When I look at the map, it is obvious that the North Atlantic, the Artic and the Baltic regions are strategically connected — and of considerable importance to trans-Atlantic security. As an Arctic nation, Sweden is giving increasing attention to the developments in the region. Our long-term interests in the Arctic are peace and stability, the climate, and opportunities for the people who live in the Arctic — all of which demand a close cooperation with all Arctic nations, based on and with respect for international law. Based on these interests, Sweden is currently renewing its Arctic strategy.
Sweden puts a high value in the constructive cooperation between the countries of the Arctic Council: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. Here, fruitful cooperation is ongoing on many non-security-related matters, which contributes to confidence-building in the region. Sweden is keen to maintain and develop this cooperation. Still, we need to consider the possible implications of a military buildup in the Arctic region, and we need to strive to avoid excessive militarization of the region.
The good news is that the Arctic is covered by cooperative forums and practices among partners on a political and military level. There are forums established where there is a will to nurture that cooperation.
On a military level, Nordic states have a long history of cooperation in the Nordic Defence Cooperation. Every other year, we conduct the biannual air exercise “Arctic Challenge Exercise” in the northern parts of Finland, Norway and Sweden. Together with the U.S., the Nordic air forces have developed this to a flag-level exercise with more than 100 fighters from more than 10 nations. This is something beyond a regular military exercise. The Nordic nations and the U.S. have a shared interest in addressing security in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic. This builds on a mutual interest in the security environment in the region.
The Nordic nations each have capable forces and the will and ability to act together. Still, U.S. engagement in Nordic training and exercises is essential to uphold a credible deterrence and defense posture in the region. The establishment of the U.S. Navy’s Second Fleet and its presence during exercises in our region brings stability. As we continue to develop these state-of-the-art exercise activities, we send a clear security policy signal!
Engaging in multilateral exercises is critical in order to develop our national capabilities as well as developing our capability to act together. The Swedish exercise, Northern Wind 2019, focused on enhancing our capability to conduct combat operations at the brigade level, with units from Norway, Finland, the U.S. and the U.K.
Cross-border training is another example in which the Nordic countries’ air forces engage practically every other week of the year. Sweden participated in the NATO exercise Trident Juncture 18, which took place in Norway in November 2018. Sweden also participates on a regular basis in the Norwegian exercise Cold Response.
As for the Swedish upcoming defense bill for 2021-2025, we are looking to increase our Arctic capabilities. For example, a new Ranger regiment will open in Arvidsjaur. We also need to build a stronger and larger Army, focusing on brigade capability, endurance and better operational balance between support and combat units.
The Arctic remains an area of low tension in an international perspective. However, we must stay clear-headed about Russia’s willingness to use military power against sovereign states to pursue political goals, as we have seen recently in modern times. Thus, Russian military buildup in the Arctic affects the security situation in the broader region. We have seen Russian deployment of the S-400 advanced air defense system, shipborne missile systems and Bastion coastal missile systems. The naval bases on the Kola Peninsula are home to Russia’s strategic nuclear submarines. It was a clear indication of the military importance Russia attaches to the region when we could observe about 10 submarines simultaneously active in the North Atlantic Ocean, in and around the Barents Sea, in October 2019.
We also see an increased interest and involvement of China in the Arctic. So far, it is mainly focusing on economic activity and on science and polar research. China’s presence and strategic interest in the region will have security policy implications, although the military dimension of China’s actions so far has been limited. The broad interest in the Arctic from several actors underlines the importance of a well-functioning, multilateral cooperation where the Arctic eight has a special role and responsibility.
A final word on climate change from a security perspective: The ice is melting. That is a reality. This is a global challenge all nations must take seriously from a security perspective, as well.
Peter Hultqvist is Sweden’s minister of defense.