Oct 2018

The Wider North: Security and Defence in Northern Europe and the Arctic


Over the past three years, the APPG for the Polar Regions has taken a great interest in how the strategic situation in the Arctic is changing. In 2015, we looked at Russian military activity in the High North. Last year, we asked if NATO was responding sufficiently or whether it risked being ‘out-flanked’ on its Northern Flank. For this, our third, meeting on the subject – part of our Portcullis Polar Series – we broadened our focus to cover the changing security and defence situation in a “Wider North”, comprising the Arctic, the North Atlantic and the Baltic regions. The same subject matter that forms the focus of a new book edited by Colonel John Andreas Olsen, entitled Security in Northern Europe: Deterrence, Defence and Dialogue, published as a Whitehall Paper by the Royal United Services Institute. The book is a follow-up to the Whitehall Paper published last year, also edited by Colonel Olsen, entitled NATO and the North Atlantic: Revitalising Collective Defence.

The timing of the meeting was significant, coming just a few days ahead of the start of NATO’s Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE in Norway. The Exercise is a significant test of NATO’s ability to reinforce Norway against any potential aggressor. The size of the exercise – featuring more than 50,000 personnel, 250 aircraft, 65 vessels and 10,000 vehicles from 31 NATO and partner countries – is unlike anything seen in Northern Europe since the Cold War, adding further credence to the argument that the strategic importance of Northern Europe and the Arctic is once again recognised by NATO.

Also under consideration at the meeting was the recent report by the House of Commons Defence sub-Committee, On Thin Ice: Defence in the Arctic (the inquiry was initiated by James Gray MP in 2017). For once it seemed the Defence Committee was pushing on an open door as the Government’s response to the report has been generally positive. Of particular significance was the Defence Secretary’s announcement in September that the Ministry of Defence is preparing a Defence Arctic Strategy, which includes a substantial commitment to send Royal Marines to Northern Norway for Arctic warfare training every year for the next decade. These developments suggest that the combined efforts of the APPG for the Polar Regions and the House of Commons Defence Committee, supported by several experts, have been remarkably successful over recent years in drawing the UK defence community’s gaze northwards.  

The Wider North

Professor Rolf Tamnes opened proceedings by reminding us of the importance of the High North to European and North Atlantic security. Climate change, he noted, is driving a fundamental transformation of the Arctic. Meanwhile, President Putin has brought Russia back to its history by upgrading the capabilities of the Northern Fleet and renewing the ‘Bastion’ defence concept (which seeks to protect Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons and naval forces through sea control of northern waters, sea denial down into the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap, and force projection into the North Atlantic). Russia’s recent military activity in the Arctic is part of an ‘Arc of Steel’ stretching from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, built on precision-guided missiles launch from land, sea and air. These developments threaten all of Europe, not just northern European countries.  

NATO has been slow to respond to Russia’s military activity in the north, but in the last few years, things have started to change as it adapts to a ‘new normal’ in the North. There has been a particular focus on the Eastern Flank with the deployment of several battlegroups. Changes to NATO’s command structure have recognised the need to better defend the North Atlantic from attack from the North, especially through the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap. The same can be said of the formulation of graduated response plans that include a plan for Norway, the North Atlantic and the North Sea. These should be recognised as significant achievements for NATO because of the number of countries involved in decision-making, many of which are worried more about events on NATO’s southern and eastern borders. The decision to hold TRIDENT JUNCTURE in Norway matters because it will demonstrate that NATO can operate where ever it needs to.  

Nevertheless, Professor Tamnes remains concerned about the way in which NATO has ceded the initiative to Russia since the end of the Cold War. NATO has become “static, symmetric and predictable”. In contrast, Russia is “mobile, asymmetric and unpredictable”, and increasingly capable of moving rapidly into the High North and Baltic regions before NATO can mount an effective defence.  

In response, Professor Tamnes argued that NATO needs to devise a more competitive strategy. There are a number of ways that this could be achieved. The first is to develop new technologies and concepts to offset NATO’s weaknesses. Anti-submarine warfare is central to this since effective monitoring of Russian activity reduces the Kremlin’s capacity to surprise. The second is to recognise that the North Atlantic, High North and Baltic regions represent a single strategic region (which includes close NATO partners Finland and Sweden), connecting the northern and eastern frontlines. Russia should not be able to launch an isolated assault in any part of Northern Europe and the Arctic without meeting a region-wide response from the West. The third is to strengthen the defence of the transatlantic bridge, which is so critical for connecting reinforcements from North America to the High North/Baltic frontline with Russia. Here, the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Norway, the US and the UK will be critical for enhancing maritime and anti-submarine warfare operations, maintaining freedom of manoeuvre and supporting force projection in the north.  

A UK perspective

The second speaker was Professor Peter Roberts who presented a ‘UK perspective’ on recent changes to the strategic situation in Northern Europe and the Arctic. Professor Roberts started by recognising that the APPG for the Polar Regions and the House of Commons Defence Committee have forced a change in thinking at the Ministry of Defence, which is now beginning to alter its stance towards Russia in Northern Europe. Increasingly, the UK sees Russian behaviour in northern Europe as attempting to test NATO’s resolve, mainly through provocations that fall below the threshold that could trigger an Article 5 response. Diplomatic and economic responses have had a limited effect on Russia, and so there is a requirement for a more robust military response.  

Through the Northern Group and the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), the UK is taking a lead role in Northern European defence cooperation. This is a positive development but Professor Roberts also noted that these moves offer an insight into what the UK currently thinks about its allies. Both the Northern Group and the JEF are designed to be self-sufficient and while they might support NATO, they can also operate independently. Demand for these structures could be indicative of wider concerns in the UK about the dependability (and capabilities) of some its allies, both within NATO and the EU, implying that shared values and interests matter as much as member state commitments to reliability and dependability, as enshrined by NATO.  

Even so, Professor Roberts warned that much still needs to be done if the UK is serious about competing with Russia in Northern Europe. The UK has shown ambition by deploying forces to the Baltic and Nordic regions to deter Russia, but that risks being undermined by the UK’s other military ambition of maintaining a global presence. The UK currently lacks the resources to meet both ambitions, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the defence capability requirements for meeting Russia in the North and the East, and maintaining a global military presence, tug in different directions. In the absence of greater resources, the UK has to make a choice, which will inevitably have a bearing on the UK contribution to defence and security in the Wider North.  

A Nordic perspective

The third speaker, Svein Efjestad, presented a ‘Nordic perspective’, which emphasised the importance of the five Nordic states (N5) for linking the North Atlantic to Eastern Europe, and the Arctic to continental Europe. N5 cooperation has increased substantially in recent years. Finland and Sweden are no longer ‘neutral’ as they were during the Cold War, but rather ‘non-aligned’ key partners for NATO, something that received concrete expression in the Lisbon Treaty, which enhanced their participation in NATO structures.

Increasingly, the aim of the N5 is to be able to attack and retaliate together at short notice, as a supplement to NATO and EU structures. Since 2009, the main organisational framework for this has been the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO). The N5 agreed to extend their military cooperation still further in 2015, in response to Russia’s behaviour towards the Nordic region.

Through NORDEFCO, the N5 have established a classified communications network to facilitate rapid communications in times of crisis; increased the exchange of information and assessments at all levels; promoted technological interoperability (e.g. Sweden and Finland have adopted NATO procedures and standards more effectively than even some NATO members); increased cross-border training for air forces (arguably the most successful NORDEFCO initiative to date) giving the N5 the capacity to operate combined air forces anywhere in the region; and improved their ability to transport military forces across borders at short notice. Other areas of cooperation include establishing a standard procedure for ensuring that consultation and coordination take place before forces are sent on international operations, and the procurement of military equipment (although this has presented a number of challenges due to differing operational requirements in the North Atlantic, High North and Baltic regions).  

NORDEFCO is not seen as an alternative to NATO or the EU, but is designed to coordinate the N5 contribution to these larger institutional frameworks for security cooperation, in recognition of the fact that any security crisis in Europe will affect all five Nordic countries.

A view from the Netherlands

The fourth speaker, Professor Frans Osinga, gave a view from the Netherlands. Like the UK, the Netherlands has had a military presence in Northern Norway for decades involving both amphibious and air forces. However, since the end of the Cold War, the Netherlands like many other western countries assumed that state-based threats to European security had dissipated and that the future defence contribution of the Netherlands would be to peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations around the world. Despite warnings that it would be difficult to restore ‘lost’ capabilities, defence spending continued to decline accordingly, exacerbated by the additional pressures of the global financial crisis that started in 2008. By 2013, many Dutch commentators were concerned that cuts to the Dutch armed forces made it impossible to even maintain effective expeditionary armed forces.  

Following the crisis in Ukraine/Crimea, the Netherlands has recognised that European security is once again being directly challenged by another state. Implicit in that analysis is the strategic importance of the North Sea, the High North and the Baltics for the defence of Europe. In 2016, the Netherlands committed itself to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative and renewed its commitment to the Baltic Air Policing mission. The Netherlands is also working closely with Germany on the EU’s Permanent Structure Cooperation (PESCO) initiative.  

However, the Netherlands remains split on how to prioritise its severely depleted defence capabilities (a legacy of more than a decade supporting allies in Afghanistan and Mali, reduced defence spending, and a shift to ‘out of area’ missions). There has been no increase in the overall budget, despite warnings that NATO might expect the Netherlands to make a greater contribution than it has in the past. At the same time, the most recent statement on international security from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains the focus on the Netherlands’ ‘global security concerns. This position diverges from that of the Ministry of Defence, which wants a greater emphasis on Russia, the military dimension of security, and collective defence. The 2018 Defence White Paper from the Cabinet tries to bridge the gap but does not fundamentally address the core problem: the capabilities of the Netherlands armed forces remain very limited and are not being altered to address the ‘new normal’ that has settled over Europe since Russia upped the military ante in Northern and Eastern Europe.

Professor Osinga worries that this capability gap (a familiar story across Europe), once merely a political embarrassment, is now a major vulnerability.  


Reflecting on the presentations from the rest of the panel, the fifth speaker, Madeleine Moon MP agreed with much of what had been said. Leaving the initiative with Russia had been a major mistake on the part of the UK and NATO. Capabilities – such as the ability operate submarines under-ice in response to Russia’s Bastion – have been lost and the UK and NATO are only starting to get them back. There has been an overreliance on Arctic sea-ice to protect the UK and NATO from the north, something which cannot last as the sea-ice thins and recedes over the coming decades. The GIUK Gap is critical for NATO – without the North Atlantic sea lines of communication, Europe cannot be defended. Any security crisis in the North will therefore effect all of NATO.  

Summing up, Mrs Moon suggested that the real weakness across NATO had been a lack of honesty between Governments and their people about where the borders for defence and security now lie. These have been stretched, she argued, far beyond nations themselves. For example, any attack on British forces in Estonia, is an attack on Britain. The reality is that no region can be neglected by NATO because Russia (and indeed China) is increasingly prepared to act anywhere that it can find a chink in NATO’s armour.  

This paper was prepared by Dr Duncan Depledge (Director, APPG for the Polar Regions Secretariat), and endorsed by James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions).

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This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.