Strategic Nuclear Patrols and an Arctic Military Code of Conduct

See The Simons Foundation Canada's Arctic Security Briefing Papers for information on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr O.C., Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation Canada.


Strategic Nuclear Patrols and an Arctic Military Code of Conduct

While rising northern tensions clearly challenge notions of the Arctic as a durable zone of peace, current tensions are rooted in fears of a European conflict spilling northward, not in conflict endemic to the Arctic. Two decades of high north military expansion have certainly added to the region’s strategic uncertainty, but even more consequential are the currently increasing levels and pace of competing strategic patrols in the Arctic and North Atlantic, especially those that undermine basic nuclear deterrence.  

Still Low Tension in the High North?

In the years immediately following the end of the Cold War, with the sharp decline in East-West tensions accompanied by significant declines in Russia’s economic and military capacity in the north, the Arctic had essentially achieved Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of a high north zone of peace.  

It was a geopolitical calm that lingered for a decade and more, but by the early 2000s relations between Russia and the West had begun to fray. However, even after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea it was still possible to see the Arctic as a region of low-tension, owing largely to shared economic, scientific, and basic public safety and regional stability interests. 

Then came February 24, 2022 and the West vs Russia dynamic came to dominate all Arctic security questions. And yet, the spectre of the region falling into overt military conflict remains low. As recently as October 2022, eight months into Russia’s escalated war on Ukraine, London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) still considered Arctic military conflict unlikely, though it did warn that “any clash between Russia and NATO [in Europe] would quickly spread northwards.”  

The key point to acknowledge is that current Arctic tensions are a spillover from conflicts elsewhere, they are not the product of Arctic-specific issues or concerns. But in 
mid-2023, the world is dangerously close to that spillover point. A direct NATO-Russia armed conflict in Europe is still unlikely, or at least avoidable, but it is clearly possible.

And in that dangerous, tragic event, NATO would have powerful incentives to spread its attacks into the Arctic and Russia’s Barents Sea bastion to try to inhibit the movement south of Russian forces from the Kola Peninsula into the North Atlantic to join the fight. At the same time, Russia could be expected to be bent on denying NATO forces access to Russia’s traditional Arctic operational zones and to try to drive into the North Atlantic to disrupt NATO in its traditional operational zone. 

But absent an all-out NATO/Russia war, Arctic security cooperation remains an aspirational ideal. The prevailing assumption is certainly that “Arctic harmony is falling apart,” as a recent analysis in Foreign Policy characterized it,  but there remains a broad sense that current efforts towards the political isolation of Russia in the Arctic will at some point have to give way and allow for all eight Arctic states to again convene around the Arctic Council table and for the region’s military forces to once again be in dialogue and operationalize some measure of consultation and cooperation. Reaching that point is obviously not imminent, but the US Arctic Coordinator James DeHart has made the essential point that the Arctic Council “holds its greatest value as a circumpolar forum including all the eight Arctic states.”  And the post-invasion analysis by the IISS also remains encouraging: “…while cooperation may give way to greater competition, the overall strategic stability of the Arctic is likely to remain.”  

While the Arctic is not now a zone of peace, neither is it a zone of endemic conflict. 

Military Infrastructure and Regional Tensions

The tensions that have bled into the Arctic are obviously not eased by Russia’s decades-long revival of military facilities along the full length of its extensive Arctic coast and on its Arctic Ocean archipelagos. Figure 1 shows 18 such Russian staffed military facilities outside the Kola Peninsula. Attitudes towards those installations have been heavily influenced by the global strategic climate. In a stable, low tension strategic environment, new Russian installations were broadly accepted as the expected expansion of military capacity commensurate with the region’s rising commercial activity, population, accessibility, and Russia’s recognized interest in demonstrating an intention to reclaim its role as a significant global player, not least in the Arctic. Figure 1 identifies nine designated emergency response centres oriented toward supporting civilian authorities in their sovereignty protection and public safety missions. Now that global tensions have dramatically risen, perceptions of Russia’s Arctic militarization as relatively benign have shifted to seeing them as suspicious and threatening. Of course, there is a welcome corollary to those shifting perceptions – when tensions in the rest of the world ease, so too will they in the Arctic. In other words, the Arctic is not burdened by the kinds of deep political, economic, or military conflicts that would sustain Cold War-style dynamics after the rest of the world returned to a saner equilibrium.  

Russia’s Arctic remilitarization outside the Kola Peninsula is prominently a response to domestic requirements and focused on sovereignty protection and frontier patrols, emergency responses and public safety, managing expanding local and intercontinental transportation through its Arctic Ocean exclusive economic zone, and improved domain awareness. Such facilities, as the IISS notes, are “primarily designed to protect military and economic infrastructure, provide search and rescue and establish control and presence along the increasingly ice-free Northern sea route.”  

It is the kind of aid to civilian authorities that is a key feature of all northern military forces. As the Arctic Yearbook puts it, “…the logistical difficulty and expense of operating in the Arctic is such that there is an even greater need for armed forces to provide ‘soft’ security services in the region than elsewhere.”  

Figure 2 shows some 70 continually staffed military facilities throughout the Arctic region. While there are some variations in the number of facilities acknowledged, most reporting and analysis arrives at similar numbers. There are hundreds more unstaffed sites (radars, storage sites, communication nodes, etc.), but existing staffed facilities include: Canada 9, Greenland 3, Norway 15, Russia 32, US 10, Iceland 1. These are all northern sites, though some, like most Alaska sites, are below the Arctic Circle. 

Russian and American strategic forces are clearly capable of projecting power into international waters and air space in the region, and for Russia there is a particular interest in asserting its access to the North Atlantic. The Kola Peninsula-based Northern Fleet and air bases are joined by the non-Kola bases of Nagurskoye, Rogachevo, and Sredny with air defence and anti-ship systems intended, as noted above, to support operations southward into the North Atlantic and beyond and to intercept NATO advances northward in the event of a Russia/NATO war in Europe. 

The non-Russian Arctic is also on a militarization trajectory that both responds to and feeds growing perceptions of threat and insecurity in Russia – the classic security dilemma by which military reinforcements to enhance one side’s defences lead to an increased sense of threat in the other, which in turn leads to further military build up. The Foreign Policy analysis referred to above notes that “by locking Russia out [of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum], Western Governments are inadvertently enticing Moscow to open the door to China.”  It’s a cycle of reciprocal security moves that fuels a mutually reinforced sense of vulnerability. As a Chatham House analysis concludes, “the military activity of the US and its allies is feeding Russia’s sense of encirclement, ‘justifying’ the expansion of the Kremlin’s own militarization efforts, which in turn informs Western policy decisions to further toughen posture, increase numbers, and grow presence.” 

Military Conduct and Strategic Tensions

While expanding military installations can and do escalate tensions, actual military operations send more immediate and, in the present circumstances, threatening signals. UK analysts Mathieu Boulègue and Duncan Depledge, call for an Arctic code of military conduct and point out the kind of Russian conduct that should be regarded as “unacceptable” in peacetime, including, “simulated airstrike formation against Norwegian military assets, and GPS jamming in northern Finland and Norway.”  At the same time Russia has reacted strongly to US patrols into the Barents Sea close to its Kola Peninsula stronghold.  In their proposal, included in the 2019 Arctic Yearbook, Boulègue and Depledge elaborate two main elements of a code of conduct – defining “the red lines of military activities in the northern high latitudes,” and creating “a dialogue mechanism that would promote greater transparency and lay the ground for a less conflict-prone relationship between NATO and Russia in the region”  – the broad objective being to preserve the Arctic as a low-tension security environment.

Military conduct code proposals necessarily address day-to-day operations that can create irritants and lead to mishaps and perceived provocations that risk igniting clashes when competing or hostile forces operate in close proximity in climates of high tension. Strategic patrols are focused less on the regional environment and more on strategic impacts well beyond the region, and thus have major implications for geopolitical stability and should be similarly guided by normative operational rules. Naval freedom of navigation operations, competing operations regarding the North Atlantic, and threats to second strike deterrent forces are three kinds of strategic operations to be reined in.  Continue reading...



Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation Canada, and Research Fellow at the Centre for Peace Advancement, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.