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Russia may become the only non-NATO nation in the Arctic, sparking fears of conflict

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Leaders in Finland today announced their intention to become part of NATO. The decision follows Russia's invasion of Ukraine and reverses a policy of neutrality that's been in place since the end of World War II. Neighboring Sweden is expected to follow suit in the coming days. That would make Russia the only non-NATO nation in the Arctic, prompting fears of retaliation by Moscow. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: With its vast frozen tundra and inhospitable environment, there's always been a certain mystique to the Arctic.

KLAUS DODDS: The Arctic is exceptional. The Arctic is special.

NORTHAM: Klaus Dodds specializes in Arctic and Antarctic geopolitics at Royal Holloway at the University of London.

DODDS: There was always this kind of reassurance that, whatever else happened in the rest of the world, the spillover wouldn't touch the Arctic. And I think what we've now got is a situation where, clearly, that no longer holds.

NORTHAM: ...Because the backlash against Russia is raising concerns about the delicate balance between security and cooperation in the High North. One week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Arctic Council announced it was suspending all its activities because of the war. That's the group of polar nations and Indigenous peoples that works on issues that affect the region.

Evan Bloom, a former State Department official who helped establish the Arctic Council, says for years, Russia and the seven other Arctic nations found ways of working together on areas such as scientific research and search and rescue operations. But he says that's not possible after the invasion.

EVAN BLOOM: It was such a violation of principles of cooperation that the seven Arctic states felt that it really wasn't possible to continue in the normal mode with the Russians in the Arctic Council.

NORTHAM: Bloom, now with the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says it's a major loss.

BLOOM: It was possible to have this kind of a safe space for cooperation on environment issues, on economic issues and the Russians and the other countries to work cooperatively. And all of a sudden, that cooperation is on pause.

NORTHAM: But Bloom and other Arctic experts are concerned about a military buildup in the Arctic now that Finland and Sweden are moving towards NATO membership. The Kremlin today warned that Finland's decision was a threat. But Dodds says even before NATO membership was discussed, Russia was acting aggressively against Finland and Sweden.

BLOOM: So whether that's overflying, GPS jamming, cyberattacks, whether that's systematic disinformation, you know, it's not as if Finland and Sweden haven't been on the receiving end of contemporary Russia. So the real - the question really is about the scale and pace of escalation.

NORTHAM: Heli Hautala is a Finnish diplomat who served three tours in Moscow. She says military activity in the Arctic is nothing new.

HELI HAUTALA: Russia has militarized its Arctic in the past years. NATO's and U.S. presence has actually increased. I think there have been more training activities and exercises in the U.S., with the U.S. So the tension was already rising in the Arctic, but now it will, I think, rise further.

NORTHAM: Hautala, who is now a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says there needs to be a way to manage the increasing tension in the Arctic. She points to Norway, a NATO country which shares a common border with Russia.

HAUTALA: It has managed its relationship with Russia, you know, very well in the Arctic. I would assume that, when Sweden and Finland are in NATO - so this Norwegian model of deterrence and reassurance will become the Nordic model.

NORTHAM: Indeed, Hautala says Norway has a slogan for its Arctic policy - High North, low tension.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "HEDRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.