War in Ukraine has implications for Arctic co-operation, climate change research

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has implications for Northerners and for circumpolar collaboration on important issues, says Robert Huebert, an associate professor at the University of Calgary whose work focuses on Arctic security and sovereignty. 

Situation underscores need to modernize military capacity in Canada's North, says analyst

Melt pond on Arctic sea ice. Robert Huebert, an associate professor at the University of Calgary whose work focuses on Arctic security and sovereignty, says Russia's invasion of Ukraine has implications for northerners and for circumpolar collaboration on important issues, including climate change. (Stefan Hendricks/Alfred Wegener Institute)

Russia's invasion of Ukraine may seem half a world away, but it has implications for northerners and for circumpolar collaboration on important issues, including climate change, according to Robert Huebert, an associate professor at the University of Calgary whose work focuses on Arctic security and sovereignty. 

The situation also underscores gaps in the Canadian government's approach to its northern defences, Huebert said in an interview with CBC News.

Huebert describes the situation as horrifying. 

"Any myth that the Russia of old, the aggressor expansionary Russia had been a thing of the past" has been laid to rest, Huebert said. 

"It tells us that the Russians are, in fact, willing to use any means possible to seize the territory of a sovereign state."

"Would you be driving a car or using a computer that you got in 1982 in a war-like environment?" asked Robert Huebert, when describing Canada's capacity to detect and respond to potential Russian military activity in the North. (CBC)

The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

As this conflict has escalated or built up over the last number of days and weeks, how are you looking at this in terms of the Arctic and Canadian North?

There's two major impacts. The first is in terms of the ability of the Arctic nations, including the Russians, to get together on meaningful co-operation. And we've seen this in the multilateral agencies, the Arctic Council being the most obvious body. A lot of our understanding of climate change comes from the co-operative sharing of information and science with the Russians within the context of the Arctic Council. We have search and rescue treaties. We have a whole host of very meaningful steps. Those, I'm afraid, are all either going to be frozen or rendered irrelevant. 

With this type of naked aggression on the part of the Russians, I just simply can't see us being able to wait for the killing and dying to stop in Ukraine and then to turn around to the Russians say, "OK, well, what's the next thing on the agenda for the Arctic Council?" The Russians are the chair of the council right now. As we impose sanctions, as we have said we will, the Russians will then retaliate and the essence of what is required for any form of co-operation will have been eliminated. 

The second is on the military. Our government, ever since it was elected and came up with the defence policy, said one of the most critical things that it needed to do was to modernize the NORAD defensive capabilities. That's the alliance and agreement we have with the Americans to have the shared defence of North American aerospace.   

WATCH | Professor Rob Huebert speaks with CBC's Juanita Taylor on what Putin's war means for the Arctic

Professor Rob Huebert on what Putin's war means for the Arctic

1 year ago
Duration 3:27
On the day Russia invades Ukraine, Professor Rob Huebert speaks with the CBC's Juanita Taylor on what the implications could be for the Arctic and the Arctic Council, which Russia chairs.

Hopefully, what this means is that the government is going to realize that we need to be very, very much more active in the redevelopment, modernization of our northern defences. I mean, we're seeing a nakedly aggressive Russia. And therefore it behooves us to ensure that instead of using 1985 technology, which a lot of the North Warning System is based on, that we actually modernize it because we're getting a firsthand look at just what a powerful, modern military the Russians have. 

The third thing that's going to happen in the Arctic is, of course, as the sanctions take place, the Russians will turn to the Chinese for assistance. They did it when we imposed the sanctions for when they began the war against Ukraine in 2014, and that gave China a vastly expanded foothold in terms of oil and gas and other opportunities. 

What would bolstering NORAD, and especially military capabilities in the North mean for the North?

The metaphor that everyone uses is that we have to modernize both the shield and the sword. The shield is, of course, the capabilities of being able to detect a Russian movement. Traditionally…  being able to know if the Russians have fired intercontinental ballistic missiles at us and whether or not their bombers are approaching us. This is now being expanded. The Russians, since about 2005, have embarked on a series of very lethal, very stealthy missile delivery systems. The common terminology is hypersonic. We need to have both the ground-based radar systems, the satellite-based systems, other systems that perhaps not are not even publicly discussed that in fact can give us complete intelligence pictures in terms of where the Russians are deploying their launchers. Many people say if we wait until they're in the air, it's too late.

We also need to have the capability of responding, and the major response that we have always relied on is, of course, our fighter aircraft capability. And as most will know, we are using an aircraft that we bought in 1978,1982. I got to ask you, would you be driving a car or using a computer that you got in 1982 in a war-like environment? All of the Northern allies and friends have gone for the F-35. There's no real good reason why we still keep a 1980s technology. Hopefully, this will drive home the fact we need to have that responsive capability and we need to have it modernized.

Three nuclear submarines owned by Russia maneuvered to break through several feet of Arctic ice at the same time in March 2020. (Russian Defence Ministry)

Where that affects Northerners is the existing forward operating bases will obviously have to be strengthened. The Canadian government, if it is serious on this, is also probably looking at increasing the number of bases in the North. In order to meet this threat, you've got to be able to get up north fast, you've got to be able to supply. There is a limited range for any fighter, and so that has to be part of the overall infrastructure. 

We also have to be shoring up our ability to know who's in our waters. So we can't have something like when the New Zealander sailed right through the Northwest Passage without us stopping them. We simply cannot allow that to happen with the Russian submarine capabilities now. That means working closely with the Americans.

What are your hopes for Arctic and Circumpolar stability and collaboration, without Russia? 

In the last five years we have seen a tightening of the European Arctic states with the Americans, and this is even under the Trump administration. We've seen the Swedes sign agreements to allow the American military to operate from Swedish and Finnish bases. We've seen the Dutch, British and the Norwegians and Finns all buy the F-35. Canada seems to be missing on almost all of these fronts. We do send naval vessels for some of the more northern naval maritime exercises, and we do have forces in the Baltics as a deterrent force, about 450 troops. 

But in terms of this overall infrastructure we are seeing a development of a security co-operative regime between the Americans and northern Europeans. Canada seems to be completely absent from that. In terms of the co-operation, any time that you have such a disastrous event like what we're seeing, it's uncertain how things will settle in that context. There will be voices saying let's go on and have the next Arctic Council meeting. And the Russians will be trying to promote that themselves. And so the question really is going to be the type of political will that emerges from the rest of the Arctic community. 

I would not put too much money on cooperation. 

With files from Loren McGinnis.