Following the recent announcement that Canada is extending its military’s mission to train the Ukrainian army by another two years, experts are watching whether the Kremlin will signal its displeasure with Ottawa with more than just diplomatic protests.
One of the ways the Russian government has done this in other regions – whether in the Baltics or the Sea of Japan – is by using its air force, particularly by conducting air patrols by Russian long-range strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
However, in the North American Arctic Russia has so far refrained from using the kind of aggressive tactics its air force has used in the skies over the Baltics or in the Sea of Japan, said Frédéric Lasserre, professor of geography at the Université Laval in Québec City, Canada, and the director of the Quebec Council of Geopolitical Studies, whose research focuses on geopolitics of the Arctic region.
Lasserre says while there remains a possibility of tensions between Moscow and Ottawa over Ukraine to eventually spill over to the Arctic, so far the Kremlin has shown little interest in escalating military tensions in the North American Arctic.
“I don’t see what would be the interest for Russia to shift the tension from the European Arctic and the Baltics to the Central Arctic basin and the North American Arctic,” Lasserre said.
While Russia’s buildup of military resources on its own Arctic territory has many analysts and policy makers guessing what’s behind the recent flare up of activity in the Russian North, the Kremlin’s moves are largely defensive in nature and do not threaten the North American security, Lasserre argued.
“My hypothesis is that it’s two-fold,” Lasserre said. “First it’s a political gesture to underline the fact that its position has to be taken into account. So in the frame of the dispute between NATO and Russia because of the Ukrainian crisis, it’s another way to underline that Russia still is a powerful country, especially, in the Arctic, but it doesn’t mean that Russia intends to spill the conflict into the Arctic region.”
The second reason is that the Arctic region is becoming increasingly important for the Russian economy, Lasserre said.
“More and more of the natural resources that Russia extracts and that fuel the budget of Russia come from the Russian Arctic and Siberia,” Lasserre said. “So in a way to try to protect these resources it’s also stepping up military assets deployed in the Arctic.”
Lasserre says Russian behaviour in other regions of the world is a far more problematic.
In the Baltics, for example, not only is the number of patrols much higher than in the North American Arctic but these patrols also try to evade detection by turning off on-board transponders or flying at very low altitudes and sometimes these aircraft “illuminate” or “paint” their potential targets with their firing radars, Lasserre said.
“The behavior of these patrols is much more aggressive than it is with bomber patrols in the Arctic,” Lasserre said. “There are major differences between these regions: the Arctic, the Sea of Japan, Southern Europe or the Baltics. The Russian air force is much more aggressive in other areas and the place where it is the least aggressive is the Arctic for that matter.”
The difference in the Russian behaviour in these different regions can be explained by various reasons, said Lasserre.
In the Sea of Japan, Russia has a long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands that the Soviet Union occupied in the dying days of WWII.
“It’s a way for Russia to put pressure on Japan and it’s a constant behaviour that has been noticed in the past several years,” said Lasserre.
The sharp uptick of tensions in the Baltic region is a clear consequence of the Ukrainian crisis and the deterioration of relations between Russia and Western countries following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued involvement in supporting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, Lassere said.
“So it’s kind of spill-over of this tension through the behaviour of Russian military assets, including the air force,” Lasserre said. “Russia is trying to show its displeasure through much more aggressive patrols towards the space of Scandinavian or Baltic countries.”
Just training or sending a message?
Russia resumed its strategic bomber patrols in the North American Arctic back in 2007, said Lasserre.
The resumption of these patrols in the North American Arctic can be explained by several factors, said Lasserre.
“It was surprising that Russia stopped these patrols in the first place,” Lasserre said in a phone interview. Armies around the world routinely practice just to keep operational capacity, he said.
“So it was kind of normal from a military point of view that Russia resume practising long-range flights,” said Lasserre. “These are directed not only on the North American Arctic but they are also directed at the Pacific and Europe. From that point of view North America is not a particular target for long-distance bomber patrols.”
The other reason that Russia resumed its air patrols is because it wanted to be taken seriously, he said.
“There was a feeling in Russia that it was hard to digest the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reduction in the political influence in the world during this political upheaval,” Lasserre said. “And so Russia does intend to signal to its Arctic partners that its voice has to be taken into account, so it’s kind of a political gesture to underline the fact that Russia is still an important political power in the Arctic.”
The third factor behind the resumption of Russian air patrols is domestic politics, he said. It was important for the Russian government to placate the hawks among the political circles in Russia that pushed for the resumption of military spending and a more aggressive posture in Russian foreign policy, Lasserre said.
In addition there was the factor that NATO never stopped its own air patrols along Russian borders, Lasserre said.
“NATO and other powers in the vicinity of Russia never stopped practising long-range fighter or bomber patrols because it’s normal practice for most militaries in the world to probe their neighbour’s capacity of response and to practice an operational capacity,” Lasserre said.
Difference in attitudes
However, there is a crucial difference in attitudes, Lasserre said.
“It’s different if practice is commonly admitted, if there are warnings ahead of manoeuvres, which was common practice for Russia,” Lasserre said. “Whereas, if you do begin to hide those practices, if you fly at low altitudes, if you try to evade detection, then the attitude will be perceived as more aggressive.”
In the past, the Russian government has issued warnings to NORAD officials about its patrols a long time ahead of the flights, Lasserre said.
“So the Canadian and American authorities were aware of the fact that the patrols would come,” Lasserre said. “Second, these bombers usually flew at high altitudes; that means that they did not try to evade detection.”
No breaches of Canadian sovereignty
And despite the impression one might get by reading some of the headlines in the news, these Russian air patrols never tried to enter the Canadian air space, he said.
While it’s true the Russian bombers routinely enter NORAD’s Air Defence Identification Zone, which extends far beyond the 12-mile sovereign air space of Canada along its coastlines but is not recognized in international law, there are no reports that Russian aircraft ever entered Canada’s sovereign air space, Lasserre said.
“They always turn back before they present a real threat to the integrity of the air space,” Lasserre said. “For all those reasons it’s difficult to see that those patrols are presenting an actual threat to the North American security.”
The Conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper seized on the resumption of Russian patrols to use them for domestic political reasons but was never able to explain how these patrols, which happened in international airspace threatened Canadian security or sovereignty in the Arctic, Lasserre said.
Old bomber, new missiles
Rob Huebert, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary and a senior research fellow with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, says Lasserre’s analysis is missing an important point.
“The problem, of course, is that it misses a proper geopolitical understanding and strategic understanding of the whole purpose of these long range bomber patrols,” Huebert said. “It’s not so much that they’re coming in, it’s what they carry.”
While the Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers, nicknamed Bears by NATO, were built in the 1960s, the modern cruise missiles they carry inside increasingly have longer and longer range and lethality, Huebert said.
Russia’s use of cruise missiles in the Syrian conflict showed that these missiles have a range of at least 1,500 kilometres, which means that the Russian aircraft don’t need to breach sovereign Canadian airspace to present a possible threat to the country’s security, Huebert said.
“So it’s not just that they are coming up to our airspace and everything is OK because they don’t commit violations, it’s the mere fact that they have increased the number of flights, they have increased the complexity,” Huebert said. “And for the first time ever they started attaching fighter escorts to these patrols.”
All that leaves a lot of room for concern for Canadian Arctic security, Huebert said.
“It may not be technically a violation of Arctic sovereignty but it’s a challenge to Arctic security,” Huebert said.
Changing political context
Lasserre’s analysis is also off the mark by not taking into account the current political context, Huebert said.
“Of course the major context is the effort of the Putin administration to increase its military capability, particularly, after the 2014 intervention in the Ukraine,” Huebert said. “We see relationships deteriorating and we see from what we can ascertain in terms of what information is available that there has been an increase in these overflights.”
Russia is using these patrols not only as a means to signal to Canada and its Western allies the Kremlin’s displeasure with Western policies but also to flex its muscles and put pressure on the West, Huebert said.
Declining military and industrial capacity
Still Lasserre is sceptical about Russia’s long-term capacity to compete with the West militarily.
“For financial reasons and because of the decline in the productive capability the Russian army is still set for steady decline, especially in its naval and air force capacity,” Lasserre said. “Even if Russia decided to put billions of dollars now in the military, the trend would be towards the reduction of the Russian navy and the Russian air force, because of so many assets that are too old and are going to be withdrawn from the order of battle.”
In the short and medium term the Russian military might is set to decline, unless Moscow makes enormous investments not only in its military industrial complex, but also in research and development, and fundamental sciences, which have been woefully underfunded since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 25 years ago, Lasserre said.
“It’s not because you open new bases in the Arctic that you have the possibility to strike Washington or New York or whatever, it depends also on the assets you can deploy in these new bases,” Lasserre said. “It’s the same for the navy. Yes, Russia is trying – at least in its discourse – to be a new force that has to be taken into account from the naval point of view as well, but if you look at the figures, it’s obvious that the number of units in the Russian Northern Fleet is still going to decline.”
Most of the investments are going towards nuclear submarines, an increasingly important part of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence, and to green water naval vessels – warships designed to protect Russia’s extensive coastline, not to project Russian power in the so-called blue water far beyond Russian shores, said Lasserre.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Freeze or thaw? What Freeland’s appointment means for Russia-Canada relations in the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic
Norway: Norway patrolling Russia’s military activity in Arctic with new intelligence vessel, The Independent Barents Observer
Russia: Paratrooper exercises over Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer
Sweden: New security landscape in the Arctic, Radio Sweden
United States: U.S. Arctic strategy puts Canada and Russia on notice, Eye on the Arctic