As NATO expands across the north, Russia faces a strengthening unity among the Arctic 7 

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Evacuees from Kherson gather upon their arrival at the railway station in Anapa, southern Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. Russian authorities have encouraged residents of Kherson to evacuate, warning that the city may come under massive Ukrainian shelling. Photo by AP Photo.

The 8-month-old war in Ukraine has had an intensifying effect on Arctic security and diplomacy, creating a deepening rift on the Arctic Council (AC) as its seven democratic member states (the A7) boycotted Russia’s participation, even while Russia held the rotating AC chair. The AC represents an innovative, post-Cold War collaboration between East and West across the North, as envisioned by the late Mikhail Gorbachev in his famed 1987 Murmansk Speech, with the pioneering inclusion of Arctic indigenous peoples as sought by the Inuit Circumpolar Council since its formation in the 1970s. 

It took the war in Ukraine to put both of these noteworthy achievements at risk. Just as Russia, the largest Arctic state with over 24,000 kilometers of Arctic coast (over 50% of the Arctic Ocean’s coastline) and an Arctic population of over 2 million (around 50% the entire population of the circumpolar Arctic) finds itself isolated from the A7, the 6 indigenous Permanent Participant organizations at the AC have observed concomitant decline in consultation by their state partners at the Council. This indicates a Westphalian reconceptualization of Arctic security as state prerogatives re-focused on national defense, in contrast to the multilevel, multilateral cooperation that had united the AC’s diverse stakeholders since its 1996 founding. This Westphalian resurgence is evident in the sudden change of heart in both Finland and Sweden, each with long traditions of neutrality, and which both turned to NATO for protection after Russia invaded Ukraine. 

While Sweden and Finland maintained non-alignment through the Cold War era, in the decades since they have grown closer to the western alliance, both joining the Partnership for Peace in 1997. Because of their strengthening collaboration with NATO ever since, their abandonment of neutrality in favor of alliance membership is less tectonic a realignment of European security architecture than it may appear. 

But the very fact that both the Nordic and Baltic states – with the obvious exception of Russia, which abuts the Baltic near St. Petersburg as well from its western exclave in Kaliningrad – are now united as NATO allies strengthens western unity. It also more tightly aligns the A7, whose geographical divisions in the past had brought Russia and the Arctic coastal states – Norway, Denmark-Greenland, Canada and the United States – closer together under UNCLOS (and known collectively as the A5), particularly since the 2008 Arctic Ocean Conference in Ilulissat, Greenland. Back then, it was Sweden and Finland that were excluded from the maritime Arctic club (as was, briefly, insular Iceland), causing a rift within the AC that required mending. 

Fast forward 15 years, and Sweden and Finland are now part of a new Arctic club, the A7 — now all members (or soon to be) of NATO – while Russia finds itself on the sidelines, an Arctic pariah that remains the largest and most populous of the Arctic states, a geographical reality that likewise requires mending once the conflict in Ukraine comes to a conclusion. 

Barry Scott Zellen, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar in the department of geography at the University of Connecticut and senior fellow at the Institute of the North.

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