By Christian Le Mière, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
One of the pervasive themes of this year’s Global Strategic Review is, unsurprisingly, Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and conflict in the east of the country resonates through conversations on Europe’s security, the role of NATO and the international order. For this reason, both the keynote session and the first plenary were focused on this most strategic of issues.
But sitting here in Oslo, it is difficult not to consider not only the effects of the Ukraine crisis on the security of Europe’s eastern frontier, but also its repercussions in the north. In his keynote speech last night, Norwegian State Secretary Bård Glad Pedersen reiterated his country’s focus on the High North and the centrality of the Arctic to Norway’s security. He also underlined the fact that despite the conflict, confrontation and coercion occurring between Europe and Russia around the Ukraine issue, political cooperation with Russia continues apace through the Arctic Council.
Yet, as I suggested in a question last night, the ripples from the Ukraine crisis do in fact touch the shores of the Arctic Ocean. This year, the annual chiefs of defence meeting among Arctic states has been cancelled for the first time and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) is without Russian participation (the last ASFR meeting in Sortland, Norway in August, involved 11 countries – 7 of them non-Arctic states – but not the largest Arctic country, Russia). Both of these factors demonstrate that military–military relations with Russia in the Arctic have effectively disintegrated.
At the same time, just this week Russian Su-24 aircraft trespassed into Swedish airspace following three incursions into Finnish airspace in August. Such events, and a growing concern among Scandinavian populations and political elites, are fuelling increased defence spending in the north, after more than two decades of steady, post-Cold War declines.
Does this mean that there is a new Cold War in the Arctic? Of course not; Russian force levels and activities remain far below their Cold War level, and increasingly the Russian Navy is shifting its historic over-emphasis on the Northern Fleet to a greater balance with, for example, the Pacific and Black Sea fleets. Nonetheless, it is also undeniable that the Ukraine crisis has had effects on relations not just in eastern Europe, but further afield, and seems to be contributing to a renewed military competition in the Arctic.