Image: US Army photo/John Pennell

A Future War is Brewing in the Arctic. This is How We Stop It Before it Starts.

As global temperatures rise and Arctic ice recedes, a new geopolitical battleground is emerging in the Far North. Once a remote and inaccessible region, the Arctic is rapidly becoming a focal point for international competition and potential conflict between Russia and the NATO allied states. With vast natural resources and newly accessible shipping routes, the stakes are high, and the Arctic could easily become the next major battleground.

“Russia’s focus on the region is largely due to having one-fifth of its territory north of the Arctic Circle. The country wants to develop shipping lanes with the Northern Sea Route as well as the exploitation of natural resources,” Nicolas Jouan, a senior analyst with RAND told The Debrief. “Regardless of the economic viability of these projects, Russia seems determined to invest in such developments for strategic reasons.”

Jouan, who is an expert in European defense, penned an analysis report for RAND, saying that NATO needs to step up its game in the Arctic or suffer the long-term consequences of a more prolific Russian presence. 

“The lack of strategic and operational coordination among NATO countries in the Arctic is, in my opinion, the most pressing issue,” he explained.

According to the RAND report, three key factors have driven the transformation of the Arctic into a strategic hotspot.

First, global warming has dramatically altered the region’s landscape, making previously ice-locked areas navigable and accessible. Second, this newfound accessibility has opened up opportunities for maritime activities, including fishing, trade, tourism, and military operations. Finally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has severely strained relations between Moscow and Western Arctic nations, rendering cooperation in the region more challenging than ever. 

As a result, NATO has begun to realize that Russia’s overall aggression is not going to slow down, so its posture towards Arctic defense has shifted.

The alliance’s renewed focus on the region can be traced back to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which prompted a strategic shift towards territorial defense. This shift was formalized in 2015 with NATO’s “360-degree approach,” a framework that envisions the alliance as a geographically coherent bloc with surrounding flanks to defend against potential aggression. 

The recent accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO in 2023 and 2024 has further altered the Arctic’s geopolitical landscape. With seven of the eight Arctic nations now part of the alliance, NATO theoretically holds a dominant position in the region. 

However, this expansion has also fuelled Russia’s narrative of encirclement, potentially increasing tensions and the risk of conflict. 

Russia has been very open about its sea-based nuclear deterrent capabilities. Operating out of the Kola Peninsula, Russian forces there are on permanent stand-by, and ready for a fight. Utilizing the geographic gaps between the UK, Iceland, and Greenland, Russia is easily able to maneuver into a threatening position should it wish.

“This assertiveness is partly due to the fact that Russia feels threatened to see an extension of its border with NATO along the Kola Peninsula with the joining of Finland,” Jouan says. “Whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, it is likely that Russia’s claims in the Arctic will only be emboldened.”

With all that being said, NATO’s overall strength is significant. Russia seems to be outgunned. At least on paper. However, as it strengthens its ties with China, another player could be entering the frozen fray. To be blunt, NATO faces significant challenges in the Arctic

The alliance currently lacks proper strategic and operational alignment among its member states. Years of focus on theaters like Afghanistan have left many NATO countries ill-equipped for the unique demands of Arctic operations. The United States and the United Kingdom, for instance, have seen their anti-submarine warfare capabilities decline while other Arctic NATO members struggle with outdated equipment and limited resources. Russia, on the other hand, has been quietly increasing its Arctic capabilities.

To address these challenges and prevent potential conflict, many strategists, Jouan included, argue that NATO must take decisive action to strengthen its Arctic strategy. 

NATO should prioritize securing key areas such as the Norwegian Sea, the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, and the Bear gap. Protection of critical infrastructure, coastal defense, and access to strategic locations like the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago should also be high on the agenda. Investments in specialized Arctic capabilities are also essential. This includes platforms such as icebreakers and unmanned underwater vehicles, which can enhance presence and situational awareness more efficiently and cost-effectively in the challenging Arctic environment. 

“There is a need for a proper cooperation of the willing in the region,” Jouan said. 

Non-Arctic states like the UK need to step up and allocate resources to Arctic defense, especially along the GIUK gap. Strengthening the defensive postures of Finland and Sweden in the region will only provide clear lines for Russia, noting that any aggression would be met with force. Running NATO-wide joint military exercises, including the United States and Canada, in the region would also provide a clear indicator that NATO is present. 

But the report argues that diplomacy is also important here. The Arctic Council, despite being currently hampered by tensions with Russia, has historically played a vital role in promoting dialogue and collaboration among Arctic nations. Efforts to maintain and strengthen such forums for peaceful engagement should continue alongside military preparations. 

NATO is facing significant pressure on many fronts. With Europe’s Eastern flank under direct risk from Russia, the Arctic seems distant and seemingly less important. However, Russia is an expert at being an asymmetric threat.

“As the situation on the Eastern flank remains hostile or degrades even more, Arctic states should be watchful of Russian interferences in the region, particularly regarding hybrid threats on critical infrastructures and sea lines of communication,” Jouan warned. “Eastern Europe and the Arctic should not be perceived in silos. What happens in one region has immediate ramifications in the other.”

NATO must play a pivotal role in preventing war in the Arctic before it starts. The challenges are significant, but so are the stakes. As climate change continues to reshape the Arctic landscape, the international community must act decisively to ensure that this once-peaceful region does not become the next battlefield in global geopolitics. 

MJ Banias covers space, security, and technology with The Debrief. You can email him at or follow him on Twitter @mjbanias.