The Barents Sea

This week, NATO naval and air forces conducted training operations in the Barents Sea. Norwegian, British, and American ships sailed through Russia’s exclusive economic zone north of the Kola Peninsula. The drills are a landmark moment in the region’s remilitarization.

Norway’s NATO Participation on the Rise

British and American forces conducted similar exercises in May, without Norway and Denmark. The latter pair’s participation this week is a symbol of Norway’s post-Crimea position toward Russia. At one point, Norwegian ships made cordial visits to Russian military ports. Now, they play war games in Russia’s backyard. These exercises are doubly significant considering Russia regularly uses the Barents Sea for its own drills.

Norway’s participation comes just months after PM Erna Solberg highlighted Russia and China as possible threats. Additionally, her administration also pledged to increase military spending by $1.7 billion over the next eight years. If this shift becomes permanent policy, Norway may become a regular presence in NATO drills north of the Arctic Circle.

“These [China and Russia] are countries where the authorities do not see the value of neither democracy, rule of law, nor the fact that people have undisputed rights… Over the last years, these forces have become increasingly visible and gained more influence.”

Norwegian Prime minister Erna Solberg

The United Kingdom justified its participation using familiar rhetoric, with Defense Secretary Ben Wallace stating: “The UK is the closest neighbour to the Arctic states. In addition to preserving UK interests we have a responsibility to support our Arctic allies such as Norway to preserve the security and stability of the region”. Although Norway surely welcomes the support, Russia has legitimate objections to the UK’s near-Arctic presence. These objections would carry more weight if Russia did not invite its own near-Arctic partner, China, into the region.

The Arctic as a Proving Ground

As competition over the region’s valuable resources and thoroughfares intensifies, NATO and non-NATO tit-for-tat activity will increase. Near-Arctic powers like Britain, China, Japan and Korea will inevitably complicate things further. The Arctic’s remilitarization is inevitable.


The Arctic’s Closest Neighbor

As the Arctic’s value becomes more apparent and the region more accessible, several ‘near-Arctic’ states are moving to expand their polar influence. The success of China’s aggressive campaign depends on legitimizing this ‘near-Arctic’ identity. However, the People’s Republic is not the only non-Arctic state interested in the High North . The United Kingdom is building their own 21st century Arctic policy, and attempting to legitimize their identity as the region’s ‘closest neighbor’.

The Empire in the Arctic

The UK’s Arctic presence dates back to the 15th century, mostly concerned with uncovering new trade routes through to Asia. 

Britain was an Arctic power until the late 1800s, when its last regional holdings were transferred to Canada. A strong British presence persisted until shortly after World War II, as a countermeasure against Germany and the Soviet Union. Since then, Britain’s observer status has rightfully limited their role in Arctic affairs. 

With Scandinavian countries like Norway and Finland looking for safer alternatives to Russian partnership, the UK’s regional history and strong relationships open the door to meaningful involvement.

Geostrategy and the Northern Frontier

With the end of the post Cold War world order, geostrategic competition is increasing in the High North. The United Kingdom, concerned by possible Russian militarization and lockdown of the Arctic, increasingly views the region as critical to national security. 

Two-thirds of Russia’s navy docks in the Kola Peninsula near Finland and could quickly bear down on Britain from the North Sea. Accordingly, the Royal Marines undertake cold weather training in the Scottish highlands regularly. 

The United Kingdom and its Scandinavian partners are pushing for a permanent NATO presence in the Arctic as a ‘tripwire’ against Sino-Russian encroachment.

Commerce and Climate Change

Britain’s capital and expertise is attractive to Arctic states and projects. As such, the United Kingdom contributes to and cooperates with several EU and American-led development and research programs. 

The UK’s position between the Atlantic, the European Continent, and the Arctic will prove advantageous as they maneuver to develop fishery access, cargo ports, energy infrastructure, and the tourism industry. 

Britain’s contributions to climate research are somewhat disorganized, but considered a valuable asset by regional partners.

Deferential Diplomacy

The most significant obstacles to British success in the Arctic is the government’s lack of organization and focus. Though Britain’s Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas’ oversees the polar regions, there is no dedicated diplomat for the Arctic.

Britain’s web of investments, grants, and diplomatic commitments requires consistent and active engagement. The 2018 policy paper ‘Beyond the Ice’ presents a thorough vision for the future, largely maintaining a hands-off, conservative approach to Arctic involvement. If Britain maintains this limited engagement, they may be a positive force in Arctic affairs. 
Norway, the UK’s closest Arctic ally, is wary of China and determined to move away from Russia. With Chinese investments threatening Arctic sovereignty, alternative partnerships are becoming more attractive.

Arctic-Adjacent Britain

With membership in the NATO umbrella and allies eager for increased British participation, Britain is poised to expand in the High North. To the extent the United Kingdom acts as a secondary partner, their contribution will be valuable. However, Arctic regional sovereignty remains essential for sustainable and secure regional development.