Fraser Forum | November/December 2010
By Alan W. Dowd

In the summer of 2010 Russian Tu-95 long-range bombers encroached on Canadian airspace at least twice. In August, a pair of Tu-95s was only 30 miles outside the Northwest Territories when Canadian F-18s escorted them away. This followed a July incident in which Canadian F-18s intercepted two Tu-95s east of GooseBay. Russia’s provocative military activity has not been confined to Canadian airspace. Tu-95 encroachments on Alaskan airspace have been commonplace since 2007. Moreover, in February of 2008, a flight of four Russian Tu-95s threatened the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the open waters of the North Pacific Ocean. One of the Russian bombers made two passes over the deck of the US ship. While en route, another violated Japanese airspace (Starr, 2008).

In September of 2010, just weeks after the Tu-95s made their unwelcomed visit near the Northwest Territories, a Russian anti-submarine aircraft flew within 100 feet of the USS Taylor, a US frigate operating in international waters in the Barents Sea. The incident was so serious that US Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead raised the issue with his Russian counterpart (Osborn, 2010).

This unfortunate return to Cold War-style brinkmanship on the part of the Russian military may be an under-the-radar phenomenon for most Canadians and Americans, but it is becoming an all-too-frequent occurrence. American and/or Canadian warplanes have intercepted between 12 and 18 Russian bombers each year since 2007 (Deslongchamps, 2010).

What does this trend mean, and how should Canada and the US respond?

A Zone of Peace?

Russia’s apparent probing of North American defenses is a function of two related factors. First, it is generally accepted among observers of international security policy that Russia is eyeing the resources of the Arctic and is signaling its seriousness about claiming those resources. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, equaling 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of undiscovered oil (USGS, 2008). These Arctic energy resources will be increasingly recoverable and transportable because the fabled Northwest Passage, once frozen throughout most of the year and navigable only by heavy-duty icebreakers, is thawing (Ek, et. al., 2009).

Although Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently expressed his desire “to keep the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation,” actions speak louder than words (de Carbonnel, 2010). In 2009, Moscow announced plans to build a string of military bases along Russia’s northern tier (UPI, 2009). In 2008, a Russian general revealed plans to train “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions,” ominously adding, “wars these days are won and lost well before they are launched” (AFP, 2008).

During a 2007 expedition, Russia planted its flag under the ice—far beyond the internationally recognized 200-mile territorial limit. The lead explorer provocatively declared, “The Arctic is ours” (Clover, 2008). In fact, as early as 2001, Russia brazenly claimed almost half the Arctic Circle and all of the North Pole as its own (Idov, 2008).

As my colleague Dr. Alexander Moens and I have noted, “Russia’s outsized Arctic claims rest on a dubious interpretation of an underwater ridge linking to the Russian landmass and Russia argues that this ridge is an extension of its own continental shelf” (Moens and Dowd, 2009). Not surprisingly, Russia’s Arctic neighbors do not share this view. In 2010, as the US and Canada began a joint expedition to collect data on the extended continental shelf, the US government emphasized that “The United States has an inherent national interest in knowing, and declaring to others with specificity, the extent of our sovereign rights with regard to the US extended continental shelf. Certainty and international recognition are important in establishing the necessary stability for development, conservation and protection of these areas, likely rich in resources” (US Extended Continental Shelf Project, 2010).

Yet both Canada and the United States face challenges in asserting their rights and fending off Russian encroachment. Budgetary restraints have eroded plans by various Canadian governments to invest heavily in Arctic military and security capabilities (Moens and Dowd, 2009). The United States has only three polar icebreakers, and two of these $800-million ships have exceeded their projected 30-year lifespan. In fact, engine failure prevented the icebreaker USCGCPolarSea from deploying to Antarctica in June 2010. Meanwhile, the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star is being refurbished and will not be deployable until 2013 (Defense News, 2010).

Russia, by way of comparison, can deploy 20 icebreakers (O’Rourke, 2008). This imbalance could allow Russia to solidify its Arctic claims, while hindering US and Canadian efforts to make and defend their own.

Zone of Conflict?

A second reason for Russia’s muscle-flexing is more worrisome than where and how the Arctic pie is divided. Russia’s political, military, and diplomatic apparatus is pushing back against Western power, even against the settled outcomes of the Cold War. As Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution concludes, “It is the entire post-Cold War settlement of the 1990s that Russia resents and wants to revise” (Kagan, 2007).

The examples supporting this claim abound:

  • Russia appears unwilling to accept that some of its neighbors are sovereign. What else could explain its invasion of Georgia, crippling cyber-attacks on Estonia, interference in the internal politics of Ukraine and Lithuania, or garrisoning of troops in Moldova (over Moldova’s objection)?
  • When Moscow is unhappy with the governments in Minsk, Kiev or Warsaw, it shuts off gas supplies bound for Europe in the dead of winter.
  • Moscow resents NATO enlargement and bristles at plans for a NATO-wide missile defense, so it has conducted war games focused on a Polish “aggressor,” complete with simulated nuclear strikes aimed at Poland (Day, 2009).
  • Moscow opposes America’s presence in Central Asia, so it has bullied regional leaders to disrupt US logistics arteries into Afghanistan (Scheineson, 2009).

Add to this list Russia’s aerial brinkmanship, and Moscow’s actions provide plenty of justification for a hedging strategy on the part of the US, 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 and in the increased activity and interest among allied nations in Arctic security.

In August, Canadian military forces, along with assets from the US 2nd Fleet, the US Coast Guard, and the Danish Navy, conducted military maneuvers in the Arctic (Comte, 2010). Last year, Norway led an Arctic exercise enfolding 13 nations. Sweden followed with large-scale war games oriented on the Arctic. Denmark is also standing up its own Arctic military command (Weber, 2010).

NATO is even contemplating Arctic intervention. 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” (Associated Press, 2009). US Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who serves as NATO’s military commander, is less sanguine, conceding that the Arctic could become “a zone of conflict” (UPI).

Some, especially in the Canadian press and opposition, dismiss all this as saber rattling (Gillies, 2010 and Riley, 2010). But if it is, Moscow picked up the saber first. Either way, Churchill’s 1946 observation about his Russian counterparts still applies: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness” (Churchill, 1946).

A Complex Relationship

Despite all this, we are not necessarily entering a new cold war. After all, Russia’s unwelcomed flights near North American airspace are news today because they are fairly infrequent. During the Cold War, they were so commonplace that they were seldom even reported.

Moreover, even as Moscow makes mischief from Asia all the way to the Arctic, it pays to recall that the Russian military and its Western counterparts are cooperating in important areas. The US and Russia inked a major strategic arms reduction treaty this year, the so-called New START Treaty (White House, 2010).

The US, Canada, and Russia recently collaborated for Operation Vigilant Eagle, the first-ever exercise testing their ability to cooperate in a midair hijacking scenario. The exercise involved assets from NORAD, US F-22s, as well as Russian Su-27s and MiG-31s. The warplanes intercepted the “hijacked” aircraft and then ground assets collaborated as the planes moved from one country’s airspace to another’s.

Elsewhere, Russia has allowed some NATO members to transport non-lethal equipment into Afghanistan via Russian territory. In fact, Russia is NATO’s main fuel supplier in Afghanistan (Shanker and Oppel, 2008).

In a signal that it shares Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, in September the Kremlin promised to block the sale of highly sophisticated S-300 air defense systems to Iran.

Also in September, Russia and Norway resolved a long-running boundary dispute, paving the way for energy exploration and development in some 67,000 square-miles of the Arctic Ocean, holding an estimated 39 billion barrels of oil (Kramer, 2010).

Finally, it’s ironic that the harassment of the USS Taylor occurred just days after it made a historic visit to the Russian port of Murmansk to celebrate the end of World War II. It was the first time a US warship had visited Murmansk since the war.

In short, Russia’s relationship with the West is less dangerous, but more complex, than it was during the 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…to a period of cooperation” (Humphreys, 2010). The operative word here is “trying”; Russia and the West remain somewhere between confrontation and cooperation.


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