Last week while attending a conference on Afghanistan at the Hague, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The two discussed their country’s Arctic policies, with Lavrov assuring Cannon that Russia would adhere to the U.N. Law of the Sea when resolving territorial claims.

Cannon brought up the issue of the military exercises Russia has been conducting outside Canada’s border. While Canada has increasingly spoken out against the flights, which it sees as threats to its Arctic sovereignty, last month, Russian Ambassador to Canada Georgiy Mamedov noted that NATO flies much closer to Russia than the Russians do to Canada. He also remarked that the flights are routine, explaining that the only reason they stopped after the Cold War was due to a lack of funds.

Major-General Marcel Duval. © Canadian Government.
Major-General Marcel Duval. © Canadian Government.

Indeed, General-Major Marcel Duval, commander of the 1st Canadian Air Division, observed that flights such as the ones Russia conducted in February are nothing new. In fact, dozens of similar exercises have been carried out since August 2007. Duval said,

“Their conduct, their professionalism, the fact that they have responded to calls warning simply indicates that there was no danger imminent. This flight was in the same vein as many others since August 2007…In terms of the conduct of aircraft and crews in the increase of flights in the Arctic, I have not seen aggressive behavior.”

Regardless, Cannon mused, “I do sometimes wonder why the Russians would want to spend so much fuel to fly up to our borders. I don’t have an answer on that.” Thus, he wants the Kremlin to give “advance notice” to Ottawa about when their flights will approach Canadian borders.

Vladimir Lipsin, a senior official at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, observed that if Canada wants such a system, it will have to approach the Kremlin with a proposal for a treaty. The framework for a mutual advance-notification system of flight exercises already exists, since there is one between the U.S. and Russia.

Gen-Maj. Duval said that since Russia currently doesn’t notify Canada of its flight activity, “we have to go and investigate to make sure it isn’t a threat.” He wishes that “Russia did agree to alert Canada, if only to “to contribute to flight safety, particularly when operating in an environment as austere and difficult as the Arctic region.”

Tensions between Canada and Russia have spilled over into other arenas as well. Canada is one of the few countries still backing the Ukraine for a NATO seat, a point which does not sit well with Russia. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also called the government of Iran “evil” in recent weeks, which Ambassador Mamedov said “leaves a certain aftertaste” even though it may not directly undermine cooperation in other arenas, like the Arctic.

Liberal Member of Parliament Denis Coderre, who sits on the National Defence Committee, criticized the ruling conservative government, saying that they were merely engaging in diversionary tactics and putting “oil and fire” into “the relationship between Russia and Canada.”

News links:

Canada asks Russia for training-mission notice (Globe & Mail)

Ottawa bucks NATO allies (The Toronto Star)

General plays down fuss over Russian bombers (KBS Radio)


Canada wants Russia to give notification about flights

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