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What Russian Air Patrols in the Arctic Mean for Canada’s Security & Sovereignty

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.  

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Ever since the planting of a Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in August 2007, foreign governments, international relations analysts, and the media have repeatedly described Russia’s activities in the region as hostile and belligerent toward the West. That same year, President Vladimir Putin resumed Russia’s long-range bomber patrols over the Arctic, and in 2008 reinroduced surface patrols of Arctic waters with Northern Fleet units. In the interview bellow, Joël Plouffe, co-managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, discusses the significance of the Russian bomber patrols in terms of Canadian national security and sovereignty with Frédéric Lasserre, professor of geography at the Université Laval in Québec City, Canada.    

Joël Plouffe: Reports about Russian air patrols around the North American Arctic airspace have been more common in Canadian and American media over the past several years. In Canada, the former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper often expressed his concern with what he called “increasingly aggressive Russian actions around the globe” and “intrusions into our airspace.” In your view, how accurate is the former government’s threat assessment in relation to Canada’s security and sovereignty?

Frédéric Lasserre: Yes, since 2007, Russia has indeed resumed its long-range bomber patrols around the Arctic area of North America—that’s a fact. However, when it comes to giving meaning to those patrols in terms of Canada’s security and sovereignty, we must also recognize that there has been some political maneuvering on behalf of the former Harper government, a type of domestic-oriented discourse that resembles Canada’s attitude toward Americans and the Northwest Passage. In my paper with Pierre-Louis Têtu, we’ve established, on the one hand, that when we look at the actual numbers of Russian flights near Alaska and Arctic Canada since 2007, they are significantly lower in frequency than during the Cold War years. On the other hand, we’ve also observed that the level of activity of Russian patrols around the Arctic areas of North America is also significantly lower than that of Russian patrols in the Baltics, the Barents Sea, the Sea of Japan, or the Black Sea over the last 10 years. In other words, Russia’s activities in the North American Arctic airspace is in fact very much limited compared to its patrols in other Arctic or non-Arctic regions of Europe and Asia.  

JP: But even if the frequency of those flights have remained low compared to other periods in history or places in the world, we’ve often heard that Canada’s sovereignty and security were challenged not by the number of patrols but by the incursions of those bombers into Canada’s airspace.   

FL: Well, there has been much confusion in the media and in the previous government’s communication strategy about the actual flight paths of the Russian long-range bombers in North America, which have not violated Canada’s sovereign airspace. Stating the opposite is not only an exaggeration of threat perception, but also a deliberate move that creates a permanent state of confusion when it comes to Russian behavior around Canada’s Arctic. It’s important to distinguish the two different areas where Russian long-range bombers could fly during their patrols in North American airspace and elsewhere: the sovereign airspace of a state, which extends 12 miles beyond the coast, and/or the buffer zone, which is an airspace where traffic is monitored for military purposes, but not controlled [i.e., Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ]. The Russian patrols are known to have penetrated the latter for civil and military purposes since international conventions do not restrict such activity in areas where flights are monitored but not controlled by the adjacent state. Conversely, their flight paths have clearly not gone beyond the buffer zone in Arctic Canada. If Russia had actually violated Canadian sovereign airspace with its military planes, it would have been an aggressive offense by Moscow—an actual act of war—triggering serious consequences for the Canada-Russia relationship and beyond, and not just the political rhetoric we’ve heard from the former Canadian government.

Yet Russia’s behavior has been quite different along the borders of Scandinavia and the Baltic countries. The patterns have been much more provocative—flight plans have intentionally not been provided to air traffic controllers, military planes have been actually armed with weapons, transponders have been kept off, and flights have even occasionally briefly violated the actual airspace of some countries like Sweden, Finland, or the Baltic states. That type of behavior has not been reported in the North American Arctic airspace, although typically, Russia has warned of its entrance into the vicinity of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, provided its flight plans in advance, stayed at high altitude for easy detection, and evaded neither detection nor interception by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) jets near the Canadian or American sovereign airspace.

JP: If the Russians are not challenging Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic with their long-range bomber patrols, what is Russia actually attempting to accomplish with these maneuvers?  

FL: After many years of inactivity following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia decided to resume its bomber patrols in the Arctic in 2007. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia’s difficult economic situation had a negative impact on its military posture and restrained the country’s military exercises in the area, especially across the Arctic Ocean around Alaska and Arctic Canada. The resumption of bomber patrols can therefore be interpreted in various ways.

First, logistically, it can been seen as a way to demonstrate the Russian capacity and capability to conduct operations like aerial refueling, long distance flight training, and experience for the crew near the area of the North American Arctic. In other words, they can be seen as exercises to preserve and enhance a certain level of military know-how and responsiveness in this area of the world, if ever needed in a time of conflict.

A second interpretation, which is much more politically charged, is that the resumption of these bomber patrols serve to demonstrate that Russia still has the capability to conduct long-range bomber flights across the Arctic Ocean and could eventually use its force in the North American area if relations were to deteriorate. Such behavior is not new, but rather a typical practice in international military affairs between states. NATO forces conduct similar maneuvers close to the Siberian coasts and that behavior is not perceived as aggressive as long as it stays a routine military exercise. For its part, while NORAD acknowledges that the Russian patrols have increased over the past several years, especially following the Ukrainian crisis and Canadian-U.S. sanctions toward Russia, it has maintained that the Russian patrols around the Arctic are routine operations within the mission of training and exercise. They do not avoid detection and are not conducted as a way to test NORAD at the extreme limits of both Canada and United States’ sovereign airspaces.

JP: Some analysts and media have referred to the (re)militarization of the Arctic by Russia as a consequence of emerging competing interests in the region because of climate change and access to new natural resources. Do these patrols have anything to do with this?

FL: I would argue no. Over the last three to four years, Russia has been reinvesting in its Arctic army bases. It’s important to underline that these are reinvestments, meaning that Moscow is seeking to reopen, if financially feasible and sustainable, the infrastructure it had built during the Cold War years on its northernmost territory. Many of those bases were shut down following the collapse of the Soviet Union because of a lack of resources. In that sense, remilitarization is happening. Why? Well, we could look at it as part of a larger process aimed at adapting Russia’s northern infrastructure for the long-term goal of controlling and defending Russia’s Arctic territory. This region has become a strategic economic space for the country’s economy, with new natural resources to develop and much-anticipated revenues from these assets for the state. Then again, the reopening of those bases could also be interpreted as a political move intended for a domestic and international audience to whom the Kremlin seeks to showcase its Arctic might. It’s a message that signals to Russia’s Western neighbors that Moscow’s interests in the region should not be taken lightly. However, the Russian offensive capability is limited in the region insofar as its northern air fleet remains extremely restrained due to the lack of investment in the Russian Air Force, which has suffered enormously since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While it’s possible to position fighter jets and combat aircraft at various refurbished military bases in Russia’s Arctic, their operational reach remains limited in the region, meaning that there is no clear causality between new bases in Russia’s Arctic and its increased capacity to challenge its North American neighbors. The Russian Navy and Air Force still lack the logistical means to use these bases for offensive purposes. But, on the other hand, in areas closer to Russia’s Euro-Arctic borders, these new infrastructures can operate as significant political tools to put pressure on Moscow’s NATO neighbors like Norway or the Baltic states, like we’ve seen with the Ukrainian crisis.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Frédéric Lasserre is Professor in the Department of Geography, Université Laval, Quebec City, Canada and the director of the Quebec Council of Geopolitical Studies. His co-author, Pierre-Louis Têtu holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Université Laval and is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa.

Frédéric Lasserre and Pierre-Louis Têtu’s article, “Russian Air Patrols in the Arctic: Are Long-Range Bomber Patrols a Challenge to Canadian Security and Sovereignty?” which appeared in the Arctic Yearbook 2016, can be found here.

The interview was conducted by Joël Plouffe (@joelplouffe), co-managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI), and researcher at the Interuniversity Research Center on the International Relations of Canada and Québec (CIRRICQ) in Montreal. 

[Photo courtesy of cryogenic666]

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