Opinion: As NATO expands across the North, Russia faces a strengthening unity among the Arctic 7

The A7 are now all members of NATO, while Russia finds itself on the sidelines.

  • By Barry Scott Zellen
  • Wednesday, October 12, 2022 11:20am
  • Opinion

With war in the Ukraine now approaching its eigth month of hostilities, many observers on both sides expect the conflict to persist well into the new year, with the specter of escalation worrying many as Russia confronts continued battlefield setbacks. Far to the north, the war in Ukraine has had a profound effect on Arctic security and diplomacy, causing a rift within the Arctic Council as its seven democratic member states boycotted Russia’s participation, even while Russia held the rotating chair of the Council. And while the Council 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 (then known as the Inuit Circumpolar Conference), 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 other 7 Arctic states (A7), the 6 Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations at the Arctic Council have noted a decline in consultation by their state partners at the council as these important changes unfold — indicating a Westphalian reconceptualization of Arctic security as a state prerogative focused upon national defense, in contrast to the multilevel, multilateral cooperation that hitherto united all the Council’s state members (inclusive of Russia) with the Permanent Participant organizations in a triumph of inclusive diplomacy.

This Westphalian resurgence was evident in the sudden change of heart in both Finland and Sweden, with long traditions of neutrality, which both turned to NATO for protection after Russia invaded Ukraine, in another dramatic setback to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition to keep NATO from further encroachment toward Russia’s borders, leading both hitherto nonaligned Nordic states to complete accession talks at NATO headquarters on July 4, a day with much charged symbolism in America as a sacrosanct day that celebrates America’s independence from tyranny, formally confirming their willingness and capacity to meet all obligations associated with NATO membership, thus extending NATO across the Nordic region, from the Norwegian border to its Baltic member states.

And while Sweden and Finland maintained non-alignment through the Cold War era, in the decades since they have grown closer to the western alliance, and both had joined the Partnership for Peace in 1997. Because of the strengthening collaboration between NATO and both Finland and Sweden in the years since, their abandonment of neutrality in favor of alliance membership, while catalyzed by the war in Ukraine, is less tectonic a realignment of European security architecture as it may seem given their three decades of cooperation with the alliance, and Sweden has already indicated its continued unwillingness to host NATO assets, in much the same way that Norway long reassured Moscow throughout the Cold War that its territory would never be used as a staging ground for a northern invasion of Russia.

Just 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, and more tightly aligns the strategic capabilities of the A7, whose geographical divisions in the past had hitherto brought Russia and the Arctic coastal states (Norway, Denmark-Greenland, Canada and the United States) together, united under the banner UNCLOS and known as the Arctic 5, as occurred at the first Arctic Ocean Conference in Ilulissat, Greenland in 2008.

Back then, it was Sweden and Finland, the two democratic non-coastal Arctic states, that were excluded from the maritime Arctic club (as was, briefly, insular Iceland), causing a rift at the otherwise harmonious Arctic Council that required mending. Fast forward 15 years, and Sweden and Finland are now part of a different Arctic club, the A7, now all members 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 vsiting scholar in the department of geography at the University of Connecticut, senior fellow at the Institute of the North and international Arctic correspondent for the INTERSEC Journal. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

More in Opinion

Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

A roll of “I Voted” stickers await voters on Election Day in Alaska. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the prospect of a state constitutional convention. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Election winners, losers and poor losers

Tshibaka and Palin misread Alaskans by thinking Trump’s endorsement all but guaranteed they’d win.

Norwegian Cruise Lines announced in late August that it would donate a 2.9 acre plot of land owned by the cruise line since 2019 on Juneau's waterfront to Huna Totem Corporation to develop. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Aak’w Landing is Juneau’s most promising new project

Now, more than ever, our community needs the jobs, tax revenue, and stability…

Opinion: Freedom in the classroom sets precedence for the future

We advocate for the adoption of legislation to protect students’ First Amendment rights…

This photo available under a Creative Commons license shows a kelp forest. (Camille Pagniello)
Opinion: Indigenous-led mariculture and traditional economies set an example for our future

November is Native American Heritage Month, and traditional Indigenous knowledge is essential… Continue reading

Exhibit curator Ron Carver designed “Mỹ Lai – A Massacre Took 504 Souls, and Shook the World"  to progress from gruesome images to the soldiers who courageously intervened. And to those who made sure America and the world learned the truth. (Courtesy Photo)
Opinion: The power in attempting to memorialize the truth

Real heroes emerge from horrific events.

Opinion: My Turn was right on the money

While I’ve never met Mr. Adler I share his concerns.

(Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Mayor and assembly must rein in the assessor’s office

The unconscionable way the assessor’s office is treating commercial property owners must end.

This photo shows Diane Kaplan at Silver Salmon Camp. (Courtesy Photo / Sven Haakanson)
Opinion: Exciting new beginnings — they always come with sad farewells

Perhaps now is the right time to hand off our creation to the next generation.

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Opinion: Judging judges — balancing the judicial selection process

Alaska’s method of selecting judges can be and should be improved.