COLOGNE, Germany — Though the Arctic falls outside the Western military alliance’s traditional focus, NATO officials have begun paying closer attention to the region. Camille Grand, NATO’s assistant secretary general for defense investment, spoke with Defense News about how the conversation has changed due to climate change and economic competition.

How does NATO view the Arctic region?

What we see is twofold: First of all, because of climate change and because of economic competition in the region, we see more of a great game of power, where the Russians, the Chinese are interested in access to the Arctic, to the sea routes and to the potential natural resources. So that is one element that we see as the long-term, overarching development, and therefore NATO has been paying more and more attention to what we prefer to call the “High North.”

And we are, along with our Nordic members like Norway and Denmark, paying attention to how much activity is going on in the region. I’ve seen in my last few years at NATO an increased focus on that. Whereas the working assumption 10 years ago was that it was more of an area preserved from strategic competition and risks, today it is not as obvious as that. Quite on the contrary, we see activity going on in the region.

Is it inevitable that there will be conflict in the High North?

All this being said, the point is not to describe a likely conflict in the region. It is still a region where the extreme weather conditions most of the year make the case for more cooperation than conflict, where waging military operations is extraordinarily complicated. But overall, I would say that we are paying more attention to the region. And what’s interesting for me is that member nations that are party to the Arctic Council traditionally were a bit guarded on the fact that NATO should play a role. But now they are more in favor of seeing NATO, let’s say, show its flag in the region as well.

Why do you think that is?

I think it is primarily driven by what I see as an increased level of Russian activity in the High North, and it speaks to an interesting maritime dimension in the opening of the northern routes for shipping and so on, although that is still very complicated. But at the end of the day, it is about what is happening there, looking at what’s happening in the Northern Atlantic, including more monitoring at sea and in the air. That’s a new focus area there. You do see jets being scrambled and a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with long-range missions by the Russian Air Force. So you do see things happening there that deserve our attention.

Members of the British Army Royal Engineers discuss the technique of fitting snow chains to their vehicle, during pre-exercise integration training on Oct. 25, 2018, in Telneset, Norway. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Members of the British Army Royal Engineers discuss the technique of fitting snow chains to their vehicle, during pre-exercise integration training on Oct. 25, 2018, in Telneset, Norway. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

How does NATO, as an organization, tackle questions relating to the region?

In the NATO political structures, we don’t have committees that deal with the south, the north, the Mediterranean and so forth. So the issues are dealt with through our normal processes for planning, for operations and for political debates. We have not established a working group on any region. Sometimes it will take the form of a dedicated paper or strategy. I don’t think we are there yet with the High North. But I have seen that become part of the broader conversation, which was probably not the case five or 10 years ago.

You might remember that Trident Juncture, our biggest exercise last year, took place in Norway, which is a way to practice how to operate in these conditions. The fact that the largest NATO exercise took place in Norway says something. Our close relationship with our partners Sweden and Finland also plays in favor of paying more attention to the High North.

The Norwegians are quite keen on making clear that they do have infrastructure to receive alliance support if needed.