As polar ice melts, Russia, already a major Arctic power, wants to make the region its own. China has ambitions for a “Polar Silk Road.” And NATO is embracing Finland — and Sweden too, Washington hopes — giving the alliance new reach in the Far North.
Climate change is accelerating and amplifying competition in the Arctic as never before, opening the region to greater commercial and strategic jostling just at a moment when Russia, China and the West are all seeking to expand their military presence there.
The rising importance of the region is underscored by the travels of Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, who will attend an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Norway on Thursday.
Mr. Blinken is making a point of visiting Sweden and Finland as well, meeting the leaders of all three countries as they press Turkey to ratify Sweden’s quick entry into NATO. He is scheduled to deliver a major speech on Russia, Ukraine and NATO on Friday in Helsinki, the capital of NATO’s newest member.
For a long time, countries were reluctant to discuss the Arctic as a possible military zone. But that is quickly changing.
Russian aggression plus climate change make “a perfect storm,” said Matti Pesu, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. There is a new Cold War atmosphere, mixed with melting ice, which affects military planning and opens up new economic possibilities and access to natural resources.
“So all these are connected and are magnifying each other,” Mr. Pesu said. “It makes the region intriguing.”
While NATO has been cheered by Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine, the alliance in fact has significant vulnerabilities in the north.
Russia remains a vast Arctic power, with naval bases and nuclear missiles stationed in the Far North but also along Russia’s western edge: in the Kola Peninsula, near Norway, where Russia keeps most of its nuclear-armed submarines, and in Kaliningrad, bordered by Poland and Lithuania.
change, shipping routes are becoming less icebound and easier to navigate, making the Arctic more accessible and attractive for competitive commercial exploitation, as well as military adventurism.
Russia has said it wants to make the Arctic its own — a fifth military district, on a par with its other four — said Robert Dalsjo, research director at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.
- Moscow Drone Attack: Explosions were reported in Moscow, with Russia’s Defense Ministry saying that at least eight drones had targeted the capital and the surrounding region. The attack was the first strike to hit civilian areas in Moscow since the start of the war.
- Kyiv Attack: Russia targeted the Ukrainian capital with drone attacks and a barrage of missiles that sent residents running for shelter as explosions echoed across the city.
- Ukraine’s Counteroffensive: Ukraine’s top military commander signaled that the nation’s forces were ready to launch their long-anticipated counteroffensive after months of preparations.
- Putin’s Strategy: President Vladimir Putin of Russia looks like a commander in absentia, treating the war as unfortunate but distant. His options have narrowed, but he is still betting on outlasting his foes.
China has also been busy trying to establish itself in the region and use new unfrozen routes, one reason the NATO considers China a significant security challenge.
In its most recent strategy paper, adopted last summer in Madrid, NATO declared Russia to be “the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability,” but for the first time addressed China, saying that its “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”
How to create a “northern bubble” to deter Russia and monitor China is one of NATO’s newest and biggest challenges.
In response to NATO’s enlargement, “Russia is putting increasing emphasis on the Arctic, where they’re stronger and less surrounded by NATO,” said Mr. Pesu of the Finnish Institute. Russia may have drawn down its troops to fight in Ukraine, but retains its air power, northern fleet, nuclear submarines and nuclear-armed missiles in the northern realms.
“So it remains a pretty urgent concern,” he said. Finland, Sweden and Norway “see this most urgently,” even if some in NATO do not, he said. As a consequence, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have decided to merge their air forces, creating one with more planes than either Britain or France.
Until now, competition in the region was largely mediated through the Arctic Council, founded in 1996, which includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, and promotes research and cooperation.
But it does not have a security component, and soon all members but Russia will be NATO members. The council has been “paused” since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. When Russia’s chairmanship ended in May, Norway took over, so activity may pick up again.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 caused rethinking throughout NATO, and there was new anxiety about the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — combined with submarine hunts in Sweden and more serious war gaming, said Anna Wieslander, the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institution.
Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, then the supreme allied commander Europe, called for “an anti-access area denial” — to deny Russia entry to the Baltic Sea from Kaliningrad, the isolated Russian toehold with access to the sea.
There remains a concern that China, which now has even closer ties to Russia, remains active in the Far North, building big icebreakers. “China will reach Europe through the Arctic,” Ms. Wieslander said.
One main question is whether the real Russian threat to Scandinavia will come from the sea, as Norway fears, or from the land, with a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States or Finland, then a move westward.
Both Finland and Sweden, when it joins, want to be part of the same NATO operational command, given their long history of defense cooperation.
Norway belongs to the Norfolk command, and there is a logic to making both Finland and Sweden part of that command, since reinforcements would likely come from the West, across the Atlantic.
But there is perhaps more logic, given the current threat from Russia, for them to join the land-oriented command based in Brunssum, the Netherlands, which is charged with defending Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland and the Baltic nations.
“There is logic for both,” said Niklas Granholm, deputy director of studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “It’s not yet resolved.”
According to the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, NATO is recommending putting both countries in the Brunssum command, despite Finland’s early interest in being part of Norfolk, which Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, visited in March.
That’s because it is easier for Finland to be reinforced from Norway and Sweden, Mr. Pesu, the Finnish Institute analyst, noted.
The fear is that a modernized Russian Northern Fleet could swing down through the straits between Greenland, Iceland and Britain, a move known in NATO as a “red right hook,” to cut sea lanes and underwater cables and threaten the American East Coast with cruise missiles.
Mr. Dalsjo of the Swedish Defense Research Agency, calling himself a heretic, cautions in a recent paper that this threat is real but may be overblown, especially after Russia’s losses in Ukraine.
Russia is predominantly a land power, and its northern fleet is considerably smaller than it was during the Cold War, when there were worries about the kind of major Soviet naval attack depicted in the Tom Clancy novel “Red Storm Rising.”
“If they didn’t do it then with 150 ships,” Mr. Dalsjo asked, “why would they do it now with 20?”
A day after a drone strike on Moscow, Kremlin officials jumped on the refusal of Ukrainian allies to denounce the attack as proof that Russia’s real war was with the West.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said Russia “would have preferred to hear at least some words of condemnation” from Western capitals.
“We will calmly and deliberately think how to deal with this,” he said.
While none of Ukraine’s allies went so far as to endorse the drone attack, Britain’s foreign secretary said on Tuesday that Kyiv had “the right to project force beyond its borders.”
The U.S. response was more circumspect, but it stopped short of criticizing the first military strike to hit civilian areas in the Russian capital since the start of the war. Ukraine officials have said they were not “directly involved” in the drone strike.
From the outset of the conflict, Russia has portrayed the invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war provoked by the West, and on Wednesday it seized on the attack.
Dmitri A. Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s national security council and a former president, said Britain “de facto is leading an undeclared war against Russia” by providing Ukraine with military aid and called it “our eternal enemy.”
Known since the war began for staking out extreme positions, Mr. Medvedev argued that now any British official “can be considered as a legitimate military target.”
The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, called the U.S. refusal to condemn the attack “an encouragement for Ukrainian terrorists,” his embassy said on the Telegram messaging app.
Russia has repeatedly hit civilian areas of Ukraine over the course of the war, though it has denied targeting nonmilitary sites. And in recent weeks it has turned up the barrage of missiles and attack drones aimed at Kyiv, the capital. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians, including children, have been killed in Russian airstrikes and artillery bombardments, U.N. officials say.
Updates: Russia-Ukraine War
- Struggle for control of the Arctic looms as Blinken tours NATO’s north.
- Macron urges West to give Ukraine ‘tangible and credible’ security guarantees.
- U.S. promises more military aid to Ukraine, including ammunition for air-defense systems, drones and artillery.
Though the drone strike on Tuesday was unusual, it was not the first one on Russian soil since the war began. Drones have hit military air bases deep inside Russia, as well as an oil facility near an airfield in the province of Kursk. And this month, drones exploded over the Kremlin.
The incursions continued on Wednesday, when, the Russian authorities said, Ukrainian drones attacked two oil refineries in the region of Krasnodar. They also said that four people had been injured by shelling in the border region of Belgorod.
Russia has long accused the West of waging a proxy war against it. Those claims grew louder this month when a group of Ukraine-based Russian paramilitary members staged a multiday raid in Russia’s Belgorod border region — apparently with U.S. armored vehicles.
A New York Times analysis found that at least three of what appeared to be American-made MRAPs had been part of the attack. A leader of one of the groups claimed the weapons had not been provided by the Ukrainian military.
Russian officials have said that NATO’s decision to send weapons, which have become increasingly advance as the war has worn on, raises the risk of a direct confrontation and a potential nuclear war.
On Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin also made an oblique reference to this threat, calling the drone strike on Moscow an attempt “to create a response reaction from Russia.” He accused unspecified forces of trying to sabotage a Ukrainian nuclear plant occupied by Russia or to use “a type of a dirty bomb related to the nuclear industry.”
Although Western governments initially focused their military support for Ukraine on bolstering its defenses, over time, the desire to hasten an end the war has led to growing deliveries of offensive weapons to Kyiv.
Tensions between Moscow and Western capitals have worsened since the invasion, as have the economic sanctions imposed on Russia as penalty.
At a security conference on Wednesday in Slovakia, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said that Western allies must give Ukraine “tangible and credible” security guarantees in its battle against Russia.
“If we want a credible, durable peace, if we want to hold our own against Russia, if we want to be credible with the Ukrainians, we must give Ukraine the means to prevent any new aggression and to include Ukraine in any new security architecture,” he said in a speech.
Mr. Macron was criticized early in the war over his insistence on not antagonizing Russia, but his approach toward Mr. Putin has hardened. He also expressed regret that France and other Western European countries had failed to heed warnings from countries on the European Union’s eastern edge about Russian belligerence.
On Wednesday, Germany said it had ordered four of the five Russian Consulates in the country to close after Moscow limited the number of German diplomatic staff allowed in Russia, the latest in an escalating tit-for-tat diplomatic dispute between the two countries.
The Russian Foreign Ministry was told to start shutting down its consulates in Germany immediately and to finish by the end of the year, said Christofer Burger, a spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry.
One Russian Consulate and the Russian Embassy in Berlin will be allowed to remain open.
In Sweden, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken met with European officials on Wednesday to discuss trade and technology issues, cracking down on exports that could aid Russia.
On Thursday, Mr. Blinken is scheduled to meet with NATO foreign ministers to discuss the alliance summit planned for July, as well as the war in Ukraine and the prospects for Swedish membership in the alliance.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, invoking themes of Turkish nationalism and counterterrorism, has been the main obstacle toward Sweden joining the NATO alliance after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
His fierce public opposition played well in his reelection campaign. So did his role as a power broker, vital to NATO but also as an intermediary, able to maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine.
Now safely reelected Sunday as president of Turkey, Erdogan is expected to project the same image, by tightening his grip on power at home while balancing between his allies inside NATO and his economic dependency on Russia.
But with renewed nationalist credentials, he could feel freer to mend ties with the United States, analysts suggest, and could approve the membership of Sweden into NATO, as he already did with Finland, perhaps in time for the alliance’s yearly summit in July.
To underline U.S. support for both Sweden and Finland in NATO, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit both countries this week as part of a trip to attend an informal alliance meeting of foreign ministers in Norway.
Acquiescing would have benefits for Erdogan. Sweden’s entry into NATO may unlock the sale of American F-16s and kits to upgrade Turkey’s older models. Those sales have been blocked in Congress, where many legislators are angry about Erdogan’s ties to Russia, his purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system and his crackdown on dissent.
“His victory is meaningful for Turkish society and politics, but less disruptive for foreign policy,” said Ian Lesser, a Turkey expert who directs the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. “I don’t see a troubled relationship getting worse.”
Turkey is a vital member of NATO, as a major military contributor that controls the Black Sea, a territory critical in Russia’s war in Ukraine. But Erdogan, increasingly unpredictable and authoritarian, relies on Russia for energy, trade and injections of hard currency and has refused to apply Western sanctions on Moscow or on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, Turkey has provided Ukraine with military drones and has been an important intermediary in getting Russia to agree to allow the export of Ukrainian grain while being an early host of failed peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.
His military occupation of northern Syria — to keep down Kurdish forces he associates with a guerrilla group that has fought a decades long insurgency in Turkey — also troubles allies. While Turkish troops have protected some Syrian dissident enclaves, Erdogan has simultaneously engaged in a rapprochement with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. Erdogan wants his help to restrain the Kurds and take back some of the 4 million Syrian refugees that Turkey has been hosting in the name of Islamic solidarity.
Erdogan may disappoint those who hope for a more emollient, more Western-leaning Turkey, however, and Turkey is not the only ally becoming more authoritarian. Hungary and Serbia are doing the same, and Poland, though fiercely anti-Russia, is, like Turkey, undermining the rule of law, judicial independence and press freedom.
Erdogan’s reelection “will open a larger debate about how we engage with allies and strategic partners with whom we have declining affinity, and Turkey won’t be the only one,” Lesser said. Europe will have to find new ways of appealing to the more democratic opposition in these countries and engaging better with society, he said.
That drift away from democratic values and the rule of law will mean little progress in long-frozen talks on accession to the European Union. For Brussels, said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs, it is a kind of relief — a win by the democratic opposition would have meant that Brussels would have had to take Turkey’s accession negotiations more seriously, including a revision of the agreements on customs and visas.
“The European Union will be able to talk the talk of values, slamming Turkey’s authoritarianism — over which it has no influence — while cynically walking the walk of a purely transactional relationship with an unabashedly transactional leader,” she wrote for Politico, expanding her thoughts in an interview.
While regarding Erdogan as an autocrat, she said, Europe “was rather successful in negotiating nasty deals with him on migration,” paying Turkey to house refugees and asylum-seekers and prevent them from coming to Europe.
His domestic needs are likely to influence his geopolitical moves. Inflation remains stubbornly high in Turkey, and the surge in government spending before the election has only added to the pressure.
Emre Peker, who studies Turkey for the Eurasia Group, a risk-analysis firm, said he thinks Erdogan, after his biggest electoral challenge, will tighten up at home, aiming to overturn opposition victories in big cities in elections next year.
Economic difficulties mean that Erdogan will be more careful abroad, Peker said. “He can’t afford the wheels to come off” while seeking investment and aid.
“Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and the EU will remain transactional and tense,” Peker said, but Erdogan will want to avoid Western sanctions over Russia, restraining Turkish banks and companies from doing major trade deals with Moscow. “Ankara is likely to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership this year, in return seeking to finalize F-16 purchases from the U.S.”
Mark Esper, a former U.S. secretary of defense, said on a visit to Finland that Turkey’s ratification of Sweden for NATO was key to better relations. If Erdogan does not announce his approval soon, and membership lingers past the NATO summit, “we lose energy,” Esper said, “and I’m afraid it gets dragged on from there.”
After decades of military nonalignment, both Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO nearly a year ago, with great fanfare from the Biden administration. Almost from the outset, Erdogan was the sticking point in the process.
The Turkish president claimed the Nordic countries were soft on terrorism, especially toward Kurdish exiles and refugees affiliated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party, considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. “These countries have almost become guesthouses for terrorist organizations,” Erdogan has said. “It is not possible for us to be in favor.”
Finland got Erdogan’s approval in March to join NATO by making relatively minor policy changes, including tightening its anti-terrorism laws and lifting an arms embargo on Turkey. He has continued to hold out on Sweden, although he can justifiably claim credit for a tough new anti-terrorism law that will go into effect in the country June 1.
Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official who is now executive director of the McCain Institute, said, “If Sweden is not admitted as soon as possible, that will dilute our strong response to Vladimir Putin, our strong response to Russia’s aggression, and Putin will take it as some kind of a victory.”
Johanna Lemola contributed reporting from Helsinki.