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The case for Canadian militarization of the Arctic

Canadian academics have recommended Canada not build up its military presence in the Arctic to compete with Russia. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Dennis Kovtun Montreal QC

Last year, the academics Michael Byers of UBC and Nicole Covey of University of Manitoba published an article in the International Journal, in which they lay out the potential path for the maintenance of security of Canada’s Arctic region.

Their work received rather significant attention by the Canadian media and was publicised by the National Post and the CBC. Byers and Covey argue that the Arctic should remain demilitarised and that the Royal Canadian Navy should be kept out of the region lest we contribute to the security dilemma–provoking another state (in this case, Russia) into a military buildup by our own actions, which could lead us into an arms race or military confrontation.

They advocate for the increased use of search-and-rescue ships and aircraft for their direct purposes, and for law enforcement against non-state actors, like smugglers and illegal fishers. The authors believe that it is in Canada’s interest to avoid any kind of militarization of the Arctic for fear of agitating Russia and forcing it to escalate the tensions between our countries in the region. However, the authors of the article grossly misrepresent the geopolitical and military evidence at hand to make their conclusions, and should their recommendations be taken seriously they will do serious damage to our security and interests in the Arctic.

Russia is the most militarily active state in the region, and has undertaken a massive expansion of its Arctic military capabilities. Since the mid-nineties, the country has been concentrating a great deal of its military capabilities in the region. It has re-established the border guard units in locations where they existed before the collapse of the USSR.

This act alone merits attention–why would Russia need border guard units in remote northern locations where there are no actual international borders? The answer is twofold. One–it is the show of force, a statement to audiences foreign and domestic that Russia is a major Arctic power. The second answer is more disconcerting–in case of a military confrontation between Russian and NATO these units can act as advanced guard for the Russian Armed Forces in the North and be rapidly expanded and beefed up with both regular forces and reservists.

These units have a naval component. The return of the border guards to the Russian Arctic was not provoked by any direct act by the NATO power–it was the action that Russians undertook independently, and it should be treated as a component of potentially aggressive defence policy in the region.

Since 2013 the Russians have built seven new military bases in the region along the Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia. These bases will allow the Russians to expand their power projection in the region to potential potentially encompass the entire Arctic Ocean should they so desire, while Canada and the U.S. will have little capability to counteract such an expansion regionally. In total, the Russians now possess two mechanised brigades, one which is trained and equipped specifically for Arctic operations, which have tanks, armoured personnel carriers and multirole helicopters and artillery, one brigade of marines, 14 new airfields, 16 deepwater ports and 36 icebreakers, some of them nuclear-powered, with additional nine vessels to be added before 2024.

The most serious cause for concern, meanwhile, should be the Russian Northern Fleet–the only major naval force specifically dedicated to operations in the northern seas and the Arctic. Headquartered in Severomorsk, at the edge of the Barents Sea, it has bases in multiple locations of the Russian Eastern Arctic, and one can draw an almost straight line from each of those bases to the Canadian Arctic shore. It is the most powerful fleet of the Russian Navy, with 84 ships. Forty-three are surface combatants, which include Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and heavy anti-ship missile cruiser, Peter the Great, the fleet’s flagship, as well as multiple destroyers, anti-submarine warfare ships and amphibious assault ships, designed to transport troops to the enemy’s shore. Forty-one are submarines, including eight ballistic missile submarines. The Fleet also includes the abovementioned land troops and the air and anti-aircraft defence army, all under one unified command structure. The presence of this armada in the Arctic openly signals the Russian intent that the Arctic is its area of influence, and that its defensive capabilities in the region can be turned into offensive rather quickly in order to project Russian power.

In practice, that will mean the extension of the area in which the Russians can develop the Arctic seafloor’s resources. The fact that the Russian claims on the extended portion of the Arctic seabed will most likely have no grounding in international law, as was the case with the Lomonosov Ridge, which both Russia and Canada claim as an extension of their respective continental shelves, will mean little–the evidence supporting the claim will promptly be manufactured, whilst the claim will be enforced by the Russian Armed Forces. International law did not stop Russia from performing military landgrabs in Ukraine and Georgia. Byers and Covey’s claim that Russia already possesses half of the Arctic and has no wish to acquire more is plainly incorrect–the Russian military buildup demonstrates that it views the Arctic as its sphere of influence and can assert its power throughout the region if it wishes to. Its icebreaker fleet allows the Northern Fleet to navigate the region reasonably well, and it will become easier as the Arctic ice melts due to global warming, and the Northern Fleet is a formidable tool of power projection.

This bodes ill for Canada. The presence of large Russian military force in the region is a source of strategic volatility that gives the Russians a practically unrestricted freedom of action in the region. This, and not the Canadian Armed Forces in the Arctic, is a source of uncertainty, as one power has clear dominance and the other Arctic nations consider that a threat to their security.

By introducing a significant military force to the Canadian Arctic, Canada will not be walking into a security dilemma–it will be responding to a clear increase of offensive military capabilities by the hostile power in the region of key strategic importance to Canada. We shall also avoid an appeasement dilemma. Reneging on our commitment to preserve Canadian Arctic sovereignty, if necessary, by force, and our Arctic ambitions, which will eventually be necessary to keep the Arctic demilitarised, will not induce Russia to respect Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. It is more likely that it will have the opposite effect–in both Georgia and Ukraine, Putin saw weak opponents, unable to offer resistance, and pounced at the opportune moment. Why should the same thinking not apply to Canada, particularly if our refusal to engage in the region militarily provides such an inviting target for imperial expansion?

Canada’s faith in the Article 5 of NATO and American military aid can no longer be absolute. Will the Americans engage in conflict with Russia over a chunk of sea if the American interests, as defined by the administration currently in office, are not directly threatened? Will the Europeans? The answer to these questions is, “We do not know.”

It is an uncomfortable uncertainty. On the other hand, by increasing our military capacity in the region, we will be providing deterrence against the Russian ambitions. The Russians will know that we possess sufficient capability to prevent them from achieving their goals and will thus conclude that the Arctic expansion enforced by the military is inadvisable. By doing so, we will be also practicing defence against help–we will be defending ourselves so that the Americans will not have to do it for us in case the Russians directly threaten our security.

Successful deterrence will require significant investment by Canada into its military capacity in the region. It should establish permanent air bases in the North-Western Territories and Nunavut, equipped with fighter aircraft to intercept strategic bombers, and naval warfare planes, particularly anti-submarine ones that can, if necessary, detect and destroy Russian submarines. The Navy should also establish a permanent presence in the Arctic Ocean and have a base that allows it access to the Ocean (Churchill can be used as one). The Army ought to establish a regular Brigade that can be based in Nunavut or North-Western Territories, tasked specifically with defending the Arctic frontier on land and trained and equipped accordingly. Further measures should be taken to increase the region’s population by internal migration and immigration from overseas and the development of the Arctic’s resources.

Canada may have taken the Arctic for granted and treated it as unimportant in practice since its inception as a country, but the days of this approach are numbered. Canada needs to decide what sort of role it wants to play in the Arctic, how it is going to play it, and whether it wants to have the Arctic at all and how it is going to defend it.

If Canada wishes to solidify its Arctic sovereignty and protect itself against future threats, it needs to accept that the Arctic is a militarily important region and adapt its military and economic policies accordingly, and form a coherent, long-term roadmap for the new strategic conditions.

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