Amid ongoing crisis among Russia and Europe, another threat is hovering over the Arctic, which is considerably alarming and can become disastrous for the whole world, if triggered. In recent days, Russia expressed its concerns about the involvement of non-Arctic NATO states in the military activity of the alliance in the northern latitudes and notes the risks of unintentional incidents with the forces of the alliance in the Arctic. The Arctic is a polar region located at the northernmost part of the Earth. It consists of the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas and parts of the eight Arctic states, i.e., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. These eight Arctic states are members of the Arctic Council – a high-level intergovernmental forum, established in 1996 in a bid to foster cooperation, coordination, and interaction among its member states, with the involvement of the Arctic indigenous communities and other regional stakeholders, on issues such as sustainable development and environmental protection. The Council implements a patchwork of national, regional, and international treaties and customary laws related to environmental protection, emergency preparedness, and sustainable development. The chairmanship of the Council rotates every two years among the eight member states. Russia currently holds the chairmanship since May 2021.
Nikolay Korchunov, a Russian career diplomat who has served as the Ambassador at Large for the Arctic Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia and currently is the Senior Arctic Official of Russia to the Arctic Council since December 2018, told the Russian news agency “TASS” on April 17, 2022, “the recent increased activity of NATO in the Arctic is a matter of concern. Recently, another largescale military exercise of the alliance took place in the north of Norway, which, in our opinion, does not contribute to ensuring security in the Arctic region”. He further added, “the internationalization of NATO’s military activities in high latitudes, which involves non-Arctic NATO states, cannot but cause concern. There are risks of unintentional incidents, which in addition to the security risks, can cause serious damage to the fragile Arctic ecosystem”. The statement came in response of the large-scale international exercises “Cold Response”, which took placed in Norway from March 14, 2022 for two weeks. “Cold Response” is a bi-annual military drill, organized and hosted by the Norwegian Armed Forces since 2006. The largest Norwegian-led maneuvers were attended by approximately thirty thousand soldiers from 27 states, including Sweden and Finland – NATO partners. Although, “Cold Response” is a regular military drill, however, Russia is considering it as an offensive move by NATO due to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war.
The story doesn’t end here. Russia is also worried about the possible accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO. The Russian invasion on Ukraine has upended old certainties in northern Europe and due to being in a state of uncertainty over Russia’s aggressive intentions, the two Nordic countries are eagerly willing and engaged in a close debate and bilateral consultation about joining the US-led military alliance. In this regard, in start of April 2022, citing sources, it has been reported by many international newspapers that the discussions on this issue are currently underway in Stockholm and Helsinki. The two Nordic countries are poised to join NATO as early as this summer, a move which is believed to be stemmed from Russia’s massive strategic blunder of invading Ukraine. Finland is expected to submit an application in June this year, with Sweden following soon after. The Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Mirella Marin said in her statement last month that it is time for her country to reconsider becoming a NATO member and urged the alliance to consider any potential application by Finland thoroughly but quickly. “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was. I think we will have very careful discussions, but we are also not taking any more time than we have to in this process, because the situation is, of course, very severe”, she elaborated in her statement. Public opinion in Finland has also swung in favor of joining NATO since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, with polls showing 62% of Finns want to be part of the alliance as of mid-March, up from 53% in February. On the other hand, earlier in March 2022, the Swedish Prime Minister Eva Magdalena Andersson said, “Stockholm is following Helsinki’s timetable and is conducting a security policy review that is expected to be concluded by the end of May. I do not exclude NATO membership in any way”. The addition of two Nordic countries in the alliance would be real feathers in NATO’s cap, as its membership will be increased to 32 countries, which will help expand the alliance’s capabilities in intelligence gathering and in air power, along with extending its border with Russia by hundreds of miles, as Finland shared 1,340 KM border with Russia.
However, according to the international political analysts, it is also a fact that the long-standing commitment of Sweden and Finland to the policy of non-alignment with military alliances has been an important factor in stability and security in the region of Northern Europe, as well as in the European continent as a whole, therefore, the expansion of NATO at the expense of traditionally non-bloc countries will not contribute to the security and mutual trust in the Arctic, which Russia consistently advocates. Responding to the possible inclusion of Sweden and Finland in NATO, on April 14, 2022, Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia said that “Russia would strengthen its western borders by deploying nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the European exclave, if Sweden and Finland join NATO”. He added, “then there will no longer be any talk of a non-nuclear status of the Baltic – the balance must be restored. I hope that Sweden and Finland would see sense. If not, they would have to live with nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles close to home”. In response to this statement by Dmitry Medvedev, the Lithuanian Defense Minister, Arvydas Anusauskas claimed that Russia already had nuclear weapons stored in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders Lithuania and Poland. Kaliningrad, formerly the port of Koenigsberg, capital of East Prussia, lies less than 1,400 km from London and Paris and 500 km from Berlin. In 2018, Russia said that it had deployed Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, which was captured by the Red Army in April 1945 and ceded to the Soviet Union at the Potsdam conference. The Iskander, known as SS-26 Stone by NATO, is a short-range tactical ballistic missile system that can carry nuclear warheads. Its official range is 500 km but some Western military sources suspect it may be much greater. In his statement, Arvydas Anusauskas said, “nuclear weapons have always been kept in Kaliningrad. The international community and countries in the region are perfectly aware of this. Russian always use it as a threat”. Although, the claim of Lithuanian Defense Minister has not been independently verified but the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reported in 2018 that nuclear weapon storage bunkers in Kaliningrad had been upgraded by Russia.
Moreover, in response to the Russian invasion no Ukraine, on March 3, 2022, the Arctic Council’s seven other member states announced that they would skip planned meetings in Russia, calling the Russian invasion as a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nikolay Korchunov expressed his solicitude on this move as well while talking to the reporters. He said, “ensuring the sustainable development of the Arctic without Russia, a country that accounts for about 60% of the Arctic coast and where more than half of the population (approximately 2.5 million people) of the region lives, is impossible”. Russia also warns the West about the negative consequences of attempts to create formats alternative to the Arctic Council. According to Nikolay Korchunov, “possible attempts to form some alternative cooperation structures in the Arctic under the current condition will only lead to the creation of dividing lines and strengthen centrifugal tendencies, which will affect the collective principles that we have traditionally been guided by when making decisions in the Arctic region”. It is undoubtedly a fact that for a quarter of a century, the Arctic Council has been a key mechanism for multilateral cooperation in the Arctic. Russia is chairing the Arctic Council in 2021-2023 and the priorities of the Russian chairmanship of the Council were supported by all the Arctic states without exception. They are based on ensuring responsible governance for the sustainable development of the Arctic with a balanced combination of social, economic and environmental aspects. According to the assessments of all the Arctic states without exception, the Arctic Council has established itself as an effective international platform for developing collective decisions to ensure the sustainable development of the region. The ministerial declaration of the Arctic Council, adopted in Reykjavik, Iceland on May 20, 2021, notes the commitment of all member countries of the Arctic Council to the preservation of the Arctic as a territory of peace, stability and constructive cooperation. Many international political analysts believe that artificially pulling the Ukrainian story into the Arctic Council’s orbit does not meet these goals. Furthermore, the suspension of the Arctic Council’s activities will increase the risks and challenges of soft security in the Arctic, which the Council as a whole effectively coped with before. Also, there are no issues in the Arctic that require a military solution. International norms clearly define the rights of both coastal and other states and serve as a solid basis for solving any regional problems.
Looking towards the on-going matters that I explained, in my opinion, if the matters are not taken seriously by both sides, there is a possibility of another war between Russia and Western bloc. However, the solution of every problem is somehow available. Only mutual understanding and positive approach is required, which can be expected by both sides in the current scenario. There is no option of distrust, as a slight negligence can lead towards another major crisis in the region, which will be obviously unaffordable at any cost.
Author: Waqar Ahmad Khan
The Author is a columnist, whose columns are regularly published in English and Urdu on different news websites. The author mostly writes on contemporary affairs, international and national politics, history, social issues, and Islam.