The NATO Washington Summit and the Arctic

July 02, 2024
This article is part of a series of short texts on issues that challenge the alliance as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.

As geopolitical tensions continue to rise and relations between Russia and the West collapse, the Arctic is reemerging as a theater of strategic importance for NATO. Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine—framed by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine as a proxy war orchestrated by the alliance—and continued hybrid aggression against many of its member states have raised the specter of conventional and nuclear confrontation. 

The Arctic played a critical role in the Cold War. Today, the European Arctic is again an important staging area for Russia to project power into the North Atlantic. Moscow’s Northern Fleet and nuclear-armed submarines are based in the region around the Kola Peninsula, which raises the potential for an expanding conflict, a “horizontal escalation”, across the Baltic and Arctic theaters if a crisis occurs. 

NATO allies are consequently strengthening their posture vis-à-vis Russia in both areas. Since Finland and Sweden joined NATO, seven of eight Arctic states (all but Russia) are part of the alliance. NATO’s northern flank is now stronger and more integrated than ever. Nordic countries have made significant investment in upgrading their robust defense capabilities, interoperability, and capacity to host US and allied troops. 

Updates to NATO’s command structure are leveraging the new reality. At last year’s Vilnius summit, allies approved NATO’s most comprehensive defense plans since the Cold War. One, the Regional Plan Northwest, will cover the defense of the North Atlantic and European Arctic under the command of NATO Joint Force Command Norfolk, with all Nordic allies slated to contribute. The bloc’s largest exercise since the Cold War, Steadfast Defender 2024, exercised all the new, interconnected, regional, and domain-specific plans, including the provisions for training and testing allies’ capacity to secure the Atlantic against Russian advances from the Arctic. At their Washington summit, allies will make critical decisions to ensure that NATO fields the necessary capabilities to fully operationalize the plans.\

The meeting will also provide an opportunity for NATO to strengthen its cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners to deter challenges from China. This has implications for the Arctic, a region of strategic interest to Beijing and an arena of its growing cooperation with Moscow, as a recent series of GMF papers explores. While some allies strongly oppose a role for NATO in the Indo-Pacific, Russia and China’s growing alignment, including in the Arctic, requires a more holistic defense planning view across the North Atlantic and North Pacific.