The war in Ukraine is morphing from a war between Russia and Ukraine into a war that involves NATO members supporting the war effort in Ukraine (Darlene Superville and Zeke Miller, “US Boosting Military Presence in Europe amid Russia Threat”, APNews, 29 June 2022).
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This situation generates strategic tensions between NATO and Russia that spill into the Arctic. One of the major strategic effects of the Ukraine war is the Sweden and Finland bid to adhere to NATO. As it happens, the Swedish and Finnish decision to adhere to NATO triggers a strongly adverse Turkish reaction (Abdullah Bozkurt, “Turkey’s “divide and conquer” plot for Sweden and Finland in their bid for NATO failed”, Nordic Monitor, 8 June 2020) .
These tensions take pace within the framework of the rapid warming of the region, a powerful variable that destabilises the Arctic regional and international geopolitical equilibriums (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Is the West Losing the Warming Arctic?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 7 December, 2020).
Furthermore, the Arctic is already fraught with proliferating tensions between Russia and NATO since 2018. They happen through the multiplication by Russian as well as by NATO members of sea and air military exercises, weapons systems tests and manoeuvres (Thomas Nilsen, “Three Nations, One mission- The New NATO in the North”, The Independent Barents Observer, 3 June 2022 and “Russian Navy Launched Hypersonic Missile from the Barents Sea”, The Independent Barents Observer, May 28, 2022). Meanwhile NATO manoeuvres in the Arctic interact with the Russian militarization of the region.
However, the extension of tensions in the Arctic generated by the war in Ukraine has far deeper and larger ramifications. Over the course of the last decade or so, Russia has been developing the “Northern Sea route”. This new maritime corridor links the Bering Strait to Norway and the North Atlantic.
The development of this new road results from the rapid warming of the Arctic region. Thus, it is one of the ways Russia strategically adapts to climate change (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Towards a US-China War? (1) and (2): Military Tensions in the Arctic”, The Red Team Analysis Society, September 16, 2019).
As it happens, the Northern Sea route attracts a growing number of Chinese convoys. By using this road, the Chinese ships and tankers reach the Northern Atlantic, turning China into a North Atlantic economic powerhouse. Meanwhile, the energy development of the Russian Arctic is the template for numerous Sino-Russian joint ventures in the field of offshore oil and gas (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Arctic China: Towards new Oil Wars in a Warming Arctic?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, September 14, 2020). In the same time, Russia exports growing volumes of Arctic oil and gas to China and India.
Those multiple cross-dynamics mean that the tensions the war in Ukraine generates in the Arctic take place in an already geopolitically and geophysically turbo-charged environment. However, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Thus, we are going to study the different dimensions of these new tensions and the way they interact with the warming Arctic changes.
From Ukraine to the warming Arctic
The political consequences of the war in Ukraine are spreading from the battlefield to the Arctic regional equilibrium. Indeed, on 18 May 2022, neutral Sweden and Finland reacted to the Russian offensive in Ukraine by officially applying for NATO membership (Steven Lamy, “Finland’s and Sweden’s pursuit of NATO membership is the exact opposite of what Putin wanted for Russia’s Neighbors”, The Conversation, 21 June 2022).
This move drastically turns upside down the Arctic regional strategic equilibria. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the Russian federation opposes NATO’s expansion in Eastern and Northern Europe. Furthermore, Sweden and Norway were neutral countries. Thus, they were avoiding the “hammer and anvil” status of being caught between NATO interests and Russia’s security interests.
Finland’s “national insecurity” and Sweden’s fear
The Finnish decision is backed by a parliamentary due process. It also follows a massive shift in public opinion. Indeed, in January 2022, only 24% of the Finnish citizens were in favour of a NATO membership. On 28 February, 4 days after the start of the Russian offensive on Ukraine, 68% of Finns were in its favour. This shift may be explained by Finland historical context (Steven Lamy, ibid).
One must remember that, for Finland, the twentieth century collective experience is defined by its two bloody wars with Russia. The first one occurred in 1918. At that time the Russian revolution and the rise of the Bolshevik regime triggered the Finnish civil war. This civil war opposed “White Finland” to the “Finnish socialist workers Republic”. The latter was supported by the nascent USSR and the Bolshevik power (Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, Paradoxes of power, 2014).
Then, in August 1939, the signature of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR installed Finland, as well as the Baltic states, in the Soviet sphere of influence. In 1939-1940, the ferocious Finland-USSR war ended with Finland losing 10% of its territory (Stephen Kotkin, Stalin vol II- Waiting for Hitler, 2017).
So, Finland allied with Nazi Germany in 1941. It participated in the assault on the Soviet Union, in order to take back the lost parts of its territory. After the Allies victory in 1945, the USSR imposed the status of neutral country on Finland.
This historical background certainly shapes the collective Finnish perception of Russia (Helene Lavoix, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Genocide’: the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 2005).
The will to join the NATO alliance happens at a time when Russia uses its military might on its western borders for the third time since the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. This situation triggers a strong collective feeling of “national insecurity” towards Russia (Lamy, ibid).
From the Swedish point of view, the military support to Ukraine started at the very beginning of the war: Sweden shipped more than 5,000 anti-tank weapons, 5,000 body shields, 5,000 helmets and 135,000 field rations (Lamy, ibid).
There has not been any war between Sweden and Russia since 1814. However, one must remember that Sweden faces the Russian and highly militarized Kaliningrad enclave. From Kaliningrad, the Russian navy radiates its influence on the whole of the Baltic Sea (Guy Faulconbridge, “Russia warns of nuclear, hypersonic deployment if Sweden and Finland Join NATO”, Reuters, April 14, 2022).
However, Turkey, a historic NATO member, contested those Swedish-Finnish NATO candidacies. Between May and 29 June 2022, President Erdogan’s government opposed the adhesion of the two Scandinavian countries. It did so on the ground of their numerous declarations and policies denouncing the Turkish policies against the Kurds.
Ankara denounced the way Sweden and Finland have been accusing Turkey of human rights abuses. The adhesion to NATO necessitating a unanimous vote of its 30 members, Turkey de facto blocked both candidacies (Abdullah Bozkurt, “Turkey’s “divide and conquer” plot for Sweden and Finland in their bid for NATO failed”, Arctic Monitor, 8 June 2020). Finally, on 29 June, President Erdogan agreed to allow these applications during the Madrid’s NATO summit (Humeyra Pamuk and Anne Kauranen, “Turkey lifts veto on Finland Sweden joining NATO, clearing path for expansion”, Reuters, 29 June 2022).
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the warming of the Arctic has very concrete consequences for Turkey.
Indeed, the opening of the Northern Sea Route by Moscow necessitates the building of a new fleet of nuclear icebreakers. Those icebreakers need to dock in Murmansk, where the historic dock sank in 2018. As a result, Russian Rosatom launched an international bid, that the Turkish KuzeyStar won in June 2021. The Turkish company is supposed to deliver the new giant floating port at the end of 2024. It is a 4,9 billion rubbles (55 million Euros) investment by Rosatom (Polina Leganger Bronder, “Turkish yard wins bid to build nuclear icebreaker dock”, The Independent Barents Observer, June 13, 2021).
Moreover, Turkey also benefits from the Russian oil and gas development of the Arctic. For example, in 2021, there was a 63% increase of the Turkish gas imports from Gazprom. This increase is coupled with the 10% increase from Germany and 20% increase from Italy, as well as from “abroad countries” (thus labelled by Gazprom). This global increase is only possible through the massive Gazprom operations in the Arctic (Ate Staalesen, “As Moscow Prepared for War, State company Gazprom sold Arctic gas worth almost 140 $billion”, The Independent Barents Observer, 3 May 2022). It is especially true of the mammoth Yamal fields, on the façade of the Kara Sea.
Thus, the warming Arctic becomes a place where the Russian, Turkish, Swedish and Finnish national interests unexpectedly entangle.
Arctic energy and trade development
The Sweden-Finland application for NATO membership is inseparable from the fact that, since 2018, the warming Arctic has become a major attractor for NATO. This results from the rapidly retreating summer sea ice and of the growing instability of the Arctic sea ice and consequences for Russia.
Indeed, since the end of the 2000s, the Russian government has been adapting to this geophysical change by opening a new maritime causeway along the Siberian coastline.
This “Northern Sea route” links the Bering Strait, thus the Pacific and Asia, to the Barents Sea and the Norway sea, thus to Northern Europe and the Northern Atlantic. In the same dynamic, Russia develops several on- and offshore oil and gas deposits, such as the Yamal I and II LNG projects.
The Northern Sea Route and the energy opportunities attract massive Chinese investments, as well as Chinese cargo convoys (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Russian Arctic: Where Russian and Asian Strategies Interests Converge?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 23, 2016).
China and NATO, new Arctic actors
Using the Northern Sea route, Chinese convoys save several days on travel time to reach northern Europe major ports. Meanwhile, Beijing systematically signs bilateral trade and technology agreements with Northern Europe governments (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Arctic China 2- The Chinese Shaping of the North”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 9, 2014).
In other words, thanks to the Russian development of the climate change consequences on the Arctic, China becomes a major economic power in Northern Europe and in the North Atlantic area.
It is in this context that, in September 2018, the Russian military organized the Vostock 18 giant maneuvers in Siberia and in the Russian Far East (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Warming Arctic- The Race to Neo Mercantilism(s)”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 12, 2018).
The Chinese military was associated to this “Vostok 18” exercise. Then, from 23 October 2018 to 7 November 2018, NATO organised the “Trident Juncture 2018” manoeuvres in the Arctic region, between Norway and Iceland, thus leading its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold war in 1991 (Christopher Woody, “The US Navy is pushing north, closer to Russia in freezing conditions — and it’s planning on hanging around up there“, Business Insider, 7 November 2018).
These manoeuvres mobilized 50.000 soldiers, 150 planes, 10.000 land vehicles and 60 warships. They were centered on Norway, where landing, deployment and combat exercises took place. They were led to demonstrate the reaction capability against a hypothetical and unnamed adversary that would endanger a fellow NATO member in the Arctic region.
This official “anonymousness” did not stop Russia to protest officially against this military exercise taking place very close to its land and maritime frontiers (Christopher Woody, “Russia aims its missile drills shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO’s biggest war games in years”, Business Insider, 31 October, 2018).
Since then, Russia has sped up the militarization of the coastline and of its maritime economic zone. Meanwhile, in 2020, NATO has created its Arctic command at the U.S Navy Norfolk base (Levon Sevuts, “NATO’s new Atlantic command to keep watch over the European Arctic”, The Independent Barents Observer, September 18, 2020). During the same period, the Scandinavian countries and Russia have multiplied military air, sea and land exercises (Thomas Nilsen, “Increase in NATO scrambled jets from Norway”, The Independent Barents Observer, and “US warship returns Barents Sea”, September 14, and October 2020).
Then, on 5 June 2022, while the war in Ukraine raged and NATO members support Ukraine in a military, financial, medical and humanitarian way, NATO implemented its annual Baltic exercise, BALTOPS 22 (Anadolu Agency, “Largest-ever NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea ends”, Dayly Sabah, June 12, 2022).
The exercise gathered 45 warships, 75 planes and 7500 serving men and women. Among them were Swedish and Finnish troops, invited to participate following their NATO application. The Russian ministry of defense reacted by deploying a 60 strong maritime force. This deployment was the occasion for a maritime and land exercise involving Russian forces from the Kaliningrad enclave.
As these exercise take place, so does the Madrid NATO summit of the 27-30 June 2022. Then, the Organization published its new strategic concept, that includes Russia and China as systemic threats (Hélène Lavoix, “The War between China and the U.S. – The Normative Dimension“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 4 July 2022). As far as the Arctic is concerned, it specifies that:
“In the High North, its (“Russian”) capability to disrupt Allied reinforcements and freedom of navigation across the North Atlantic is a strategic challenge to the Alliance. Moscow’s military build-up, including in the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean Sea regions, along with its military integration with Belarus, challenge our security and interests.”NATO 2022 Strategic Concept
In other words, NATO officially integrates the warming Arctic to its strategic doctrine, while identifying China and Russia as being its competitors in many areas, including in the Arctic. This also means that the Russian and Chinese development of the warming Arctic and the capabilities they could derive from this approach are clearly understood by Washington D.C ( Sean Monaghan, Pierre Morcos, Colin Wall, “What happened at Madrid ‘s NATO summit ?“, CSIS, July 1, 2022).
Kaliningrad for ever
Meanwhile, since the start of June 22, following the EU and the US, Lithuania applies sanctions on Kaliningrad by blocking half the railway traffic going from Russia to the enclave (Tim Libster and Rob Picheta, “Why Kaliningrad, Russia’s Toehold in Europe, could be the next flashpoint in its war against Ukraine”, CNN, June 22, 2022).
Kaliningrad is located between Poland and Lithuania and faces Sweden across the Baltic Sea. Being the Russian Baltic fleet port, Kaliningrad is very highly militarised, and hosts an Iskander missiles facility. Iskander weapon systems have the capability to carry nuclear weapons if so equipped.
Lithuania involves itself in the sanctions systems imposed by the G7, the EU and the US. As Finland’s, this policy has roots in its painful history with the Soviet Union. Since 2004, it is part of NATO and of the EU.
However, more recently, it is also under the direct pressure of Belarus, that, since 2021, literally “projects” migrants from Middle East, Africa and Central Asia on the borders of Poland and Lithuania, in order to destabilize them. Belarus does so as reprisal against the sanctions imposed by the EU since the contested reelection of president Lukashenko. (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Belarus and the weaponization of migration“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 7 February, 2022).
However, in the meantime, on 17 June, the Russian new nuclear icebreaker Sibir sailed towards the tricky Viltitsky Strait. In the same time, the LNG carrier Nicolaï Yevgorov left the Sabetta port, where special Arctic carriers load up with the LNG that the giant Yamal operation produces (Atle Staalesen, “As Russia turns towards Asia, this year’s first vessel heads east on Northern Sea Route”, The Independent Barents Observer, 17 June 2022).
The Sibir will certainly escort the Nicolai Yevgorov along the Northern Sea route towards the Bering strait. Thus, it will ship LNG to the ravenous Asian market, especially the Chinese one.
In other words, the war in Ukraine increases strategic tensions that were already growing since 2018 in the nexus of international relations that the warming Arctic attracts. The Arctic attraction also reveals that the Russia-China-Turkey-Asia nexus is deepening through trade and energy, while NATO projects itself in this rapidly changing and “polarizing”region.
It is in this tense context that the war in Ukraine “spills” into the Arctic and accelerates its strategic changes. We must now see if the rapidly changing geophysics of the region are going to “overheats” this new state of things.