Russia May Become Sole Non-NATO Nation In Arctic, Raising Conflict Fears: NPR

For decades, Russia and other nations have collaborated on scientific and environmental issues in the Arctic. Now, there is concern that Finland and Sweden joining NATO could trigger a military buildup there.



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Finland’s leaders today announced their intention to join NATO. The decision follows Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reverses a policy of neutrality that has been in place since the end of World War II. Neighboring Sweden is expected to do the same in the coming days. That would make Russia the only non-NATO nation in the Arctic, raising fears of retaliation from Moscow. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: With its vast frozen tundra and inhospitable environment, there has always been a certain mystique about the Arctic.

KLAUS DODDS: The Arctic is exceptional. The Arctic is special.

NORTHAM: Klaus Dodds is specializing in Arctic and Antarctic geopolitics at Royal Holloway in the University of London.

DODDS: There was always this kind of assurance that whatever happens in the rest of the world, the spill will not touch the Arctic. And I think what we have now is a situation where clearly that no longer holds.

NORTHAM: …Because the backlash against Russia is raising concerns about the delicate balance between security and cooperation in the High North. A week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Arctic Council announced that it was suspending all activities due to the war. That is the group of polar nations and indigenous peoples that works on issues that affect the region.

Evan Bloom, a former State Department official who helped establish the Arctic Council, says that for years Russia and the seven other Arctic nations found ways to work together in areas such as scientific research and search and rescue operations. But he says that is not possible after the invasion.

EVAN BLOOM: It was such a violation of the principles of cooperation that the seven Arctic states felt that it wasn’t really possible to continue in business as usual with the Russians in the Arctic Council.

NORTHAM: Bloom, now with the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says it’s a huge loss.

BLOOM: It was possible to have this kind of safe space for cooperation on environmental issues, on economic issues, and for the Russians and the other countries to work cooperatively. And suddenly, that cooperation is on hold.

NORTHAM: But Bloom and other Arctic experts are concerned about a military buildup in the Arctic now that Finland and Sweden are moving toward NATO membership. The Kremlin warned today that Finland’s decision was a threat. But Dodds says that even before NATO membership was discussed, Russia was moving aggressively against Finland and Sweden.

BLOOM: Whether it’s flyovers, GPS jamming, cyber attacks, whether it’s systematic disinformation, you know, it’s not like Finland and Sweden haven’t been on the receiving end of contemporary Russia. So the real question is about the scale and pace of the climb.

NORTHAM: Heli Hautala is a Finnish diplomat who has made three tours of Moscow. She says military activity in the Arctic is nothing new.

HELI HAUTALA: Russia has militarized its Arctic in recent years. In fact, the presence of NATO and the US has increased. I think there have been more training activities and exercises in the US, with the US. So the tension was already building in the Arctic, but I think now it will increase even more.

NORTHAM: Hautala, who is now a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says there must be a way to manage the rising tension in the Arctic. He points to Norway, a NATO country that shares a common border with Russia.

HAUTALA: He’s handled his relationship with Russia, you know, very well in the Arctic. I suppose that when Sweden and Finland are in NATO, this Norwegian model of deterrence and calm will become the Nordic model.

NORTHAM: In fact, Hautala says that Norway has a slogan for its Arctic policy: High North, low tension.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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