When it comes to the Arctic, Vladimir Putin and Stephen Harper see eye to eye on one thing: it’s a vast melting wonderland full of oil that’s ripe for the taking. Who gets what is a matter of international debate and for the first time since tensions between both countries began in December 2013 over disputed land claims in the North Pole, the conflict has militarized.
CBC News is reporting that the aging F-18s Canada is looking to replace with F-35s were sent on at least two missions in June to intercept Russian Tu-95 heavy bombers cruising too close to Canadian Arctic airspace. Testing the Canadian forces is widely seen as a provocative move by Putin’s government, showing how serious he takes Canadian aggression over Ukraine.
When I asked National Defence about the interceptions they referred me to Minister Rob Nicholson’s comments in the House of Commons. “I can confirm to the House that, yes, we continue to see Russian military activity in the Arctic,” he said, staying on script and offering few details about the interceptions. “The Canadian Armed Forces remain ready and able to respond and, in fact, the Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18s were dispatched in recent days in response to Russian aircraft movements.”
Those “aircraft movements” are no doubt a message to Harper, who made it his mission to denounce and sanction the Putin regime following the invasion of Crimea. Harper issued travel bans to several key members of Putin’s retinue, expelled a Russian diplomat, and sanctioned Russian business entities. One of his ministers compared Putin's actions to Hitler's.
With a potential treasure trove of 90 billion barrels of oil sitting untapped in the North Pole, and almost 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, there’s no wonder Canada and Russia, two of the biggest petrol-peddlers in the world, are territorial over the mostly uninhabitable landmass. Just last week Canada finally approved energy exploration in offshore Arctic waters, including seismic testing, even when faced with the objections of Inuit communities who argued it could jeopardize their traditional food sources. After a failed proposal for seismic testing in the Arctic Ocean through a court injunction in 2010, the latest approval shows the Harper government moulding their energy plans. A recent Natural Resources Canada study shows the government is accepting that climate change will open up the Arctic land, and inevitably natural resource gathering will soon follow.
The news of the Tu-95s flying toward Canadian airspace has been kept relatively quiet, even as debate rages in Canada over whether or not to purchase the F-35 Lightning from Lockheed Martin—a plane with a laundry list of detractors. (It’s also worth noting, it’s not a particularly good plane for flying interception missions.) The political hand grenade has seen the Conservative party lose major face as competent military buyers. For now, the Canadians are freezing the fighter purchase.
From claiming the remnants of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 lost Arctic voyage to summer vacations driving stealth snowmobiles, Harper is desperate to show Canada's hold on the Arctic and its wealth of potential oil. Ultimately, the standoff with Russia converges two lagging issues for his government: Canada’s fighter plane program and its energy ambitions. All in, it’s starting to spell out a real race between the countries to suck the oil revenues out from under the ocean crust.