New research (which includes two articles written by Russian experts) published by the prominent think tank the Canadian Global Affairs Institute has spurred interest and hopes in Russia’s expert community about the possibility of normalizing ties between Russia and Canada through cooperation in the Arctic region (Russiancouncil.ru, April 3; Cgai.ca, accessed April 12). This cooperation could potentially be premised on two main pillars.
First would be the mutual rejection of “internationalization” of the Arctic. Both Canada and Russia—for whom the Arctic region is an issue of foreign policy (Russiancouncil.ru, July 1, 2019) —feel ill at ease with the increasing involvement of non-Arctic states in the region, particularly, China. Russian information outlets noted the level of distress when the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon completed its first-ever voyage through the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Canada, accumulating “a wealth of experience for Chinese ships going through the Northwest Passage in the future” (Regnum, September 17, 2017; see EDM, October 3, 2017).
Second, Moscow seeks to exploit regional frictions and disagreements between Canada and the United States (Pentagonus.ru, accessed April 10) to boost its own position/influence in the region. Russian sources recall the year 2010, when then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly challenged Canada’s stance on the status of the Northwest Passage, which Ottawa considers part of Canadian territory (Foreignpolicy.ru, February 20, 2015). In the past, both the Russian tone and general assessment of Canada’s role in the Arctic were denigrating, claiming Ottawa lacked agency. Perhaps the clearest expression of this sentiment came from the director of the Institute of Strategic Planning and Forecasting, Professor Alexander Gusev, who, in 2015, declared that “they [Canada] are only performing the role assigned by the US” (Odnako.org, March 30, 2015). After 2016, however, Russia dramatically changed its coverage of the US-Canadian dispute in the Arctic region, with Moscow increasingly employing reconciliatory rhetoric toward Ottawa and employing ever more assertive public diplomacy tools.
One notable example of this new approach is Moscow’s reliance on pro-Russian experts based in Canada. In 2016, speaking in Sochi, on the margins of that year’s Valdai Club session, Professor Piotr Dutkiewicz (a former director of the Institute of European and Russian Studies at Carleton University, in Ottawa) stated, “[T]his area [the Arctic region] will be the first one where we will feel real changes in our relations… Arctic cooperation will become the focal point thanks to which our two sides [Canada and Russia] will be extending their areas of collaboration” (Izvestia, October 28, 2016). Moreover, as repeatedly stated by Federation Council member Igor Chernyshenko (a senator from Murmansk Oblast), the Arctic region could become a “bridge,” helping Canada and Russia overcome the existing difficulties in their bilateral ties. Last May, he announced, “[W]e invited them [the Canadian side] to return to a dialogue. We proposed holding a conference between Russian and Canadian universities in northwest Russia, maybe in Murmansk Oblast. They supported this idea” (TASS, May 25, 2019). Notably, the last such event was held in November 2014, in Canada, hosted by the aforementioned Carleton University.
In addition to trying to foster bilateral academic ties, Russia’s outreach to Canada on Arctic issues involves sustained information campaigns via RT and similar multi-language information outlets with international reach. In particular, Russian propaganda narratives routinely overemphasize the extent of current US-Canadian disagreements in the Arctic. At the same time, foreign-audience-facing Kremlin-linked media outlets underscore the allegedly negative role of President Donald Trump (and his policies toward Canada) in aggravating the existing disputes. RT widely claimed that “after Trump’s inauguration, he began pressing Ottawa on economic issues and extended claims on Canadian possessions in the Arctic region.” It also highlighted US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s remarks suggesting that “Russia is not the only country with illegitimate claims [in the Arctic] …the US has a lasting dispute with Canada over its claims on sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. Finally, RT’s propaganda reporting also relied on a statement by Pavel Feldman, the deputy director of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Forecasts at the Moscow-based Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN). Feldman is quoted as saying, “[T]he US and Canada carry on a heated competition over the Arctic region; yet, publicly, these countries are trying to position themselves as partners” (RT, October 16, 2019).
In recent months, this increasing Russian attention to Canada as an Arctic power and a key element of regional stability and order has started to be expressed at the highest levels in Moscow. Poignantly, President Vladimir Putin declared in a public address at the start of this year that Russia “is open to cooperation with Canada on the basis of mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interest.” Putin added, “[O]ur countries are neighbors in the Arctic region and bear joint responsibility for the development of this vast region, for preservation of the traditional lifestyle of its native populations and the careful treatment of its brittle ecosystem” (Vzglyad, February 5, 2020).
Such reconciliatory rhetoric should, however, be taken with a heavy dose of caution in Ottawa: from the earliest days of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s stance on the Arctic region has been deliberately flexible and tightly premised on being able to demonstrate its military potential in the High North and to intimidate other regional players. The Russian Federation has increasingly undertaken the same policy course since 2014 (see EDM, April 9). Incidentally, on January 31, 2020, two Russian Tu-160 heavy strategic bombers approached Canadian airspace—maneuvers that the Russian Ministry of Defense explained away as “planned exercises” (Vpk.name, February 3). It is worth pointing out that the US North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is unable to identify and track Russian bombers of this type until they are close enough to launch missiles at targets on the continent.
Furthermore, it is worth keeping in mind that, in fact, Russia (not the US) is Canada’s direct competitor when it comes to territorial claims in the Arctic (the Lomonosov Ridge)—a point explicitly corroborated by Russia’s Arktika 2007 expedition, which explored this disputed undersea area and famously planted a Russian flag at the North Pole, on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean (Izvestia, August 3, 2007).
Lastly, it may be worth keeping an eye on one of the proposed amendments (soon to be officially adopted) to the Russian Constitution on the “prohibition of actions related to the alienation of Russian territory, or the propaganda thereof” (TASS, February 25). This amendment—reportedly drafted with predominantly Kaliningrad and Vladivostok in mind—is likely to also be applied to some Arctic territories that are of equally strategic interest to Canada.