Russia's aggression in Ukraine a red flag for Arctic cooperation and security, experts say

Ukraine may seem a long way from Canada's Arctic regions, but experts in polar affairs are paying very close attention to what's happening in Europe and considering what it might mean for the North.

Future of the Arctic Council, which Russia currently chairs, could also be put to the test

Experts in polar affairs are watching Russia's invasion in Ukraine closely, and some are concerned about potential escalation and what that might mean for Arctic regions. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Ukraine may seem a long way from Canada's Arctic regions, but experts in polar affairs are paying very close attention to what's happening in Europe and considering what it might mean for the North.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is "kind of a wake-up call," said Ken Coates, an historian at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in circumpolar issues.

"The world's not in very good shape today. And as I said, we should all be a bit worried about that."

Coates argues that Russia's aggression in Europe should spur Canada to take its own northern sovereignty and security more seriously. Both Russia and Canada lay claim to vast territory in the Arctic, and Russia has long been gently testing the boundaries, he says. 

"In the past few years, they've been flying planes right close to the Canadian border, going just across the border," he said.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if the government of Russia actually started pushing back even more and then pushing into Canadian airspace just to sort of draw attention to our vulnerabilities."

'We have very little capability to assert our sovereignty' in the Arctic, said University of Saskatchewan professor Ken Coates. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Coates says Canada has taken its Arctic sovereignty almost for granted for too long.

"We've kind of assumed that nobody else wanted it ... We do not have much capability for Arctic defence. We have very little capability to assert our sovereignty," he said.

"There's nothing we can do in the next four to six months that will actually do anything to protect our interests in the North, save for even greater reliance on the United States."   

'The Russians, they're always testing'

Other experts and officials downplayed any immediate threat of military action in Arctic regions.

"I don't think that's our first concern," said Larry Bagnell, Yukon's former MP. Over his two decades in Parliament, including a stint as Liberal caucus chair of foreign affairs and defense, Bagnell met with Russian officials many times.

"I don't think anyone's going to attack the north of North America. But you know, the Russians, they're always testing. They send their their jets into our airspace, just barely into it, and then get out of it when we scramble their jets," Bagnell said.

Still, Bagnell said it's a major threat to the world order if a country can invade another country for no justifiable reason, as Russia has done in Ukraine. That's a threat to Canada and all free nations, he says. 

"We really have to stand up against that because who's next?" Bagnell said. 

'I don't think anyone's going to attack the north of North America,' said Larry Bagnell, Yukon's former MP, seen here in 2019. ( Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Brendan Hanley, who replaced Bagnell as Yukon's Liberal MP last year, also downplays any immediate threat to Northern security, but said Canada, as a member of NATO, "needs to be prepared for ... contingencies."

He also has faith in Canada's defence structure, which relies on the U.S. and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command).

"There are, you know, protocols in place. Undoubtedly, there are conversations within the Department of Defence on various scenarios .... I am confident in the integrity of our connection to NORAD and our ability to have a joint defence," he said.

A test for the Arctic Council 

Hanley and others also have their eyes on the Arctic Council. It's an intergovernmental forum made up of eight Arctic nations — Canada, the U.S., Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Russia — meant to foster cooperation on issues such as climate change, biodiversity, sustainable development and diplomacy.

It's managed to carry on through other international conflicts and disagreements over the years — including Russia's annexation of the Crimea in 2014 — but some experts argue that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a new kind of threat to the very foundation of the Arctic Council.   

The chairmanship of the council rotates among the member nations every two years, and the current chair is... Russia.

"Considering that this is an international body of cooperation and one of these is now a hostile proponent invading another country, I think it throws everything into question," Hanley said.

Evan Bloom, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre's Polar Institute in Washington and a former U.S. diplomat who helped establish the Arctic Council in the 1990s, agrees. He says the Arctic has "generally" been an area of cooperation and stability — in part thanks to the Arctic Council — but that's now going to be put to the test.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, centre, arrives for the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, last May. Russia currently chairs the Arctic Council, and some experts wonder how the international organization will function in light of that country's invasion of Ukraine. (Saul Loeb/ Associated Press)

"It's going to be difficult and perhaps impossible to have business-as-usual relationships with the Russians, given their behaviour in Ukraine," he said.

"In the Arctic Council, everything goes by consensus of the Arctic states. And I don't think you're going to find that kind of consensus easy to reach when there's war in Europe."

He points to research on climate change as something vital that might suffer under a fractured Arctic Council. 

"You need scientists to be able to talk to each other. You need officials to be able to talk to each other. And I'm sure that is not going to happen as easily." 

Marisol Maddox, another Arctic analyst at the Polar Institute, echoes Bloom's concerns. 

"This is the greatest challenge the Arctic Council has faced, especially because Russia is chair," she said.

Maddox is also deeply concerned about the potential for escalating conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere. She's not prepared to rule out the potential for military conflict in the Arctic — though she argues it's unlikely. There's too much commercial potential for Russia in the Arctic, she says.

"But that being said, it wasn't in their interest for them, for Putin to make the decision for them, to invade Ukraine. So, you know, his calculus is clearly ...  he clearly couldn't care less about the Russian people," Maddox said.

With files from Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada