. As a result of sanctions, the public dissatisfaction over economic stagnation has grown in Russia.(31) In line with Putin’s political philosophy, this can cause an assertive Russia to take more confrontational steps in the Arctic to secure its energy interests and indicate strength to internal audiences. In addition, Russia’s economic fragility and dependency on European markets have given substance to a growing Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic.

Globally there is an escalating great power rivalry between the US and China that seems to have hardened the Arctic strategies and increased the risk for Arctic spill over. Russia is traditionally reluctant to any non-Arctic involvement in the region, but sanctions have made Moscow look East for Arctic investments, technology and cooperation. The self-proclaimed ‘near Arctic state’ China has a growing interest in the region based on science, energy and Arctic sea routes as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.(32) The rising presence of China and the strengthened Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic have sparked serious concerns in Washington, and the US has criticized both Russian and Chinese Arctic motives. The US has disputed Russia’s claims to sovereignty over the NSR because it endangers US and Allied military manoeuvrability, and the growing great power rivalry seems to have revitalized American political interest in the region.(33) In a speech given before the Arctic Council’s Ministerial meeting in Finland 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed an American militarized threat assessment of the region and pointed at Russian and Chinese behaviours as illegitimate, aggressive and destabilizing.(34)

The US, Russia and China seem to be hardening their Arctic strategies, and spill-over from great power rivalry is an emerging risk for the region. This creates dilemmas for European NATO-members as they find themselves in a balancing act between security and prosperity. European security is dependent on US military protection either bilaterally or through NATO, but most European nations also want to trade as much as possible with China. A strengthening Sino-Russian alliance together with former President Trump’s unilateralism, protectionism and focus on China represents a danger for Europe and the liberal order since it will create opportunities for an assertive Russia both willing and capable to take more aggressive steps.

Against this strategic reality Norway must balance its security policy against Russia. On one hand Norway has a unique position for mitigating unintended escalation through established bilateral dialogue on Arctic matters with Russia. On the other hand, Norway is dependent on Allied support for credible and capable deterrence against Russian aggressive behaviour. The key question is how Norway should tailor its Arctic policy to the current security situation.


This article recommends that Norway leans its Arctic strategy more towards deterrence to avoid exploitation by a revisionist Russia while continuing to mitigate a potential security dilemma through active dialogue and cooperation on regional matters. These recommendations are derived from three main arguments.

First, the Arctic is existential for Russia’s great power ambitions. Russia’s intentions in the melting Arctic indicate it pursues economic development and military build-up to restore its great power position. There is a growing instability in the international system with great power rivalry and less confidence in the rules-based international order. Big shifts in the balance of power create opportunities for an assertive Russia that it will exploit. Thus, a Russian behavioural mix of belligerence and cooperation will most likely continue in the Arctic. Norway’s choice of strategy therefore boils down to risk management and a flexible balance between deterrence and reassurance measures in the face of Russia’s behaviour.

Second, Norwegian policy on the Arctic must be realistic, pragmatic and aimed at ensuring hard security before softer issues to protect against Russian exploitation. The language that best restrains an assertive and revisionist Russia from coercive strategies is the language of power, and Norwegian posture and capability in the Arctic must therefore signal strength. Hence, Norway must pursue continuous territorial presence with high-end capabilities in the High North to ensure its sovereignty and freedom to pursue national interests and enhance deterrence on the Alliance’s northern flank. NATO is the cornerstone in Norwegian deterrence, and Norway has been the most eager member in NATO for proactive Arctic defence.(35) This strategic approach should be strengthened despite Russian complaints of encirclement. Credible deterrence can only be attained if Russia believes that Allied will come to Norway’s aid, and Norway must therefore ensure solid NATO coherence and cohesion on Arctic matters. However, a broader and deeper NATO involvement in the region could contribute to unintended escalation and endanger the Arctic stability that exists in the region. Russia tend to respond aggressively to any NATO encirclement and the strategic importance of the Kola Peninsula calls for caution. Thus, a stronger and enhanced regional engagement with a few interoperable and like-minded partners will establish a more balanced deterrence that creates space for détente.

Third, being both a NATO member and an Arctic partner with Russia, Norway has a unique position that must be used for establishing tailored reassurance measures to reduce the security dilemma without sacrificing NATO cohesion. As the Alliance increases its Arctic capability and activity it will be perceived as a danger to Russia, and Russia will respond by increasing its own military posture. Hence, the potential for a security dilemma between NATO and Russia in the region is present. Thus, Norway’s strategic initiative for increased NATO presence in the High North has to be balanced with strengthened reassurance measures to avoid escalation. Keywords for reassurance are transparency, predictability, stability and accountability alongside pragmatic cooperation on Arctic governance where common interest already exists. Thus, Norway should combine its military deterrence with strengthened political dialogue and cooperation on the economic opportunities and environmental challenges in the region. The Arctic Council have effectively been bridging Arctic gaps but do not address security matters, and since 2015 Russia has been excluded from the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable. The absence of an arena to discuss security matters for the Arctic is a vulnerability that should be reduced. Due to the fact that defence against neighbouring Russia is driving Norwegian security, it is highly recommended that Norway welcomes an Arctic security dialogue with Russia either through existing formats or new ones.


*Denne artikkelen ble opprinnelig publisert hos the Arctic Institute.


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  14. Norwegian Intelligence Service (2020) Focus 2020. Norwegian Intelligence Service, 23 January, 2020 english.pdf/_/attachment/inline/7bc5fcbd-e39c-4cb6-966a-0f7115205b44:d282e733ce4f5697c9e4a7afc5a63c16dab6c151/Focus 2020 english.pdf. Accessed on 24 March 2020.
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  22. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (2011) Fishery and Agricultural Country Profile Norway. FAO-UN, Accessed on 29 March 2020.
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  30. Ibid., 27-28.
  31. Ibid., 56.
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Foto: Onar Digernes Aase / Forsvaret