It has just been revealed that on the eve of President Barack Obama’s official state visit to Ottawa on February 19, a Russian long-range bomber was intercepted and chased by two Canadian CF-18 jets right outside of the Canadian Arctic over the Beaufort Sea. While the Russian Tu-160 Blackjack did not actually enter Canadian airspace, it did fly into an area under surveillance. Norad (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) detected the aircraft. Consequently, Canadian jets were scrambled and warnings were sent to the Russians to turn back, which they did.
At a press conference, Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay announced,
“I’m not going to stand here and accuse the Russians of deliberately doing this during the presidential visit. But it was a strong coincidence which we met with the presence … of F-18 fighter planes and world-class pilots that know their business and send a strong signal that they should back off and stay out of our airspace.”
The Toronto Star has a video clip of Minister MacKay speaking at the press conference.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper followed up these comments with remarks demonstrating that his country will not tolerate such intrusions — even if the Russian government claims the Canadians were notified in advance. He declared,
“I have expressed at various times the deep concern our government has with increasingly aggressive Russian actions around the globe and Russian intrusions into our airspace. This government has responded every time the Russians have done that. We will continue to respond; we will defend our airspace.”
Meanwhile, the head of NORAD, U.S. General Gene Renuart, was demonstrably less concerned than the Canadians. He noted,
“The Russians have conducted themselves professionally; they have maintained compliance with the international rules of airspace sovereignty and have not entered the internal airspace of either of the countries.”
In the media, both Canadian and Russian outlets took the opportunity to exchange barbs. Canada.com featured a blog with a headline that screamed, “Red Dawn Part Deux: MacKay Battles the Evil Russians,” while the Toronto Star incorporated MacKay’s rhetoric into its headline, announcing, “‘Back off and stay out of our airspace,’ Russia.”
On the other hand, an unnamed Russian government source was quoted in the article, “Russia slams as farce Canada’s statement on Tu-160 flight,” by Russian news agency RIA Novosti as saying:
“The Canadian defense minister’s statements concerning the flights of our long-haul aircraft are totally unclear… This was a routine flight. The countries adjacent to the flight path had been notified and the planes did not violate the airspace of other countries. In this light the statements by the Canadian Defense Ministry provoke astonishment and can only be called a farce.”
Indeed, such mid-air meetings are rather normal occurrences. Since 2007, Canadian jets have been scrambled 20 times in response to Russian aerial exercises. Norway also often scrambles jets when Russian jets are detected on the outskirts of its airspace.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Ray Henault, Canada’s former chief of defence staff, speculated as to why Canada decided to publicize this paricular incident. He observed that it could serve as a diplomatic rebuff to Russia’s huffing-and-puffing earlier this week over the militarization of the Arctic. Or, it could have been Canada making the most of General Renuart’s visit to Ottawa to demonstrate the utility of both NORAD and Canada’s contributions to continental defense. But whatever the real reason, this incident only further displays countries’ growing interests in protecting their territory in the Arctic — and the potential for misunderstandings between countrires to grow more severe.