Ministry of Defence / OGL v3.0
The purpose of this Policy Brief is to explain why the UK has chosen to explicitly prioritise the security of Northern Europe following Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine was an inflection point for European security. For the UK, it prompted a ‘refresh’ of its defence, security and foreign policy. The March 2023 Integrated Review Refresh (IR2023) concluded that ‘the most pressing national security and foreign policy priority in the short-to-medium term is to address the threat posed by Russia to European security ... and denying Russia any strategic benefit from its invasion’. Underpinning this ambition, the Refresh committed the UK to ‘lead and galvanise where we have most value to add, giving particular priority … to the contribution we can make in northern Europe as a security actor’ (p. 11).
The purpose of this Policy Brief is to explain why the UK has chosen to explicitly prioritise the security of Northern Europe following Russia’s war against Ukraine. It identifies exactly where the UK is best placed to lead and galvanise to address the current and likely future Russian threat. There is no common definition of ‘Northern Europe’ among Allies, so the Brief defines the region collectively as the sub-regions of the Arctic, the North Atlantic, the High North and the Baltic Sea region, extending to Estonia – the location of the UK-led NATO multinational battlegroup.
The explicit prioritisation of Northern Europe is a natural evolution of UK policy, and the increased investment in the region addresses both immediate security requirements – the acute Russian threat – and future ones, as rapidly melting ice in the Arctic creates viable sea lines of communication directly linking the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific – priority one and two geographic ‘strategic arenas’ (pp. 3, 9) for the UK respectively. 1 Given this, Northern Europe is a ‘transitional theatre’ for the UK, where enhanced engagement now can produce value and strategic advantage for the UK – and its allies – in the future.
The UK offers unique value to Northern Europe as a security actor for three principal reasons. First, the UK, as a regional geopolitical heavyweight, acts as a substantial backstop to the US presence and engagement. Second, the UK provides specialist military capabilities, spanning warfighting and sub-threshold, such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and other sub-sea capabilities that are in short supply in Europe and best match the Russian threat. Third, the geostrategic position of the British homeland – within the North Atlantic – is critical to the successful execution of NATO’s new regional defence plan for ‘the Atlantic and European Arctic’ and ‘the Baltic and Central Europe’, alongside its transatlantic reinforcement plan. With growing and ambitious security commitments to Northern Europe, the UK is sending a strong message of reassurance to Allies and a strong signal of deterrence to Russia, and to China as a ‘near-Arctic state’, in the context of a growing partnership between the two powers in the Arctic.
The research for this Brief is drawn from two main sources. First, a review of UK government and NATO policy documents, including the 2021 Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper alongside their 2023 updates, and the UK’s Arctic and High North policies. Second, four expert-led roundtable discussions held between April 2022 and June 2023 and attended by Norwegian, UK and US officials and academics, in London, Oslo and Washington, DC. It is augmented with analysis of official government announcements, research papers and media reporting. This Policy Brief is part of a two-year transatlantic security dialogue in collaboration between RUSI, the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The project is supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and focuses on the Norwegian, UK and US roles in securing Northern Europe.
Why is the UK Prioritising Northern Europe?
The explicit prioritisation of Northern European security is an evolution of UK policy over the past decade. The Arctic, and the High North in particular, have become central to UK strategic thinking, and they are the only regions to receive specific policy documents. UK objectives in the region are a blend of hard and soft security issues, majoring on: the protection of UK and Allied critical national infrastructure (CNI); reinforcing the rules-based international order and enforcing freedom of navigation; and managing climate change (pp. 10, 11). Central to the UK approach has been a similar security policy outlook and working with likeminded Allies and partners, in particular Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) members, on Euro-Atlantic security challenges, the utility of military force and the pervasive Russian threat. Indeed, UK engagement has increased significantly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; multilaterally through NATO, and minilaterally through the JEF and the Northern Group of Defence Ministers. These engagements are underpinned by bilateral and trilateral agreements, including most significantly the strong mutual security guarantees offered to both Finland and Sweden during the NATO membership process. 2 The UK is also heavily reliant on the region for energy, with Norway being the UK’s primary gas supplier.
The acute Russian threat in Northern Europe binds Allies together. Despite Russia severely weakening and fixing a large portion of its land forces in Ukraine, the country’s naval capabilities remain largely intact, through its Northern Fleet, including strategic nuclear forces, and its Baltic Fleet – notwithstanding heavy losses (p. 6) for two Russian Arctic brigades. Russia also intends to militarily reinforce the region in response to NATO enlargement. This short-term conventional military weakness is likely to push Russia to rely more heavily on hybrid activity and nuclear signalling to achieve its objectives, which may become a potential source of conflict escalation, and which feature heavily in its 2022 Maritime Doctrine. Furthermore, some European intelligence agencies, such as the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, assess that Russia could still exert ‘credible military pressure’ on the Baltic states, and its military capabilities near the Estonian border could be ‘quantitatively reconstituted in up to four years’ (p. 11).
As NATO orientates its new defence posture to defend ‘every inch’ (p. 6) of NATO territory, the UK is galvanising its northern flank into the most secure Alliance region, a region that is continually the target of Russian hybrid aggression and exposed to persistent conventional and nuclear threat. The rationale for the UK’s strategic focus in the region and how this is perceived by the regional actors has been summarised thus:
Given that the United Kingdom shares historical, cultural, and geopolitical ties with the Nordic countries, the UK would benefit from having all Nordic countries within NATO. As relatively small countries, the Nordics would certainly benefit from the UK’s support, especially related to logistics, intelligence sharing, and the security provided by the nuclear umbrella. If combined with the UK’s capabilities and focus, this unified North would outrank any other European force structure and would help secure both the Eastern and Northern Flank of NATO.
The UK is the European power best placed to lead and galvanise NATO’s northern flank and support the full integration of Finland (and Sweden) into the Alliance, both through providing strategic depth and its capabilities (military, non-military and command enablers), and through its significant defence and security engagement in the region.
The UK as a Backstop for US Engagement and Presence in Northern Europe
The US is the indispensable security partner for Northern Europe, a region that has a strongly transatlantic outlook. For Nordic states, and to a lesser extent Baltic states, strategic depth is secured primarily through NATO and the Article 5 security guarantee, and augmented by bilateral and trilateral agreements that bind the US to the region. For example, Norway’s defence relies on a denial ambition until Allied (US) reinforcements are in position. Moreover, Norway’s role as a reception, staging and onward integration location for US reinforcements will become more important as Finland, and soon Sweden, joins the Alliance. Indeed, the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in NATO defensive plans will provide increased strategic depth, especially with the scale of forces that Finland can mobilise at short notice, but Nordic defence will remain heavily reliant on follow-on forces from the US. Therefore, the fundamental risk that security actors in Northern Europe must manage is the possible reduction of attention and corresponding drawdown in US assets to redeploy to the Indo-Pacific as US security concerns there grow, especially if the war in Ukraine ends on terms that benefit NATO, or a US president less sympathetic to European security is elected in 2024. This possibility is a strategic risk for Northern Europe, not only in terms of overall mass in the form of combat-capable brigades, but also in terms of specialist capabilities such as ISR. In the short term, the UK is the only European country realistically able to support Europe’s ‘ISR gap’ in Northern Europe, and it is unlikely to contribute more brigades to NATO’s New Force Model for the remainder of the decade.
As a major regional power, the UK’s engagement and capabilities are best able to mitigate any potential US shortfall and provide enhanced strategic depth. US Arctic priorities are motivated by strategic competition, whereas the Nordic states prioritise defence and deterrence against Russia. The UK is positioned on a scale between the two, and can play an important role in bridging between them. Specifically, the UK is best placed to lead in two areas, both of which already enjoy high levels of cooperation with the US, providing critical continuity.
First, NATO considers Russia’s ability to disrupt Atlantic reinforcement in the High North a ‘strategic challenge’ (p. 4). The UK has traditionally secured the Greenland–Iceland–UK gap with ASW capabilities and, more recently, through the UK–US–Norway trilateral interoperability (p. 21) of the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), which increases availability of a critical ISR capability and allows it to operate further north. The ability to operate further north is a growing requirement, as Russia has refitted multiple vessels with the 3M-54 Kalibr missile, which gives a longer range to precision strike operations, allowing Russian assets to enjoy better protection of its Arctic and High North defensive bastions, in turn drawing NATO assets further north. 3 To meet this challenge, Norway is hosting NATO submarines (p. 22), mainly from the UK and the US, in new Norwegian facilities to enable operations to push further north to match Russia’s reach. Moreover, the UK has established a land and littoral presence in the High North, now operating from a new facility in Norway called Camp Viking. With a multi-domain presence and specialist capabilities, including logistic and intelligence enablers, the UK is the best placed European nation to secure end-to-end transatlantic reinforcements from the US to NATO’s eastern front, thereby delivering strategic depth.
Second, the UK can lead on re-establishing and maintaining strategic stability, consistent with ‘a new long-term goal to manage the risks of miscalculation and escalation between major powers, upholding strategic stability through strategic-level dialogue and an updated approach to arms control and counter-proliferation’ (p. 13). The UK, as a European nuclear power, will be a valuable actor in the region, which also hosts Russian strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces. Moreover, the UK is well placed to support Finland and Sweden as they join a nuclear alliance and, for the first time, have a direct role in nuclear policy and planning, by providing a greater understanding of deterrence, risk reduction and arms control.
Galvanising NATO Command and Control
Finland, and eventually Sweden, joining NATO fundamentally changes defence and security policy in Northern Europe. Finland’s membership has already doubled the NATO border with Russia, and the inclusion of Sweden will expand the Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s land area of operations by more than 866,000 km2. While this obviously presents significant opportunities for NATO, there are also considerable challenges. The UK has an interest in being a security ‘integrator’ in the region by supporting its newest members and building coherence between Nordic and Baltic regional plans and Alliance command and control (C2). Here there is a significant opportunity for the UK to lead and galvanise and make a major contribution to Euro-Atlantic security.
The enlargement creates NATO C2 headaches for Northern Europe, as does the timing gap between the two countries joining. Finland has joined under the command of Joint Force Command (JFC) Brunssum, alongside the Baltic states, Poland and Germany. However, Norway (and likely Sweden when it joins) falls under JFC Norfolk in the US, which is responsible for the North Atlantic, including the Arctic. This arrangement (p. 14) creates C2 incoherence between the ‘European Arctic and Atlantic’ and ‘Baltic and Central Europe’ defence plans, which will make their execution more difficult and create potential friction precisely when the Nordic states are finally united in NATO, and it could set back growing defence integration efforts between them. Integrating NATO’s regional plans and Nordic–Baltic security policy more broadly will be critical to their delivery. Specifically, better integrating Finland and Estonia would best serve this purpose, securing the Baltic Sea and containing Russia and denying it freedom of manoeuvre in wartime between St Petersburg and access to the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad.
UK engagement and interests straddle the Nordic and Baltic states through the JEF, the Northern Group of Defence Ministers, and close bilateral security cooperation with both Finland and Estonia – the latter being the location of the UK-led NATO multinational battlegroup. The July 2023 Defence Command Paper Refresh stated:
As the Alliance looks to welcome in two new members, the UK will also lead the collaboration amongst Allies to shape a revised Control and Command structure, with a specific focus on Northern Europe – the regional area of greatest importance to our homeland defence (p. 62).
As an established European framework nation, the UK – known for its C2 ability, structures and maturity – would be well placed to manage Finland and Swedish integration and C2 coherence in Northern Europe. During the Cold War, the UK was a C2 enabler for NATO, emphasising strengths in the naval and air domains, through Allied Forces Northern Europe and UK Command through Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces, Northern Europe. 4 Today, the UK hosts both NATO Maritime Command (MARCOM) and JEF C2 through Standing Joint Force Headquarters, which, since the Russian invasion, has deployed nodes and liaison officers across Northern Europe.
UK Leadership of the JEF
The JEF has developed into a key mechanism for the UK to provide leadership in Northern Europe and galvanise the Nordic and Baltic states together to optimise defence and deterrence against Russia. In 2022, the JEF came of age. The first-ever JEF leaders’ meeting was held the day after Russia’s invasion, followed by two more during the year, which included a commitment to developing a 10-year vision ahead of the 2023 leaders’ summit.
The September 2022 attacks on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea brought into sharper focus the security requirement to better protect CNI, and highlighted the risk of attacks specifically to undersea assets. This was reinforced by the October 2023 damage to the Balticconnector natural gas pipeline and communications cable between Finland and Estonia likely caused by ‘external activity’. This is an area where the Russian threat is acute. NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security, David Cattler, has warned of an increase in Russian submarine and underwater activity, including ‘actively mapping allied critical infrastructure both on land and on the seabed’.
To respond, the JEF will focus activity on countering hybrid aggression in its area of operations of the North Atlantic, High North and Baltic, especially in relation to the protection of CNI, including underwater cables and pipelines. Here, the UK provides leadership, through committing to protect Allied CNI, alongside upholding freedom of navigation and international norms in the region. Immediately following the Nord Stream attacks, the UK announced that two Multirole Ocean Surveillance ships would be sped into service. This capability, alongside Astute-class submarines, mine-countermeasure vessels and RAF MPA, will be critical to protecting underwater CNI. Moreover, MARCOM hosts NATO’s new Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell, and the UK has signed new bilateral agreements such as the UK–Norway strategic partnership on undersea threats. The UK, as a regional geopolitical heavyweight, is ideally situated to engage with the JEF collectively and individually; to link its agenda to other key regional actors, such as France, Germany and Poland; and to develop greater JEF coherence between the myriad of security institutions in Northern Europe, including NATO, the EU, the Northern Group of Defence Ministers, Nordic Defence Cooperation and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable.
Conclusion: The UK Orients to Future Challenges in Northern Europe
The explicit prioritisation of Northern Europe addresses both immediate UK security requirements – defence and deterrence against Russia – and future challenges – China’s increasing presence in the Arctic and High North as a ‘near-Arctic state’, and growing Sino-Russian cooperation. The IR2023 declared that the prosperity and security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific were ‘inextricably linked’, upgraded China as an ‘epoch-defining challenge’, and cemented the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ as a permanent pillar of UK foreign policy (pp. 9, 3, 22). A rapidly heating Arctic climate will make the Northern Sea Route increasingly navigable during the summer and the Transpolar Sea Route will likely be usable by 2050 (p. 36). This transformational geopolitical change will directly link the UK’s two priority geographic ‘strategic arenas’ – politically, economically and militarily – which will fundamentally impact UK and Euro-Atlantic security. Given this, NATO may have not only to contend with Russia, but also with a more assertive Chinese presence in the Arctic and High North. Therefore, heavily investing in Northern Europe now will enhance UK strategic advantage, reassure Allies and deter future threats.
Project sponsors and partners
Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
This project is sponsored by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Norwegian Institute of International Affairs
This project is delivered in partnership with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
Center for Strategic and International Studies
This project is delivered in partnership with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Research Fellow, European Security