"Canada doesn’t need military buildup to protect Arctic from Russia"

Commentary by Ernie Regehr, O.C.,
The Simons Foundation's Senior Fellow in Arctic Security
Published by The Toronto Star
April 24, 2014

Stable Arctic regimes are not vulnerable to Russian military adventurism, writes Ernie Regehr, but that hasn’t stopped some pundits from proposing Canada acquire more combat capability for the North.

Speculation about Russia’s post-Crimean posture in the Arctic has become a prominent sidebar to the Ukraine story. With Russia again asserting a willingness to deploy force across borders to advance its agenda, some pundits and public officials have been advising other Arctic states to take note and prepare (i.e. arm) accordingly.

The Arctic, like any other arena in which Russia wields influence, will not be immune to the changing dynamics among Russia, Europe and North America — an unfortunate linkage reinforced by Ottawa’s ill-considered decision to boycott the April working-group meeting of the Arctic Council in Moscow. But predictions of renewed Arctic military rivalry owe a lot less to strategic realism than to an instinctive default to Cold War categories whenever it comes to Vladimir Putin and his troublesome behaviour.

Russia’s tactics in Ukraine certainly require a response, but they hardly signal a new era of vulnerability for Russia’s Arctic neighbours. The post-Cold War world has seen plenty of military incursions into sovereign states, but an interesting feature of those military ventures across international boundaries is that they have been launched only against states already in deep crisis. And the relevant point about the Arctic is that it is not in crisis.

In every case of post-Cold War cross-border military intervention — the United States being by far the most prolific instigator, but Russia, NATO, France, South Africa and others having at times joined that dubious fraternity — the target country was already enmeshed in intractable conflict, suffering a deep crisis of legitimacy. The point is not to justify or excuse military interventions, but to understand the circumstances under which cross-border military attacks or intimidation are more likely, or less likely, to occur.

Stable, well-governed countries in stable neighbourhoods are not invaded — not ever in the past quarter century, regardless of their military strength or weakness and no matter how great their resource wealth may be or how much the powerful may covet what they have.

Since 1989, there is really only one partial exception to that “rule” and that is Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — and even there, to say that pre-invasion Kuwait was well governed in a stable neighbourhood is a stretch. In all other interventions the target state was in unambiguous crisis — consider Georgia ahead of Russia’s 2008 intervention, Bosnia (1990s), Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) ahead of U.S.- and NATO-led interventions; Somalia ahead of the arrival of U.S. (1992), Ethiopian (2006) and Kenyan (2011) troops; Lesotho ahead of South African intervention (1998); Mali ahead of France’s intervention (2013); or South Sudan ahead of Ugandan troop deployments there (2013).

In other words, what makes a country especially vulnerable to attack is internal disarray. This is not an attempt to blame the victims of attacks, but it is to point out that whether the objective of an attack is to overthrow a regime, support one side in a civil war, protect vulnerable people or deliver humanitarian assistance, deep domestic crisis, usually within a conflicted region, is the primary indicator that a state is vulnerable to direct military interference.

Putin’s renewed Russian revanchism deserves wariness, but in a world still clouded by Cold War instincts it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Stable Arctic regimes are not vulnerable to Russian military adventurism, but that hasn’t stopped some pundits from proposing exactly the wrong response in the Arctic.

Thus we have security analysts warning that because Russia has evidently become much more willing to use force to advance its agenda, Canada should consider acquiring more combat capability for the Arctic than it will gain from the purely constabulary Arctic offshore patrol vessels that the government is now planning. Others forecast political “storms” on the Arctic horizon, warning that “Russia’s appetite for territory does not end at its southern shores,” and call for “a radical new defence doctrine” for the north to “prepare for the contingency of an expansionist Russia.” Hillary Clinton calls for deeper Canada-U.S. military co-operation to “stand up” to Russia.

But post-Cold War experience confirms that the most reliable defence against military intimidation, invasion or intervention is not additional military prowess but getting your own house and neighbourhood in order. That makes the Arctic one of the least vulnerable locations on the planet. The Russian military poses no threat, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and all Arctic leaders had been saying until the Crimean crisis emerged. And militarizing the Arctic now will not help to keep it secure.

It is true that all Arctic states, including Russia, need enhanced capabilities related to domain awareness, emergency response and law enforcement — and much of that will come from their respective militaries. But the one thing that will not make the north less susceptible to Russian bullying, were that now to be on Putin’s agenda, would be a buildup of traditional combat capabilities. Arctic states that are internally well run and that co-operate with each other in enhancing public safety don’t need more weapons to deal effectively with Russia in their region.

Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation, and Research Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.