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The whole thing was a beautifully staged act of geopolitical theatre.

On the waters of Allen Bay, near the High Arctic community of Resolute Bay, beneath brilliant skies, Stephen Harper watched from a Zodiac on Wednesday as Leading Seaman Deidre Dorian dived into the crystal-cold Arctic Ocean. She talked to him by comm link from the ocean floor about seven metres below.

Then the Prime Minister climbed onto a floating block of ice as two CF-18s escorting an Airbus 320 refuelling tanker roared overhead with the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen hovering as a backdrop.

The point of the exercise was to remind Canadians that the Conservative government is determined to defend this country's sovereignty in the Far North.

"The first responsibility of government is to take care of our security," Mr. Harper told several hundred Canadian Forces troops, mostly aboriginal Arctic Rangers and others who are part of the thousand-odd Canadians involved in this summer's annual Operation Nanook military exercises. "Nothing comes before that."

Whether that message is getting through is another story.

The Russians helpfully complemented Mr. Harper's message when they flew two Tupolev TU-95 bombers to within 30 nautical miles of Canada's northern border on Tuesday. CF-18 fighters intercepted and shadowed them.

"Thanks to the rapid response of the Canadian Forces, at no time did the Russian aircraft enter Canadian sovereign air space," Mr. Harper declared.

The Liberals are not so sure it's a good idea to be chasing Russian bombers. "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 … created a caustic international relations uproar by chastising the Russians," Liberal MP Larry Bagnell told a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

Canada should be negotiating with the Russians to settle territorial disputes in the North, he added. "How are we going to work with a country we have just chastised for not even coming into our airspace?"

But the incident and its timing will provide the Conservative government with ammunition to justify its decision to buy F-35 jets to replace the soon-to-retire CF-18s, at an overall cost of $16-billion.

The truth is, of course, that Canada will never be able to outmuscle either friends or foes who dispute our claims in the North - whether it is the Russians over the continental shelf, the Americans over the Northwest Passage and the border in the Beaufort Sea, or the Danes over Hans Island.

Canada's best hope lies in pursuing the second arm of its foreign policy in the North: negotiating territorial agreements. Although the government denies it, this will also ultimately mean reaching a compromise on how the passage is policed and who polices it.

But Canada must first show that it is serious about defending its northern interests, which is why Mr. Harper trumpeted the $487-million that the government is investing in a new, third generation of Radarsat satellites, which are to be deployed by 2015.

"The eyes on these satellites will pick up a breaching whale through the fog in the utter blackness of an Arctic winter," he boasted. "… From Afghanistan to the Arctic, from the coast of Somalia to the shores of Nootka Sound [on Vancouver Island] we will be able to see what the bad guys are up to."

The Conservatives' emphasis on the Arctic will fade after the Prime Minister completes his annual excursion north. Critics will point out that the daily promises of new investments merely rehash previous commitments that are years from fruition, and that could always be cancelled or delayed - either by this government or by its successor.

But either a prime minister visits the Arctic each year and renews Canada's determination to control its northern destiny, or he doesn't.

This one does. And after three days of watching him, it's clear he gets a kick out of it.