Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walks after inspecting a new Russian fighter jet after its test flight in Zhukovksy, outside Moscow, Russia, on June 17, 2010. New Russian moves in the Arctic have renewed debate over that country’s intentions and Canada’s own status at the top of the world. Late last month, the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that country’s military will resume fighter patrols to the North Pole for the first time in 30 years. Those patrols will be in addition to regular bomber flights up to the edge of U.S. and Canadian airspace. (RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Government Press Service/The Canadian Press)

‘Strategic messaging’: Russian fighters in Arctic spark debate on Canada’s place

Old Cold-War-era air bases have been rejuvenated

Recent Russian moves in the Arctic have renewed debate over that country’s intentions and Canada’s own status at the top of the world.

The newspaper Izvestia reported late last month that Russia’s military will resume fighter patrols to the North Pole for the first time in 30 years. The patrols will be in addition to regular bomber flights up to the edge of U.S. and Canadian airspace.

“It’s clearly sending strategic messaging,” said Whitney Lackenbauer, an Arctic expert and history professor at the University of Waterloo. “This is the next step.”

Russia has been beefing up both its civilian and military capabilities in its north for a decade.

Old Cold-War-era air bases have been rejuvenated. Foreign policy observers have counted four new Arctic brigade combat teams, 14 new operational airfields, 16 deepwater ports and 40 icebreakers with an additional 11 in development.

Bomber patrols have been steady. NORAD has reported up to 20 sightings and 19 intercepts a year.

Commercial infrastructure has kept pace as well. A vast new gas field has been opened in the Yamal Peninsula on the central Russian coast. Control and development of the Northern Sea Route — Russia’s equivalent of the Northwest Passage — has been given to a central government agency. Russian news sources say cargo volume is expected to grow to 40 million tonnes in 2020 from 7.5 million tonnes in 2016.

Canada has little to compare.

A road has been completed to the Arctic coast at Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories and work for a port at Iqaluit in Nunavut is underway. The first Arctic patrol vessel has been launched, satellite surveillance has been enhanced and a naval refuelling station built on Baffin Island.

READ MORE: Trump denies ever working for Russia, blasts investigators

But most northern infrastructure desires remain unfilled.

No all-weather roads exist down the Mackenzie Valley or into the mineral-rich central N.W.T. Modern needs such as high-speed internet are still dreams in most of the North. A new icebreaker has been delayed.

Nearing the end of its term, the Liberal government has yet to table an official Arctic policy.

Global Affairs Canada spokesman Richard Walker said in an email that the government is “firmly asserting” its presence in the North to protect Canada’s sovereign Arctic territory.

Walker said Canada cooperates with all Arctic members, including Russia, to advance shared interests that include sustainable development, the roles of Indigenous peoples, environmental protection and scientific research.

“Given the harsh environment and the high cost of Arctic operations, Canada believes that cooperation amongst Arctic nations is essential,” Walker wrote.

“While we perceive no immediate military threat in the Arctic region, we remain vigilant in our surveillance of our Northern approaches.”

Canada needs to keep pace if only because it can’t count on the current international order to hold, said John Higginbotham of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.

“If the globalized system fragments, we’re going to get a world of blocs. The blocs will have power to close international shipping channels.

“It’s a dreadful strategic mistake for Canada to give up our own sea route.”

Arctic dominance would also give Russia a potent card to play, said Rob Huebert of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

“It gives you presence,” he said. ”Whenever there’s issues that happen to occur elsewhere, we’ve already seen the behaviour of the Russians — they start doing overflights of other countries to bring pressure.”

Norway, the Baltics and the United Kingdom have all reported increased airspace violations, Huebert said.

Few expect Russian troops to come pouring over the North Pole. The country is sticking with a United Nations process for drawing borders in Arctic waters and is a productive member of the eight-nation Arctic Council.

“There’s vigorous debate over whether their posture is offensive-oriented,” Lackenbauer said. “The Russians insist this is purely defensive. It also offers possibilities for safe and secure shipping in the Northern Sea Route.

“They’re not doing anything wrong.”

READ MORE: Finland hits Europe’s winter record low temperature at -38.7 C

Canada would be mistaken to ignore the awakening bear, said Ron Wallace of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary.

“It’s important for Canadians to be aware of their Arctic and the circumpolar Arctic and what’s going on in the North,” he said.

Canada is unlikely to take much from Russia’s command-and-control style of development, Wallace said, but there are lessons to learn. Combining civilian and military infrastructure is one of them.

“That’s the kind of thinking I haven’t seen here, but that’s the thinking the Russians are using,” he said. “They see the northern trade route as an excuse to put up military bases at the same time they’re working with the Chinese to open up trade routes for the export of their resources.”

That would also help fulfil federal promises to territorial governments, said Wallace.

“Somewhere in the middle there is a better policy for northern Canada.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Victoria council pushes for December byelection

City staff concerned with timeframe and planning needs prior to byelection

Island Sexual Health expanding physical space and workforce

Island Health looking to hire more health care workers for centre once expansion complete

Charity tackling ‘weekend hunger gap’ bracing for tripling of students in need

Backpack Buddies was serving 1,300 students per week in March, by June that number doubled

Pandemic reunites 2000s era Victoria rock band The Origin

Saanich musicians recording for first time since 2008

Local authors nominated for Victoria Book Prize awards

Finalists for 2020 announced in two categories

B.C. or Ontario? Residential school survivors fight move of court battle

It’s now up to Ontario’s Court of Appeal to sort out the venue question

POLL: Do you plan on allowing your children to go trick or treating this year?

This popular annual social time will look quite different this year due to COVID-19

B.C. transportation minister will not seek re-election

Claire Trevena has held the position since 2017

Body discovered floating in water near Lasqueti Island

JRCC reports personnel aboard fishing vessel made the find

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Young B.C. cancer survivor rides 105-km with Terry Fox’s brother

Jacob Bredenhof and Darrell Fox’s cycling trek raises almost $90,000 for cancer research

B.C. migrant, undocumented workers rally for permanent residency program

Rally is part of the Amnesty for Undocumented Workers Campaign led by the Migrant Workers Centre

Preparations underway for pandemic election in Saskatchewan and maybe B.C.

Administrators in B.C. and around the country are also looking to expand voting by mail during the pandemic

Nearly 20 per cent of COVID-19 infections among health-care workers by late July

WHO acknowledged the possibility that COVID-19 might be spread in the air under certain conditions

Most Read