Historically, the severity of the Arctic’s climate and the harshness of its landscape ensured that the region rarely featured in large-scale military operations. This changed during the two world wars, especially the second, then the Arctic became the site of significant naval activity despite its particularities. Its strategic importance only grew further over the course of the Cold War – the polar route was the shortest for nuclear-armed bombers to take in the event of a hypothetical confrontation between the two superpowers, making the Arctic the site of both air defence and early warning systems.
But in October 1987, the USSR launched the Murmansk Initiative – a range of foreign policy proposals that aimed to transform the Arctic into a peaceful place – a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) with restricted naval activity – and promote cooperation on non-security issues, such as resource extraction, environmental protection, indigenous rights, and marine transport. In this very spirit, the 1996 Ottawa Declaration established the Arctic Council as a high-level forum on environmental protection and sustainable development, touching everything but military or security issues.
Over the past three decades, Arctic players have focused on cooperation, operating on the notion that the region’s exceptionalism would shield it from the geopolitical frictions plaguing the rest of the world.
In 2010, Norway and the United States established the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR), which gave representatives from Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States the opportunity to discuss questions of cooperation amongst military forces operating in and around the Arctic. The first Arctic Chiefs of Defence Staff forum also took place in Goose Bay, Canada in April 2012, bringing together senior commanders from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States to discuss search-and-rescue solutions and enhance the region’s security through communication.
Military postures in the Arctic vary by country and allied bloc:
Counting numerous Arctic states amongst its members, namely Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the USA, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) has strategic interests in the Arctic. Its strategy is largely guided by a desire to counter challenges posed by Russia. The NATO 2030 report called for NATO to "enhance its situational awareness across the High North and the Arctic" and develop deterrence and defence strategies for its European areas. NATO countries conduct regular exercises in the Arctic. Cold Response is the name given to Norwegian led military exercises with NATO member countries and invited Partnership for Peace countries held in Norway every second year. The first exercises was the largest military exercise in Norway in 2006. The most recent took place in March 2022. Over 30,000 soldiers from 27 countries, as well as a number of civilian agencies have participated in the Cold Response 2022.
Russia, intent on protecting newly accessible frontiers and preventing the encroachment of other players, such as NATO, into its perceived spheres of influence, has projected a "defensive" military posture. Russia’s measures to reassert its military positions in the Arctic have included upgrading its Northern Fleet to a military district on 1 January 2021 and maintaining the Arctic as the base for most of its submarine-launched strategic nuclear forces.
The United States perceives the Arctic as a base for homeland security and a site of strategic importance for competition with both Russia and China. The Pentagon’s 2019 note on Arctic strategy emphasised the importance of a peaceful and stable Arctic, while highlighting its willingness to compete to maintain a regional balance of power. Both the United States and Russia have conducted military exercises in the Arctic in recent years, whether individually or with allies.
Finland, Norway, and Sweden established the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) in 2009 to enhance their cooperation in both peacetime and wartime. In September 2020, the three countries outlined their willingness to conduct coordinated military operations for strategic purposes.
Canada has also increased its Arctic defence budget in recent years.