It is unhelpful to Arctic diplomacy for the Conservative government to create an international furor when the Russians conduct routine flights near Canadian territory, the opposition charges.
"The Russian flights have been going on for a long time and then all of a sudden on a day when they needed a diversion, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence created a caustic international relations uproar by chastising the Russians," Liberal MP Larry Bagnell told a news conference Wednesday.
Canada is trying to work with Russia to determine international borders, Mr. Bagnell said. "How are we going to work with a country we have just chastised for not even coming into our airspace?"
Members of the national press gallery awoke Wednesday to find an e-mail from Dimitri Soudas, the director of communications for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, that described what seemed to have been an aerial defence of Canada's sovereignty by the Canadian military against the Russians.
"On 24 August, two CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft were launched and visually identified 2 Russian aircraft, the TU-95 Bear, approximately 120 nautical miles north of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. At their closest point, the Russian aircraft were 30 nautical miles from Canadian soil. The CF-18s shadowed the Bear aircraft until they turned around. The two CF-18s came from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta," Mr. Soudas wrote.
The intent of the Russian mission is unknown. But the planes did not violate Canadian sovereignty.
"Thanks to the rapid response of the Canadian Forces, at no time did the Russian aircraft enter sovereign Canadian airspace," Mr. Soudas wrote.
This is not the first time this summer that the Prime Minister's Office has raised the alarm about Russian flights which occur 12 to 18 times a year without incident. When Sun newspapers wrote in late July that Canadian fighter jets had "scrambled to repel Russian bombers that made several attempts to probe Canadian airspace," the Russians were confused.
The flight was simply a training exercise that didn't enter Canadian territory, which is defined as a 200-nautical-mile zone beyond the coast, they explained. "We haven't violated Canadian airspace," an official at Russia's embassy in Ottawa told The Globe. "There is no problem here."
The Canadian government is in the process of purchasing 65 Lockheed-Martin F-35s stealth fighters through an untendered contract worth $9-billion plus maintenance that will the total cost up to $16-billion.
And, as Daniel Leblanc reports in Wednesday's Globe and Mail, not everyone is happy about it. Critics want the government to explain why it chose the F-35s and why the purchase has to be made without going to tenders. A new report from analyst Kenneth Epps of Project Ploughshares said the Harper government has yet to state exactly which types of missions the F-35s would handle, and why other types of aircraft couldn't do the same things.
Mr. Soudas, on the other hand, says the flights by the Russians prove the worth of the new military acquisition. "The CF-18 is an incredible aircraft that enables our Forces to meet Russian challenges in our North," he explained.
"That proud tradition will continue after the retirement of the CF-18 fleet as the new, highly capable and technologically-advanced F-35 comes into service. It is the best plane our Government could provide our Forces, and when you are a pilot staring down Russian long range bombers, that's an important fact to remember."
One of the reporters who attended the news conference with Mr. Bagnell pointed out that Mr. Harper is currently in the Arctic and asked if the most recent flight by the Russians could be more than just a co-incidence.
"When the military plan these flights, no matter what country they are, it takes a lot of preparation and bureaucracy and administration and they have a schedule set out to do these routine flights that Russia has been doing for years," Mr. Bagnell replied.
"Given that the Prime Minister didn't tell you [reporters]even until very recently exactly where he was going and when, hopefully the Russians didn't know."