Canada’s allies call for rethinking Arctic relations following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We’re just an accident or an incident or a misinterpretation away from a fairly rapid escalation,” said Andrea Charron, a professor of international relations at the University of Manitoba.
This month, Washington updated its Arctic strategy, which includes an increased military presence in the High North.
“The United States values the unique spirit of international cooperation that has generally characterized the Arctic since the end of the Cold War,” reads the new strategy.
“Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine has made this cooperation in the Arctic virtually impossible.”
In a call with reporters, Washington’s top foreign policy adviser noted that Russia has spent billions of dollars upgrading military bases, buying icebreakers and testing new weapons systems.
Derek Chollet, adviser to the US State Department, said Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership would change the dynamic.
“A significant part of the territory… will now be covered in the Arctic region under NATO’s Article 5, the Mutual Self-Defense Clause. So this will be a fundamental shift in the thinking of the alliance,” a- he declared.
Last week, the Finnish government published a study it commissioned on how the war in Ukraine is changing the Arctic policy it published the year before.
The report argues that a new cold war is underway and that Finland must try to maintain a “functional relationship” with neighboring Russia on issues such as the environment and indigenous peoples, but must see everything through a lens of security.
“Everyone tries to be particularly careful”
“There will be no return to pre-war reality,” reads the English summary of the report. “Even chaos is possible.”
This month, Russia released its own document on Arctic relations and stressed that the refurbishment of its military infrastructure was aimed at strengthening its national security and search and rescue capacity for projects. resource extraction.
“There is no serious potential for conflict in the Arctic, especially with Russian involvement,” the document reads in Russian.
“Russia’s security policy in the Arctic is transparent. We are not threatening anyone in this region.”
Despite the growing rhetoric, Charron said all Arctic nations, including Russia, seem to be moving away from the saber blows.
“Everyone is trying to be extra careful,” she said.
She noted that Moscow jammed GPS systems and buzzed its planes during NATO exercises in 2018, but during similar exercises in Norway in May, Russia appeared to be moving cautiously.
On Monday, Norad intercepted Russian planes near Alaska in international airspace. Norad’s command said the move “was not considered a threat, and the activity was not considered a provocation.”
Charron said Russia depends on extracting gas and oil from the north for a substantial amount of economic output, and wants foreign ships to use a northern passage that could invigorate remote towns.
“They benefit the most when the Arctic is governed by a rules-based international order,” she said.
It has become increasingly difficult since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which put the Arctic Council on hold.
The intergovernmental forum aims to coordinate research, maritime routes and search and rescue services between the eight circumpolar countries as well as indigenous nations.
Russia currently chairs the council, but the other seven members suspended their participation in March, instead of having informal meetings in parallel.
While Finland argues this is unsustainable, Chollet noted that “60-75% of Arctic Council projects – and that includes areas like education, fisheries, things of that nature – can happen without Russia being involved”.
“We also have to be realistic, given Russia’s behavior in Ukraine and around the world, that we’re going to see limited opportunities for cooperation with Russia in the Arctic Council,” he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry says it is unnecessarily provocative.
“Washington, with the support of other Westerners, especially the Russophobic authorities in Ottawa, is trying to isolate Russia without whose participation Arctic cooperation is impossible,” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement. Russian last week.
Meanwhile in Ottawa, the House Defense Committee heard from Defense Chief General Wayne Eyre on Tuesday, who said Canada must invest in the North for the future.
“We see no clear and present threat to our sovereignty; not today, not this week, not next week, not next year,” he said.
“However, in the decades to come, this threat, this tenuous hold we have on our sovereignty at the ends of this nation, is going to be increasingly challenged.”
This month, the Liberals invited Governor General Mary Simon to attend a major Arctic conference, where security was a frequent topic. Simon was instrumental in the development of the Arctic Council in the 1990s and wrote the precursor to Canada’s northern framework.
Canada needs a plan, says Charron
In August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
It was the first time the leader of the military alliance had been in Canada’s Arctic, which Charron said was meant to symbolize Ottawa’s unwavering support for its allies.
Still, she doesn’t expect NATO to have a significant presence in Canada’s North, with the alliance primarily focused on the European Arctic and Norad systems helping to monitor Russian aerial sorties.
Placing NATO ships in Canada’s backyard would be considered too provocative for Russia, given that it is less than 100 nautical miles away. Canada considers the Northwest Passage to be part of its internal waters and has not requested NATO protection.
Charron said if Canada wants to be a serious player in the region, it needs goals, a plan and resources.
“We don’t really have an Arctic policy, we have a framework which, to me, is a prelude to a strategy,” she said.
“We always sort of flew by the seat of our pants.”