The European Far North is preparing for a potentially turbulent future: Sweden is sharply increasing its military budget, Norway has begun to take an active part in joint exercises with NATO, and Russia is testing new hypersonic weapons in the Arctic.
European Arctic may become the new site for the conflict. Head of the Swedish Defense Ministry Peter Hultqvist, explaining the increase in army funding, said that an armed attack cannot be ruled out.
In 2021, Sweden’s defense budget will increase by 85 percent compared to 2014.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and ignited a separatist war in eastern Ukraine. This moment became a turning point in Russia – West relations, their cooperation was replaced by mistrust. This trend is clearly visible on the example of the Baltic states and the Far North of Europe, where Norway, a NATO member, as well as neutral Sweden and Finland border on Russia. They shall consider about the course to be followed in relations with the major power in the east, which is behaving more and more aggressively.
Tests of a Russian Zircon-type hypersonic missile in the Barents Sea in early November declare Moscow’s claim to power in the Arctic. This missile will help the Russian Federation to gain control over the “bear frontier” – the territory between the North Cape, Bear Island and Svalbard. Russian warships will have to cross it on their way from the Murmansk naval base to the North Atlantic. Western ships need this passage to get to the Barents Sea.
The strategic importance of the “bear frontier” may be compared with the Faroe-Icelandic border, which is a transport passage between the North Atlantic and the North Sea. Such critical infrastructure like high-speed data cables between North America and Western Europe lies there.
The serious strategic importance of these frontiers is also evidenced by the frequency of NATO military exercises in the region using heavy weapons.
In September, Norway took part in an international naval exercise led by Britain in the Norwegian north to show its own defensive capacity and demonstrate that, in spite of Russian claims, it is not just the long arm of the United States in the Arctic, according to Julie Wilhelmsen, analyst at the Norwegian Institute of International Relations.
Late in summer, particular attention was drawn to the appearance of the US nuclear submarine Seawolf near the Norwegian coast, which had to change its crew. Since there is no submarine base in northern Norway, this took place in one of the fjords. Ironically, the Norwegian authorities sold appropriate military base in Tromso in 2013, questioning its necessity.
This decision was made by the government of Jens Stoltenberg, who now heads the North Atlantic Alliance and, probably, greatly regrets the sale of the base, the article says.
Also, the military strengthening of the northern countries is acknowledged by the trilateral agreement on cooperation in this area, which was signed by the defense ministers of Norway, Sweden and Finland in early autumn.
Nima Khorrami, researcher of the Arctic Institute believes these countries intend to strengthen their military capabilities, suggesting that the European Arctic could become a platform for conflict between the United States, Russia and China. Probably, they fear America’s overreaction against the backdrop of Moscow and Beijing’s growing claims of influence in the region.