“N” for North: NATO’s Cold Future

The Arctic represents the emergence of a new geopolitical arena for the Western alliance.

British Hägglunds BV206 All Terrain Tracked Vehicles participate in a military exercise in Norway, February 28, 2010 (Defence Images/Mez Merrill)
British Hägglunds BV206 All Terrain Tracked Vehicles participate in a military exercise in Norway, February 28, 2010 (Defence Images/Mez Merrill)

NATO may take a different form as “the Great Melt” heats up. After the expected pullout from Afghanistan in 2014, pressure will mount on the alliance to turn northward. “The Arctic represents the emergence of a new geopolitical arena.”

As a result of climate change, many nations in the Northern Hemisphere could soon pivot to the pole, argues Lorenzo Nannetti, an analyst for the crowdsourced consultancy Wikistrat.

“As global demand for resources grows, the Arctic region becomes a new field for international competition as new sea lanes open due to ice melting,” he says.

Untapped resources

The Arctic is estimated to contain some 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Combined, these figures amount to 22 percent of the planet’s untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons.

Graham O’Brien, who works alongside Nannetti at Wikistrat, believes the effect of resources being tapped in the Arctic is sure to prompt nearby countries to bolster their military and technological capabilities — and to forge alliances.

“NATO has conducted war games in the Arctic in recent years in possible preparation for a future security regime to happen in the region,” he says.

Most recently, some 16,000 soldiers from fifteen different countries participated in Norway’s Cold Response exercise in March.

Cold, cold war

This saber rattling is causing consternation in another cold place, according to O’Brien: “Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said in several interviews that he believes NATO has no place in the Arctic, whether it be for political or security reasons.”

Russia accounts for the bulk of Arctic lands and has made its designs on the region abundantly clear. In Cold War fashion, it has resumed patrolling the area with bomber planes and warships. Moscow also has invested more than a billion dollars in the expansion of the port of Murmansk, which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.

“As Russia appears the most active in defining — and expanding — its area of influence, NATO nations will join forces to ensure they present a united front to discourage any escalation,” argues Nannetti, who is also an analyst for the Italian oil and gas company Eni.

Missing in action

That has yet to happen.

While Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, insists that “the north has never been more important” to his country and Norway even reached out to Russia this year to improve military relations and expand cooperation in the region, the Americans are missing in action.

Canada boast one of the few year-round sites of human habitation close to the North Pole at Alert, a military base at the tip of Ellesmere Island, east of Greenland. Such permanently occupied sites matter if countries are to assert their sovereignty in the Arctic.

Norway aims to convert one of its High North battalions into a dedicated Arctic brigade, comprising naval and special forces units.

Russia last year announced plans to create an armored Arctic brigade of its own on the Kola Peninsula.

The United States Coast Guard, by contrast, fields just three icebreakers, two of which are antiquated and slated to be retired.

If NATO’s future is indeed a cold one, Washington will have to step up its game.