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Are Canada and Russia in a New Cold War?

After Prime Minister Stephen Harper sanctioned members of Putin's inner circle and clamoured for Russia's permanent ejection from the G8, relations between Canada and Russia have reached a new low. With a battle over Arctic sovereignty looming, does...
March 28, 2014, 7:47pm

With Harper agitating for sanctions on Russia, and a battle for arctic sovereignty looming, could this be the start of a new cold war? Photo via Facebook.
A top Russian deputy in the Duma says Canada is in a new “war without words” with Russia in a return of Cold-War era relations with the former Soviet Empire. As tempers flare between the two nations don’t be confused by one recent Global News report inferring Russian military aggression toward Canada: If you’re hoping to grab your hockey helmet and granddad’s rusty .22 to go guerilla in the woods because of some Red Dawn invasion—don’t expect a war anytime soon. The Crimean invasion of Ukraine shows Russia’s increasing disrespect for Western drawn borders doesn’t mean the Russians are about to start WWIII by fighting a NATO country like Canada, whose very safety implicates America’s own national security.

That being said, things are actually deteriorating between Canada and Russia in the diplomatic arena, which may threaten Canadian national interests down the road. Prime Minister Stephen Harper sanctioned members of Putin’s inner retinue and clamoured for Russia’s permanent ejection from the G8, with the ex-KGB agent responding with his own list of banned Canadian officials. Amidst the sabre rattling thousands of Russian troops are amassing along the Ukrainian border, poised for an invasion, while Polish fears of convenient Russian army “exercises” on the Kaliningrad border are growing.

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One concern outside of Europe for Canada is its own, very real geopolitical conflict brewing with Russia over disputed Arctic borders and the race to carve up the natural resources under the ocean crust. One Kremlin insider is touting a list of Putin’s own “red lines” that, if crossed, would trigger a sharp response from the superpower. In an article in Vzglyad, Russian journalist Yevgeny Krutikov cites any further militarization of the Arctic by rival states intended to reduce Russia’s power, as one of those lines for Putin—and that’s a direct gesture to Canada and its powerful NATO allies. Canada has kicked the tires on beefing up its aging navy and expanding Arctic capabilities with stuff like stealth snowmobiles, but it’s nothing compared to Russian resolve. Ironically, while Putin condemns western militarization of the potentially resource rich Arctic, he’s buying super-sized icebreakers, 40 new naval vessels, new nuclear attack submarines, revamping his intercontinental ballistic missile system, and refurbishing old Soviet military bases on the Arctic coast.

“We are seeing a much more assertive Russia. As soon as that was happening, Canada needed to be prepared for Russia to play hard ball,” says Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary. While Huebert thinks Russia has no interest in annexing land that isn’t theirs in the Arctic, they may begin to develop oil and gas along Arctic boundaries they consider their own, without international consultation. The other thing is what Huebert calls increased “securitization” of the Arctic to Cold War levels. In those days, NORAD bombers and anti-ballistic missile systems protected against possible warheads passing through Arctic airspace. “You’re going to see increased military activities in the Russian Arctic, which they can do, and they’ll be apologists about it and say: ‘Russia’s got the right to do it.’”

Naturally the latest Crimean aggression is making critics wonder where Putin’s appetite for land will lead next, with the Arctic offering the most lucrative option: Estimates state there are currently 90 million barrels of oil sitting untapped in the North Pole, and almost 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Like Ukraine, Canada could never pose a serious military threat to Russia. In fact, beyond plans to build a new refueling base in Nunavut for ships (which will only be manned in the summer months), there’s only a training facility housing 150 soldiers in the Arctic. In terms of Canadian Arctic sovereignty, Huebert says Canadians shouldn’t worry, but long-term, Canada needs to start doing “what we say we’re going to do,” or risk land integrity. That means actually building Arctic offshore patrol vessels and finally upgrading the F-18 fighter jets (that’s stalled because of the F-35 fiasco) for effective air patrols, things the Harper government has been promising since time immemorial.

Though Harper may be courting the Ukrainian-Canadian vote for the 2015 election, his tough talk with Russia on Crimea also builds the case for hesitant European allies’ that are dependant on Russian natural gas to think about the Canadian alternative. Although the infrastructure for transporting oil and gas in tankers across the Atlantic Ocean isn’t in place, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is touting Canada’s potential emerging market in Europe as the perfect substitute to Russian gas, and another reason to finish work on a west-east pipeline. Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have all urged the U.S. Congress to loosen restrictions on the the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe to help wean Europe off of Russian LNG, a continual threat to energy security and autonomy in the region.

Whether Stephen Harper’s harsh words for Putin is a principled stance or political manoeuvring, you can’t underestimate the Russian leader. Besides lingering allegations of orchestrating the killing of the Polish Prime Minister and his staff, stealing a Super Bowl ring, and invading two countries, there’s legitimate precedence to believe Mr. Putin is capable of just about anything; so when it comes to the Arctic, Canada will have a front-row seat. @bmakuch