The Mark | 8.31.10
By Alan W. Dowd

Russian bombers continue to lunge toward Canadian and U.S. airspace, and allied fighter jets continue to intercept them. Last week’s near-incursion by a pair of Russian Tu-95 long-range bombers—the warplanes were only 30 miles outside the Northwest Territories when Canadian F-18s escorted them away—was only the latest in a long line of Cold War-style brinkmanship on the part of the Russian air force. In a July incident, Canadian F-18s intercepted two Tu-95s east of GooseBay. Bloomberg News reports that U.S. and/or Canadian warplanes have intercepted between 12 and 18 Russian bombers a year since 2007.

What’s this trend mean, and how should Canada and the U.S. respond?

Russia’s aerial brinkmanship in and above the Arctic is arguably a function of two somewhat related factors.

First, Russia is eyeing the resources of the Arctic and is signaling its seriousness about claiming those resources. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, equaling 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of undiscovered oil. To paraphrase Churchill, the leaders of today’s Russian don’t desire war, but they do desire “the fruits of war” and the expansion of their power.

Second, Russia’s Arctic muscle-flexing is part of larger trend inside Russia’s political, military and diplomatic apparatus to push back against Western power, even against the settled outcomes of the Cold War. “Russia’s complaint today is not with this or that weapons system,” as the Carnegie Endowment’s Robert Kagan ominously concludes. “It is the entire post-Cold War settlement of the 1990s that Russia resents and wants to revise.”

The examples abound:

-Moscow doesn’t believe or cannot accept that the nations along its borders are sovereign, so it interferes in the internal politics of Ukraine and Lithuania, garrisons troops in Moldova (over Moldova’s objection), invades Georgia and cripples Estonia with cyber-attacks.

-Moscow is unhappy with the governments in Minsk, Kiev and Warsaw, so it shuts off gas supplies bound for Europe in the dead of winter.

-Moscow resents NATO enlargement and Eastern Europe’s embrace of the West, so it undercuts international efforts to rein in Iran’s outlaw nuclear program, supports Iran’s nuclear drive with technical assistance and offers a blanket of protection by selling Tehran high-tech air defenses.

-Moscow bristles at plans for a NATO-wide defense against Iranian missilery, so it conducts war games its Polish “aggressor,” complete with simulated nuclear strikes aimed at Poland.

-Moscow is bothered by America’s presence in Central Asia, so it bullies regional leaders to disrupt NATO’s logistics arteries into Afghanistan.

-Moscow wants more oil and gas resources to fuel its economy, so it lays claim to almost half the Arctic Circle, provocatively plants its flag under the ice, declares “The Arctic is ours,” and hurls bombers toward North America.

In short, Russia’s actions provide plenty of justification for a hedging strategy on the part of the U.S., Canada and their Arctic allies. We see the outlines of this return to realism vis-à-vis Moscow in Canada’s purchase of 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, in recent U.S. Arctic policy statements and in the increased activity and interest among allied nations in Arctic security.

Just last week, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper traveled to ResoluteBay to observe joint military maneuvers involving Canadian military forces, along with assets from the U.S. 2nd Fleet, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Danish Navy.

“Our government is committed to protecting and asserting Canada’s presence throughout our Arctic,” Harper said. “We must continue to exercise our sovereignty while strengthening the safety and security of Canadians living in our High Arctic.”

Canada is not the only country getting serious about Arctic security. The Toronto Star reports that Norway is procuring 48 F-35s “partly because of their suitability for Arctic patrols.” Last year, Norway led an Arctic exercise enfolding 13 nations. Sweden followed with large-scale war games oriented on the Arctic. Denmark is standing up its own Arctic military command. NATO is even contemplating involvement in the Arctic. As then-NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said of NATO involvement in the Arctic in 2009, “I would be the last one to expect military conflict…but there will be a military presence.” NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis is less sanguine, recently conceding that the Arctic could become “a zone of conflict.”

Some dismiss all this as saber-rattling. But if it is, it seems Moscow picked up the saber first.

Even so, we are not necessarily entering a new cold war, at least not yet. After all, nowadays, Russia’s unwelcomed flights near North American airspace are news because they are fairly infrequent. During the Cold War, they were so commonplace that they weren’t even reported.

Moreover, even as Putin and his puppets make mischief from Asia all the way to the Arctic, it pays to recall that the Russian, Canadian and U.S. militaries are cooperating in other areas: The trio recently teamed up for Operation Vigilant Eagle, the first-ever exercise testing their ability to cooperate in a midair hijacking scenario. The exercise involved assets from NORAD, U.S. F-22s and Russian Su-27s and MiG-31s. The warplanes intercepted the “hijacked” aircraft and then ground assets collaborated to hand off the plane as it moved from one country’s airspace to another’s.

Elsewhere, Russia has allowed, from time to time, NATO to use Russian airspace to transport non-lethal equipment into Afghanistan. And of course, the United States and Russia inked an arms reduction treaty, the so-called “New START” treaty.

In short, it would be fair to say that today’s cold peace is better than yesterday’s Cold War. As Canadian Forces Col. Todd Balfe observed after Vigilant Eagle, “We are trying to transition our relationships militarily from a period of confrontation in the Cold War to a period of cooperation.”

The operative word here is “trying.” Canada and the U.S. are doing their part. One wonders how long their patience will last.