As tensions between Russia and the West rise, it is imperative that they do not spill over into the Arctic. While the Arctic remained a relative oasis of cooperation for many years, there has been a recent uptick in militarization as climate change has raised the region’s perceived economic value. For the United States and European Arctic nations, Russia’s expanding military infrastructure and activity in the Arctic poses an acute security risk. To manage competition in the region, there is a need for greater military-to-military communication among all Arctic nations.
In addition to bolstering its military infrastructure, Moscow has stepped up the activity of its armed forces in the Arctic. Umka-21, held this past spring, was Russia’s most elaborate Arctic military exercise to date, demonstrating new capabilities such as the ability to simultaneously surface three nuclear submarines from below the ice. Additionally, in 2020 the U.S. Air Force in Alaska intercepted more Russian aircraft than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finally, Russia has engaged in disruptive activity below the threshold of conflict, for example by jamming GPS signals during the November 2018 NATO Trident Juncture exercise.
Yet despite these worrying signs, communication between the United States, its allies, and Russia on hard security issues is practically nonexistent. The Arctic Council, which is the primary forum for discussion among Arctic states, explicitly excludes military affairs from its purview. Meanwhile, formerly intact military-to-military lines of communication have frayed since 2014. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Staff Forum was discontinued and Russia was suspended from the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable. As a result, the United States and its European allies now find themselves in the dangerous position of having little opportunity to directly discuss Arctic military security with Russia, raising the chances of conflict due to miscalculation.
To this end, the United States should work with Russia to develop a military Rules of the Road Agreement for the Arctic. This document would outline acceptable norms of military conduct in the region, including zero tolerance for actions such as simulated attacks, communications jamming, and dangerous maneuvers. It could also include the creation of an Arctic Security Consultative Commission that would allow signatories to raise allegations that another nation has breached the agreement. Finally, the agreement should include confidence-building measures such as snap inspections and observers to military exercises.
The United States and its Arctic allies and partners should also resume meetings of the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Staff Forum without Russia. While these meetings should initially exclude Russia, they should leave the door ajar to Moscow’s eventual participation on the condition that it complies with the military Rules of the Road Agreement. Russia’s previous calls to re-start the Forum indicate that it may be incentivized to do so. Such a step would represent a clear effort to increase dialogue without raising the risk that the Kremlin will simply pocket costless concessions instead of offering real behavioral changes in return.
Promisingly, Russia seems likely to be receptive to such proposals. Moscow has expressed its desire to use its current chairmanship of the Arctic Council as an opportunity to foster greater discussion on its national security interests in the region. However, the narrow mandate of the Arctic Council creates a formidable obstacle to achieving this objective. Establishing greater military dialogue through other channels may therefore offer a win-win to all Arctic nations.
Nick Lokker is the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Research Intern for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) as well as the 2021 Europe Fellow for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.