(Bloomberg) -- A submarine snakes through a fjord in Norway alongside a British amphibious transport ship, as F-35 fighter jets roar overhead. NATO forces are gathered for a joint drill to repel a simulated invasion, albeit one where the enemy seems anything but theoretical.

President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine may be raging thousands of kilometers to the south, but in the remote Arctic there is a close watch on his military activities. It’s an increasingly important region for energy, trade and security, and one where Russia, the US, China and others are vying for greater control.

The extent of Arctic seabed resources is not well mapped but estimates suggest the region holds around one-fourth of the globe’s oil and natural gas resources, while its sea routes could shave days if not weeks off traditional commercial shipping passages.

Moscow houses some of its most important strategic assets in the region including nuclear-capable attack submarines — and those could increase in importance as Putin seeks over time to reconstitute a military heavily depleted by the conflict in Ukraine.

Underpinning the drills is a sense that regardless of what happens in Ukraine (where Moscow’s troops are bogged down in a grinding war of attrition), NATO states are headed into a long-term climate of confrontation with Russia. 

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“We have to deal with a nation that has shown both the sort of willingness to, and also the ability to, use military power in an aggressive manner,” Rear Admiral Rune Andersen, Chief of the Royal Norwegian Navy, said on a recent sunny but frigid day on the bridge of the HMS Albion. “That means that we need to be forward-looking and be prepared and also to deter any such action against any NATO country — that goes for this region as well as the Baltics and other parts of NATO territory.”

More than 20,000 troops from the UK, the US, the Netherlands and six other nations are braving sub-20 Celsius temperatures, ice and heavy snow to aid Norway, which in the fictitious war game faces a limited incursion from the north. The 11 day drills are training forces to survive and operate in remote Arctic areas.

With Finland and Sweden seeking to join the alliance, that will see seven out of eight Arctic nations in NATO. That means greater collective air, naval and artillery power as well as territory with railway networks to transport troops and equipment in the event of a conflict.

That united front may also serve to fan the narrative from the Kremlin that NATO is seeking to encircle it, and prompt Russia to bolster its own military presence there — if its war drain in Ukraine allows it, that is.

“If Russia wants to be a great power, if Russia wants to have a credible nuclear deterrent, if Russia wants to be in control of the immediate security environment in Northern Europe and also in the Arctic, it needs to have a very strong security and military position in the Arctic,” said Andreas Østhagen, a senior researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway. “That’s not going to go away — it’s probably just going to increase once Sweden and Finland join NATO.”

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An area of particular interest is the so-called Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, through which Russian vessels need to pass to access the Atlantic Ocean. Once there, Putin’s forces could potentially disrupt commercial shipping or cut off military supply lines for the US to send reinforcements to Europe. Sabotaging underwater Transatlantic data cables could inflict widespread damage.

Putin appears to want to keep Russia visible in the Arctic even as his resources, particularly ground troops, are pulled into shoring up the campaign in Ukraine. Over the years he has reopened old Soviet-era military bases and built new ones. Around two-thirds of Russia’s nuclear-powered vessels, including ballistic missile submarines and nuclear attack submarines, are assigned to its Northern Fleet, based in the region’s Kola Peninsula.

The shortest route to North America from Russia is still over the top of the planet and Moscow’s new hypersonic missiles will require near-instantaneous reaction time from North American defenses, which are being modernized, military experts say.

Last year the Russian president unveiled a new maritime strategy, vowing to protect Arctic waters “by all means,” including with hypersonic Zircon missile systems. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced plans to give Russia’s Arctic troops about 500 modern weapon systems and secure complete radar coverage of Arctic air space, although it is unclear if those goals were met in 2022. The Russian defense ministry reported regular drills in the Arctic last year, featuring one in September where troops trained on “defending Russian territories.” 

In addition to safeguarding its strategic assets, Russia’s focus in the Arctic is like other nations on preserving its economic interests, according to Rebecca Pincus, Director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center. Moscow wants to protect its northern trade routes and gain access to new fossil fuels and rare earth metal deposits as the ice melts due to climate change.

“Part of it was establishing the ability to protect, monitor, and control all this new traffic that they’re bringing in and all these resources that they want to develop,” Pincus said. “So the Russian impulse to build up military capabilities in the Russian Arctic makes sense.”

The Arctic is warming four times as fast as the rest of the world. Longer periods without ice mean increased marine traffic and potentially easier access to natural resources. About 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered gas may lie inside the Arctic Circle, according to the United States Geological Survey, along with metals and minerals needed for electrification.

Last summer, both major shipping routes through the Arctic — Russia’s Northern Sea Route and Canada’s Northwest Passage — were essentially ice free all season. Climate scientists now predict the North Pole could be entirely ice-free by mid-century, opening a third Trans Arctic shipping route through international waters. This is seen as key to China’s Arctic strategy, which includes a Polar Silk Road connecting East Asia, Western Europe and North America.

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China, which has touted its “no-limits” partnership with Russia, declared itself in 2018 a “near-Arctic state.” In addition to fishing, energy and transportation interests, China operates research stations in Norway and Iceland, and has pledged greater cooperation with Russia in the Arctic. The US alleges a Chinese spy balloon recently entered its airspace over Alaska before eventually being shot down by American forces over South Carolina. 

Economic imperatives may yet deter Russia from pursuing conflict in the Arctic, Pincus said. 

Still, greater proximity of military forces is inherently dangerous. NATO has boosted its own presence in the region, including through military exercises and a command opened in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2021 that’s tasked with monitoring the Atlantic and High North, which includes areas both inside and outside of the Arctic circle.

In an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, which coincided with a visit to Canada last August, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of China’s Arctic ambitions, and of Russia’s rising military activity in the region. “Russia’s ability to disrupt Allied reinforcements across the North Atlantic is a strategic challenge to the Alliance,” he said. 

Russia’s highly advanced submarines pose one of the biggest challenges for the alliance in the Arctic, in particular because they are so hard to detect, maritime experts say. The Russian Navy commands an estimated 58 vessels, 11 of which are strategic nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. That compares with the US’s estimated 64 submarines, 14 of them ballistic missile submarines.

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Underwater capability is an area where Russia can “present a sort of asymmetric threat against a more powerful Western alliance,” said the Norwegian Navy’s Andersen. 

“The threat of an unlocated Russian submarine transiting from the North through the GIUK gap is a chief concern for NATO allies and something that warrants close coordination and cooperation across the alliance,” said Walter Berbrick, an associate professor at the US Naval War College’s war gaming department and director of the Arctic Studies group. 

NATO has responded by increasing underwater surveillance of the North Atlantic, with underwater sonar and maritime patrols by air. It’s an area where Finland and Sweden will be able to aid allies by monitoring and sharing intelligence — and providing vital air power.

Scandinavia will have about 250 fighter jets, including 150 F-35s, with Finland and Sweden in the NATO tent, said Norwegian Colonel Eirik Guldvog, Commanding Officer of the 133 Air Wing at Elvenes Military Airbase, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. That compares with around 900 fighter jets for Russia’s air force, according to the World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft.

That’s on top of the P-8A Poseidon aircraft — including two from the US — at the base that are used for maritime patrols, such as dropping sonar to look for submarines.

“This will be almost one air force, dealing with Scandinavia,” he said. “It will be quite a substantial air force.”

The importance of that was underscored last week. Even as the NATO drills went on, officials in Germany scrambled two F-35s at Elvenes after radar detected unidentified objects to the north. Within an hour, the jets were back, having got a close look at two Russian IL-38 jets traveling through international airspace. 

It happens about once a week, Guldvog said, and the aircraft are invariably Russian as its air force looks to soak up information in the Arctic about other countries.


Guldvog's station has the most intercepts each year, “because Russia, to get to the Atlantic, they have to travel north of Norway and along our coast,” he said.

“We see a lot of flying, of course, northwards towards Canada and the US over the North Pole.”

--With assistance from Jeremy Diamond and Stephen Treloar.

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