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Politics

To what extent does Russia present a real threat to Canada’s Arctic?

Last modified: April 27, 2022 at 10:11am

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, Arctic security experts are divided about the extent to which Moscow and other powers like China pose an actual threat to the Canadian Arctic.  

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has some circumpolar leaders worried that President Vladimir Putin could next turn his sights toward the nation’s Arctic neighbours. 

When a plane carrying Russian nationals was grounded at Yellowknife’s airport in March – it had violated new Canadian airspace rules that penalized Russia – NWT infrastructure minister Diane Archie said she was left “shaking” after being informed of the incident. (While Canada did issue fines over the flight, the two Russians aboard were headed to Nunavut for an Arctic overland expedition.)

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The following day, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler asked if Premier Caroline Cochrane expected an increased military presence in the territory, noting Inuvik has the northernmost military base in the NWT.

Cochrane said there was “no clear threat” from Russia but the territory planned to “ensure the security of northerners” in discussions with the federal government. 

A Vancouver anti-war rally on February 28, 2022. GoToVan/Wikimedia

Fears that Russia could impose itself on the Canadian Arctic have long been held but have yet to materialize.

Moscow has increased its Arctic military presence in recent years. Its Arctic claims compete with those of several other countries, as the scramble for regional control is fuelled by oil and gas discoveries and the opening of new shipping routes due to climate change. 

Yet Adam Lajeunesse, an assistant professor at St Francis Xavier University who specializes in marine security in Canada’s Arctic, argues the country’s far north is not at increased risk because it’s “not a strategic centre of gravity.”

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Lajeunesse said the Russian Army has shown in Ukraine it is poorly trained and ill-equipped to face the additional challenges of operating in the Canadian North. 

“There’s frankly not a whole lot that the Russians can achieve in the Arctic,” he said.

Lajeunesse acknowledged Russia could use the Arctic as an “avenue of approach” for a broader attack on southern infrastructure in North America. But if that happened, he said, World War Three would already be well under way. 

“If you’re fighting the Russians in the North American Arctic, you’re fighting them everywhere. You’re looking at full-scale war in Europe,” he said.

“The real question is, in the event of a third world war, where exactly do you want to put your resources? Is it guarding Ellesmere Island or is it fighting in Eastern Europe? It’s probably going to be fighting in Eastern Europe.”

A Dassault Falcon 900 chartered by a Russian national is seen at Yellowknife Airport on March 4, 2022
A Dassault Falcon 900 chartered by a Russian national is seen at Yellowknife Airport on March 4, 2022.

Ken Coates, a senior policy fellow in Aboriginal and northern Canadian issues at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, agreed that occupying the Arctic would be extremely expensive and difficult for Russia, with few benefits.

However, Coates feels all bets are off as Russia enters what he calls “an era of adventurism.”

“They’re behaving in a way that is not rational internationally, not logical internationally,” he said. “Putin is taking his country kind-of right to the edge of the cliff, if not over it.”

Colonel (Retired) Pierre Leblanc, an Arctic security consultant, is similarly troubled by Putin’s actions.

Leblanc commanded the Canadian Forces Northern Area – now Joint Task Force North – from 1995 until his retirement in 2000.

He believes it’s possible Russia could invade the Arctic to divert attention from Ukraine, or Putin could “lash out” against economic sanctions that are set to “cripple” Russia’s economy. 

‘We’re grossly underprepared’ 

Even though the likelihood that Russia will invade the Canadian Arctic is small, many military specialists agree Canada is lagging behind in the region. 

“We’re grossly unprepared to protect ourselves,” said Robert Smol, a retired military intelligence officer who served in the Canadian Armed Forces for more than two decades. 

“The invasion of Ukraine is only now really highlighting how far behind we are.” 

Smol noted that any Russian attack on Canada would mean war on all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, commonly known as Nato. But he said Canada is not fulfilling its security responsibilities under that alliance.

He pointed to smaller Nato members like Norway and Denmark, which he said have built up their military capacity in the Arctic and have more modern equipment than Canada.

Leblanc said Canada needs to increase its Arctic search and rescue and surveillance capabilities.

“It’s very important for us to know what’s going on in our backyard,” he said. “If we claim to be a sovereign nation then we have to look after our sovereign territory.” 

A Canadian Forces CF-18 jet above Yellowknife Airport in 2016
A Canadian Forces CF-18 jet above Yellowknife Airport in 2016. Belinda Groves/Joint Task Force North

Leblanc said much of Canada’s military equipment is out of date, the country lacks defence capabilities in the Arctic, and critical northern infrastructure has weaknesses. He said, for example, that Canada’s destroyers are old and can’t operate in ice-infested waters, Arctic offshore patrols are only lightly armed, and the port in Churchill, Manitoba – Canada’s only Arctic deepwater port – and its connecting rail line are in poor condition. 

Among his recommendations to improve Arctic security, Leblanc argues a hub should be developed in Resolute Bay that can support fighter operations, monitoring, search and rescue, environmental response, and security.

How Canada says it’s improving Arctic security

In a statement to Cabin Radio, Canada’s Department of National Defence said it recognizes improvements are needed.

The department said it is “actively exploring options to bolster Canada’s defence capabilities.” That includes working with the United States to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command, commonly known as Norad, which detects threats and issues warnings. 

Canada says it has improved Canadian Ranger capabilities, enhanced satellite communication in the Arctic, and supported the development of Arctic surveillance. 

In its latest budget, the federal government proposed $252.2 million over five years to “sustain existing continental and Arctic defence capabilities and to lay groundwork for Norad’s future.”

Bob Zimmer, a Conservative MP and Canada’s critic for northern affairs and arctic sovereignty, said the country is not meeting its Norad obligations. Zimmer argues the funding proposed in the latest budget is merely a recommitment.

“That just tells me they’re not taking it seriously, or they’re not taking it as the urgent threat that it really is,” he said.

“The resources need to be put in place so we can actually have the northern security and Arctic security I think our citizens expect.” 

Robert Huebert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary whose work focuses on the Arctic, said he was also “underwhelmed” by the budget.

Huebert said successive Canadian governments have done little to improve Arctic security. He noted the North’s early warning system was last modernized in 1985 and Canada is still “dithering” over replacing its ageing CF-18 fighter jets. 

“There’s very little that we’ve done and nobody can tell me that we didn’t have all this warning in 2014,” he said, referencing Russia’s last major aggression toward Ukraine and the beginning of the nation’s shift toward its latest nuclear weapons strategy.

Beyond a military presence

Premier Cochrane has said “northern security is not just about a military presence” but about investing in infrastructure, broadband, energy, healthcare and education to make communities more resilient.

The NWT’s premier said she raised those points during a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month. 

Leblanc said Arctic sovereignty also means “stewardship” of the region in terms of environmental protection and support to communities.

“It’s a beautiful part of our country that we really need to look after,” he said, adding that people living in the Arctic, like the Canadian Rangers, are best-placed to provide that stewardship. 

Canadian Rangers on Victoria Island in August 2018
Canadian Rangers on Victoria Island in August 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

There is debate, however, about the role Canadian Rangers should play in Canada’s defence. 

Smol argues that the Rangers, who are not tactically trained and have limited access to military equipment, should receive military training. 

Coates, however, said while there needs to be a greater military presence in the North, the Rangers should be a separate group focused on surveillance and civilian support. 

He said the Rangers are “an extremely valuable group” who can provide early warnings. 

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