Will Canada and Russia continue to play nice?
by Rob Huebert
May 24, 2017
Canadian relations with Russia have just gotten a lot more interesting. On the one hand, Canada, Russia and six of their Arctic neighbours have just completed a successful ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, during which there were some very notable achievements for international Arctic co-operation. But at the same time, Canada is preparing to send troops to the Baltics in a bid to deter Russian aggression in the region. In the week leading up to the Fairbanks meeting, Russia announced that it plans to have a large-scale exercise – Zapad – of over 100,000 troops near the Baltic border in September. Third, and perhaps most troubling, there is growing concern that the Russians are actively attempting to hurt the democratic processes of Canada’s most important ally and trading partner – the United States – and they appear to have been quite successful. In short, Canada now has its hands full responding to this growing complexity in the relationship.
For those unfamiliar with Arctic issues, the Arctic Council is the predominant international body that brings together the eight main Arctic states – Canada, the U.S., Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark for Greenland, as well as six northern indigenous organizations known as Permanent Participants, plus an ever-increasing number of observers. Every two years senior government officials, along with the Permanent Participant leaders, meet to agree on the work that has been conducted since the last ministerial meeting. Recently, these meetings have approved international agreements pertaining to the Arctic. This year’s meeting in Fairbanks was no different. Among a number of new co-operative arrangements, the members agreed to a treaty improving international scientific co-operation. As a result, there were a number of pictures of Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov smiling and congratulating each other for being able to co-operate so well in the Arctic.
While Russia was indeed playing nice with its Arctic neighbours at this meeting, it has also been playing a very different game from a military perspective. It has continued to build up its military forces in the region and is increasingly using them to try to influence and intimidate its neighbours. Just prior to the Fairbanks meeting, Russia resumed its long-range bomber patrols up to Canadian and American Arctic airspace. Canada’s three Baltic allies have become increasingly worried about Russian behaviour on their borders; they have requested and received increased NATO forces to be stationed in their countries. Canada has also agreed to send troops to reassure our allies and to deter the Russians. So while Freeland and Lavrov were shaking hands and smiling at each other in Fairbanks, both were also moving to deploy military forces against each other.
What is particularly jarring for Canadians about the smiles and handshakes in Fairbanks is that they hide a much more sinister reality. Evidence is mounting that the Russians have been involved in attempting to influence the recent American election. While it has not been proven that they were involved, it is becoming clearer that they favoured a Donald Trump victory. And what a victory it has been! It is probably safe to say that Trump’s actions are now exceeding whatever the Russians had been hoping for. Trump’s recent release of classified information to the Russians and his alleged efforts to stop the FBI investigation all point to a mounting crisis in the American political system.
So one has to wonder what Freeland was really thinking as she congratulated both the Americans and Russians on agreeing to the new Arctic Council pact on international scientific co-operation on May 12. It is clear that our relationship with the Russians is developing a dangerous complexity that means if we get it wrong, there will be serious ramifications for our security. Let’s hope that the current Canadian government understands this.
Rob Huebert is a CGAI Fellow and renowned Canadian expert on Arctic defence and security policy.