Forget Syria, Russia's muscle is moving closer to Canada's doorstep

One other thing the new Liberal government will have to consider is whether to 'pivot' Canada's defence posture to the Pacific, as the U.S. is doing, Brian Stewart writes. The rationale: Russia's massive buildup in the Arctic and Pacific rim.

Putin's military buildup in Arctic, Pacific could set new Canadian defence priorities

Russian Pacific Navy ships sail near the Sakhalin Island during military exercises two years ago. Moscow has spent almost $600 billion over the past decade upgrading its military. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/AP Photo)

An oddity of Canada's foreign policy of late is how gravely we viewed Russia's expanding power in distant Eastern Europe and Syria, yet took scarce note of Moscow's actions closer to our own Arctic and Asia-Pacific interests.

Even allowing for the vast distances involved, Vladimir Putin's strategic thrusts are almost on our doorstep and may well require far more serious attention from the incoming Liberal government.

For Russia is militarizing its section of the Arctic and expanding its naval operations through the already tense Asian rim of the Pacific at a time when more than half dozen nations there — including, in particular, the U.S., China and Japan — are struggling to redefine a new balance of power in the region.

Granted, Russia is not Canada's only concern, but Russia is special.

It's our feisty northern neighbour and our relations are in the pits. Canada was reportedly even seen in Moscow as the most anti-Russian nation on Earth in the more recent Stephen Harper years.

It is a special case, as well, because President Putin seems determined to expand Russia's muscle and influence wherever he can, and after having boosted military spending by $600 billion over the past decade, he has lots of options.

Arctic war games

For one, he has made a priority of the Arctic, where huge amounts of untapped oil and gas reserves are expected to become extractable as ice caps melt, and where strategically advantageous shipping lanes could yet open to fleets of Russian and Chinese icebreakers.

Militarization of the Arctic is always worrisome because of the quaint vagueness surrounding who owns what.

This sovereignty holdover from the colonial era still hasn't been settled, which means disputed expansions and future intimidation can be expected, not unlike what's going on now in the South China Sea.

The U.S. has significant Arctic-ready forces already stationed in Alaska. To match this, Putin recently set up Russia's grandly titled "Arctic Joint Strategic Command North," consisting of two motorized brigades and Pantsir-S1 anti-air missiles.

Moscow is also constructing four Arctic outpost bases as well as airfields and new radar stations.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks past Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg. Even before Ukraine, the two leaders didn't have much in the way of a relationship. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Russia is also far more active in the Arctic than the U.S. and Canada. 

Last March, for example, Putin oversaw the largest Arctic war games ever: 35,000 Russian troops, 50 surface ships and submarines along with 110 aircraft.

It's been reported that Russia has developed plans to deploy 80,000 troops to the Far North in a crisis.

Russia's Arctic buildup sent shockwaves through the Pentagon, and helps explain President Barack Obama's three-day trip to Alaska in September to highlight America's need to take the Arctic more seriously.

As for Canada, our Arctic surveillance remains gossamer thin and our navy is still waiting for the first Arctic/offshore patrol ships, which were initially promised eight years ago and whose numbers have been slashed back to help slay the Conservative's deficit dragon.

As they say in diplomacy, "power is in perception," which in this case doesn't work in our favour.

"Unfortunately there are not a lot of voters up there" former senior Canadian diplomat Derek Burney lamented recently, so investing in the Arctic "is not an issue that turns the crank of our politicians regardless of the region's importance."

Pacific 'pivot'

Meanwhile, Russia's military has been even more expansive in the Pacific, with 50 warships and 23 subs participating in what is becoming an increasingly close relationship with China's fast expanding navy.

Their elaborate joint exercises are being watched with growing unease throughout the region. 

Last month saw the latest Putin surprise when he brushed aside Japanese protests and set up a new military base on the disputed Kuril islands, which were seized from Japan following the Second World War.

Japan still claims the islands, but its furious complaints were ignored in that special way Putin has.

None of this is to suggest that a new Cold War is upon us. In a multipolar world, relations are more complex than in that rigid superpower era.

Still, tensions across the Asia-Pacific are increasingly maritime conflicts and often in the news.

Flare-ups between the U.S. and China, Japan and China, Russia and Japan, China and Taiwan, Vietnam and China, and a dozen other potential flashpoints are constantly simmering.

The U.S. Navy's guided missile destroyer USS Lassen, shown here in less tense times about to dock in Shanghai for a scheduled port visit. The USS Lassen sailed past one of China's artificial islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims. (Associated Press)

This is the world's richest trading area where crucial routes and choke points need protection.

At the moment, an unprecedented surge in naval construction is underway across the region, and Canada is clearly expected by the U.S. and other key allies, such as Japan and South Korea, to provide more help on the security front. 

For historical reasons the Canadian navy has kept most of its fleet on the East Coast, and the Harper government rejected numerous suggestions that it was time to pivot westward, as the U.S. was doing.

This inaction leaves our Pacific fleet facing the largest ocean of all with just five modest-sized frigates, only two of which are operational at any one time due to refits, as well as three submarines in varying states of readiness and no Canadian-owned supply ships yet to escort them to sea.

Still, with international tensions rising weekly off Canada's Pacific shore, the new Trudeau cabinet should expect to face its own tough call on whether to make its own historic "pivot" to permanently reinforce its Western fleet.

Atlantic Canada, which massively supported the Liberals in the recent election,  will not be pleased at the loss of even one frigate — hosting a navy is big business — but new Pacific trade deals will argue the case, as will the expectations of our allies.

If it's any consolation, the choice may be easier now because of Vladimir Putin's continuing strategic surge into those parts of the world that really concern our national interests.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.