When Russia planted its flag on the North Pole seabed in 2007, symbolically staking claim to billions of tonnes of Arctic oil and gas reserves, it was largely written off by the West as a stunt with no basis in reality.
Perhaps so, but it served notice for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grander ambitions, signifying that he saw the Arctic as a geopolitical priority. And given the transportation corridors that global warming was opening up, and the wealth of critical energy resources beneath the ocean’s surface, why wouldn’t it be?
Many of the country’s objectives are set out in its Arctic Strategy of the Russian Federation, which makes clear its intent to expand its influence in the region. To this end, Russia has grown its military presence in the North, reactivating several Soviet-era military bases while building nuclear-powered ice breakers. The Kremlin announced five years ago that its Northern Fleet was being enhanced in a bid to “phase NATO out of the Arctic.”
Until recently, Russia’s activities had not caused any great alarm among members of the NATO alliance. The Arctic Council (which includes Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) had served as a useful intergovernmental forum to discuss areas of mutual concern.
But then Russia invaded Ukraine and everything changed – including the way Arctic countries now view Mr. Putin’s intentions in the region.
As Canada reassesses its defence commitments to NATO, it certainly has an eye firmly trained on the Arctic. While Russia hasn’t been considered an imminent threat, that assessment is undergoing a rethink. At the very least, we now understand that in Mr. Putin, we have a neighbour who can’t be trusted.
The Arctic Council, meantime, has suspended meetings while Russia remains in Ukraine. Its future at this point is unknown.
It’s time that Canada became serious about the North, including properly defending it. Our poor, tattered military is largely absent from the region. More than a decade after former prime minister Stephen Harper first unveiled plans to establish a more robust presence in the region by building a modern naval base, little has happened. That needs to change. Equipment-wise, our Arctic presence consists of four non-combat CC-138 Twin Otter utility planes and some patrol vessels, according to Robert Smol, a retired Canadian military-intelligence officer who served for more than 20 years.
It’s not exactly the posture of a country taking northern sovereignty and security matters seriously. No, Canada has taken the region for granted for far too long.
It doesn’t really matter that Russia is a long way from Canada, or that European countries are more vulnerable to Russian aggression than we are. The Canadian Arctic could be used as a channel through which Russian submarines travel to do harm elsewhere. Our current surveillance capabilities are embarrassingly lacklustre.
If Russia has united the West more than ever, this has to include commitments to our militaries. In recent years, it’s always been a topic Canada felt squeamish talking about. We’ve preferred to let others (see: the United States) bulk up militarily while we sought comfort under the warm blanket of their protection. That must end, for our own dignity if nothing else.
The announcement this week that we are prepared to replace our aging fighter-jet fleet with 88 Lockheed Martin F-35s at an estimated cost of $19-billion is a good start. The procurement process, which has been bogged down by politics for more than a dozen years, has been an embarrassment. This is hopefully a welcome end to that quagmire of incompetence.
But we are also going to need to spend money to help modernize equipment for NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) which has long been outdated and unable to deal with a new generation of threats from Russia, including long-range, hypersonic cruise missiles. The price tag for our share of that is estimated to be up to $10-billion.
Of course, that cost, combined with the new fighter jets (not to mention other upgrades needed to our long-neglected military), is eye-popping. But we have to recognize that the world has radically changed and that one of our safe havens is our one-for-all, all-for-one membership in NATO.
Even if the Canadian Arctic isn’t considered an immediate target of Mr. Putin, other NATO countries that do share an Arctic border with Russia might be. And we need to be prepared for that eventuality.
The war in Ukraine is going to exact a brutal toll on the Russian economy and the Kremlin’s coffers. They won’t have a lot of money to replenish and enhance their now-much-diminished war machine.
Now is the time for the West – including Canada – to seize this opportunity to build a significant military advantage over Russia and serve notice that the free world is not to be trifled with.
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