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Europe’s Northern Flank Is More Stable Than You Think

The geopolitical impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is felt everywhere, and the Arctic region is no exception. Analysts and commentators have stressed the war’s detrimental effect on Arctic cooperation and governance, as well as the increased likelihood of conflict in the north. Deepening Sino-Russian collaboration—which has intensified since the start of the war—is seen as a highly alarming prospect for the region. Some have even called it an Arctic “Great Game,” reminiscent of the 19th-century struggle between the Russian and British empires in Asia.

What these commentators get right is that few regions are currently experiencing a more substantial geopolitical shift than Europe’s high north. But they are wrong to ring the alarm. There are important reasons why Europe’s northern flank is mostly stable and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European high north and Arctic region face five major geopolitical shifts.

First, NATO has been strengthened. Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine motivated Finland to join, doubling the length of the alliance’s land border with Russia. Sweden, too, is  expected to join soon. In the run-up to the war in December 2021, Russia’s demand that the alliance refrain from taking in any more members was included in draft treaties that Moscow presented to Washington and NATO. By launching the invasion, the Kremlin achieved the exact opposite.

Even if Finland and Sweden had already acted like virtual NATO allies in recent years, the integration of the entire Nordic-Baltic region into NATO, notably into the bloc’s new integrated defense plans, will significantly augment the alliance’s ability to deter and defend against Russian aggression in Northern Europe. Finland and Sweden integrating into NATO completes the geopolitical divide between the West and Russia in the European high north. What’s more, Russia will now be the only non-NATO member of the Arctic Council, the premier body for Arctic cooperation.

Second, Putin’s war in Ukraine has likely raised the importance of the European high north and the Arctic region in Moscow’s military strategy. For the foreseeable future, the decimation of Russia’s conventional forces in Ukraine makes Moscow even more reliant on its nuclear deterrence. The largest share of the sea leg of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad is made up of the submarines operating in the Arctic Ocean from their bases on the Kola Peninsula.

Moreover, with Finland and Sweden in NATO, the Baltic Sea has turned into a virtual NATO lake, constraining the operations of Russia’s Baltic Fleet while Putin’s war in Ukraine increases the vulnerability of its Black Sea Fleet. These new vulnerabilities suggest that Moscow will find its Kola Peninsula-based Northern Fleet increasingly important—particularly its bastion defense concept for protecting Russia’s second-strike nuclear capability in the Arctic region.

Third, Europe’s northern flank is witnessing an increase in military activity. Russia stated that it expects a militarization of the region following Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO accession. Like Norway, Finland borders Russia’s Kola Peninsula, the strategic significance of which makes Russia sensitive to allied activity nearby. Unlike Norway, which has long put limits on NATO activity near its border with Russia, Finland might show less constraint. It has, for instance, opened its skies for U.S. intelligence flights along its eastern frontier, and the first sortie took place in March 2023. Furthermore, forces from NATO countries are increasingly visible conducting military exercises in Europe’s northern waters. For instance, in June, the U.S. Navy’s newest supercarrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, participated with its air wing in Arctic Challenge, a major exercise across northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

Fourth, Europe’s detachment from Russian energy has sharply raised the geopolitical value of oil and gas resources on the Norwegian continental shelf, which stretches from the North Sea to the Barents Sea. In the first quarter of 2023, Norway supplied 46 percent of the European Union’s pipeline imports of natural gas. During the same period, Norway was also the EU’s largest single supplier of oil, accounting for around 13 percent of total imports. Moreover, the 2022 Nord Stream pipeline sabotage highlighted the vulnerability of energy infrastructure in the region. Among other steps, this prompted the establishment of a joint NATO-EU Task Force on the Resilience of Critical Infrastructure, where Russia is treated as the main theat.

Fifth, Russia’s war in Ukraine has strengthened China’s relations with Russia and given Beijing more leverage over its junior partner—which, in turn, increases China’s potential influence in the Arctic. Beijing wants access to Arctic resources, and it could have a strategic interest in the region for early warning purposes and a potential naval presence.

However, China’s declaration of a “no limits” partnership with Russia at the outset of Putin’s war has harmed China-Europe relations and limited Beijing’s ability to engage Arctic nations beyond Russia. In 2013, Russia voiced opposition to China joining the Arctic Council even as an observer, but in line with the closing of ranks between Beijing and Moscow, Russia has welcomed Chinese investment and technology cooperation in the Arctic. Weakened, isolated, and increasingly dependent on China, Moscow must now look to Beijing as its main partner in a growing number of fields, including trade, technology, energy, and weapons systems and components. This will likely entail Russia working closer with China in the Arctic as well.

But even if all these are significant geopolitical changes on Europe’s northern flank, they will not necessarily lead to the instability many observers now foresee. Europe’s high north remains a stable region for three important reasons.

First, the distinct geopolitical divide between NATO allies on the one side and Russia on the other brings clarity—and clarity should strengthen stability. With Finland and Sweden joining NATO, Russia’s diplomatic and military room for maneuver is limited even further. Militarily, Russia now faces a Nordic region that will likely take a coordinated approach to defense and deterrence, as outlined in NATO’s new defense plan for the region. For instance, the Nordic region will soon field a combined and integrated air force of about 250 modern fighter jets. If being ready to fight is the best way to preserve peace, then a strong, unified Nordic region under NATO’s umbrella is definitely a good thing.

Second, the countries in the European high north have long experience in managing relations with Russia, including risks related to Russian military activity. Much of this experience dates back to the Cold War, but it has also grown out of the resurgence of Russian military activity in the region since around 2007. While Russia regularly provokes NATO allies in the high north, the overall picture is of a relatively restrained Russian military posture, especially if one compares it to other parts of Europe, such as the Baltic region. One possible explanation is Russia’s desire to avoid increased tension and military activity near its seaborne strategic forces. Even though both Russia and NATO are adjusting their military strategies and activities in the north, the two sides’ long history of relative restraint, as well as familiarity with each other’s patterns of military activity, should contribute to reduce the risk of incidents and escalation.

Finally, despite growing concerns about China, its presence and influence in the region is still limited. The predicted shipping bonanza from China to Europe through the Arctic Ocean—the so-called Northern Sea Route or Northeast Passage—has never materialized. Of the 314 tankers and other commercial vessels trafficking the route in 2022, not a single vessel sailed under the Chinese flag, although seven ships were registered in Hong Kong. In addition, the onshore Yamal liquefied natural gas project in the European Arctic remains China’s only large-scale investment in the region, and without access to Western technology, China’s ability to extract offshore oil and gas resources in the region remains limited.

Moreover, China is unlikely to establish a significant military presence in the Arctic region. China’s naval rivalry with the United States in the Indo-Pacific will pin down most of its naval assets in Asia, and Russia is likely to be very dubious about a Chinese naval presence in the north, not least because it is so close to Russia’s most important strategic asset, the Northern Fleet. Beijing is well aware of Moscow’s concern and can probably relate to it: During the Cold War, Chinese leader Mao Zedong turned down Soviet overtures to build a joint naval fleet and a series of radio stations along the Chinese coast to communicate with Soviet submarines operating in the Pacific.

Europe’s northern flank is therefore likely to remain stable and mostly quiet in the short and medium term. Looking further ahead, the region’s stability could be upset by two geopolitical scenarios. In one scenario, a nationalist, assertive, and resurgent Russia might take advantage of the United States’ preoccupation with China and a potential East Asian conflict. Although strong trans-Atlantic ties remain important to Washington, and the European northern flank plays an important role in U.S. military strategy, Washington may eventually give less priority to Europe in order to manage the China challenge. However, for Russia to rebuild its economic and military capability to a level where it can pose a serious threat to Europe beyond Ukraine would be an arduous process.

The other scenario that would lead to greater instability in the region is a seriously weakened Russia allowing Beijing to use its growing leverage over Moscow to establish a military presence in the Arctic. This would expand the geographic scope of the U.S-China rivalry and introduce an entirely new source of tension into the region.

But until either of these scenarios becomes real, Europe’s northern flank will stay a lot quieter than the Cassandras would have us believe.

Source : Foreign Policy

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