Rob Huebert: Canada Must Get Serious About the Russian Threat

“I think there have been very terrifying inroads into the development of nuclear delivery systems that have started to blur that differential between nuclear deterrence and the possibility that, under certain circumstances, a nuclear power may decide that there is an advantage to using a limited nuclear strike against one of its enemies.“

What changes have there been to the overall security structures, infrastructure, and institutions in the Arctic as a result of the war in Ukraine?

There have been two major changes. The first change is one of perceptions. The Russians invaded Ukraine in February of 2014, not 2022. However, there was a very clear effort led by the Canadian government to essentially pretend as if that wasn’t an invasion. Even the terminology, ‘illegal occupation’, suggests something less than war. We accepted the Russian narrative that it was not they who had invaded eastern Ukraine, but rather, that it was ‘little Green Men’. This term was, of course, used to avoid calling the Russians out for militarily invading its neighbor and seizing its sovereign territory. This year, there has been a realization that such narratives can no longer support what the Russians are doing.

The Russians have been using military force to respond to challenges on their borders since Putin became acting president in 1999, first with the Chechens, Georgia in 2008, and of course, the war in Ukraine starting in 2014. We have seen a re-evaluation of the governance systems that are in place in the Arctic. The war seems to have ended what was referred to as Arctic exceptionalism—the idea that somehow the Arctic was a zone of exceptional peace and cooperation and where geopolitics somehow seemed to be avoided. The Arctic Council has been put on pause, and there have been serious considerations about what that means for the future, and whether we will have an Arctic seven, rather than an Arctic eight. It is uncertain whether we will wait for this phase of the war to die down, and then try to re-invite Russians to the table.

There has also been acknowledgement that, for the last 20 years, the Russians have been redeveloping their nuclear capabilities, when conversely, we have seen countries such as Kazakhstan and Ukraine eliminated their nuclear weapons. It is important that we understand Russia’s intent as they seek to modernize their nuclear capabilities. Even more problematic, is the development of new delivery systems that are obviously intended to defeat the American anti-ballistic missile system. These new delivery systems are essentially intended to be tactical nuclear weapons, rather than strategic nuclear weapons. If you place an emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, you’re thinking in the context of how you’re going to be utilizing this capability. Ultimately, it has become clear to everybody that the Arctic is a major theatre of operations of geopolitics and is undermined by the existence of this nuclear threat.

To what extent have Canada’s objectives in the region been undermined as a result of the war in Ukraine? Has the war forced Canada to rethink its approach to, or understanding of Arctic security?

Well, it should force Canada to rethink its approach to Arctic security. We have been discussing NORAD modernization for some time now. Its radar systems have not been upgraded since 1985. There has been some upkeep, so it would be unfair to say that we’ve done absolutely nothing, but the major infrastructure has not been updated. We haven’t even begun to consider the underwater dimension of any form of surveillance system. We have seen the rhetoric of the government change. We see a greater acceptance of the role that NATO is increasingly playing regarding the protection of the northern region, and we see the government at least changing its rhetoric about the plausibility of embracing and accepting Russia. The Harper government brought in a relatively mild set of sanctions against the Russians when they invaded in 2014. The Liberals ignored or outright challenged most of these sanctions when they came into power—that has changed.

We seem more willing to actually cast blame on the Russians for their aggressive actions. Having said all that, I say ‘rhetoric’, because what we will be doing remains to be seen. In June, the Minister of Defence stated that there was going to be $4.2 billion spent on NORAD modernization. There was some confusion at that press conference about whether that would be new money or part of the budget that had been released earlier in April 2022. These questions were put forth by Mercedes Stevenson and Murry Brewster at that press conference, and anyone watching it will recall that neither the Minister nor the CDS were able to provide an answer if the money announced was new money on top of the April Budget announcement.

Apparently, the $4.2 billion actually represents a component of the $8.1 billion that was promised in the budget over six years. We’re talking about maybe $1 billion in new money per year. Anyone who operates in the north knows that the promises that have been made—two lines of over-the-horizon-radars, the new weapons system and, new missiles—are just impossible with monies announced. We won’t be able to pay roughly $1 billion a year and come anywhere near what was promised or what we need. This doesn’t even begin to touch underwater threats, which the attacks on the pipeline off the coast of Denmark clearly indicate that we must be thinking about. Rhetoric has changed. The position of the government seems to have changed, but we’re still waiting to see whether it translates into any substantial action. I dare say the fact that the government’s refusal to provide any meaningful energy supplies to the Germans in specific and Europeans in general to remedy the impacts of the sanctions regime also illustrates that the government is more focused on rhetoric than it is on delivery.

To what extent does Russia present a real threat to the Canadian Arctic? How can we respond to that threat, or rather, what will it take for us to do so?

I think the view that the Russians don’t pose a threat can be characterized as Ardennes syndrome. You’ll recall that in 1940, the British and French concluded that the Germans would not utilize an attack, let alone a mobile armor attack, through the Ardennes Forest, because in their view, it was too difficult. The logic was, that if it was too difficult for the French and the British forces, then the Germans wouldn’t do it. I think this scenario applies for those saying that the Russians do not pose a threat to Canada. The argumentation of those who say there’s no threat is that it’s very difficult operating in the Arctic, and that we haven’t seen any signs of the Russians coming into that region. The conclusion is therefore drawn that the Russians would not come, because if it’s difficult for us, it’s going to be difficult for them. I fear that, by using the same logic against the Russians, we will repeat the error that the British and French made with the Germans, with the same results.

If we were dealing with a strictly conventionally weaponed-powered Russia, then of course, the threat to Canada is low. The real threat would be to the immediate Arctic region—Finland, Sweden, the Baltics, and so forth. However, the problem is that we’re dealing with a nuclear-armed Russia, that has invested heavily in its tactical nuclear weapons and delivery system. Russia has hypersonic cruises missiles, hypersonic glide missiles, the Poseidon underwater autonomous vehicle—which may or may not be a torpedo, and MiG-31s armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles stationed at various northern bases. If Russia relied strictly on conventional weapons against Ukraine, Canada won’t be directly threatened. However, Russia doesn’t fight wars like we do. They fight dirty—it’s a grinding match for them. They don’t do shock and awe like us. If the Ukraine War escalates—as Putin keeps threatening—and the Russians make the calculation that they need to go beyond conventional or even dirty weapons and need to blind or wound the Americans, this could entail taking out American northern listing capabilities and their forward bases. This also means a tactical strike against the Anchorage area and the Thule base in Greenland. This could blind the Americans and show they will use these weapons but also minimize the casualties thereby hoping the U.S. would not respond in kind.

Is that a very high probability? Not at all. However, if they want to make that strike against Ukraine in the resupply and push the Americans back on their heels for a short period of time, unfortunately, there’s a logic to this scenario. That means Canada’s right in the line of fire. This scenario has an incredibly low probability, but they are already in war. If we are going to deter the Russians from extending the fight, we must take the threat very seriously. We must make sure such an attack would be too difficult for the Russians. The only way that we can truly protect against that is to ensure that the Russians look at the entirety of North America as a “nut that is too hard to crack”. Ultimately, the only way we can truly ensure there is no threat to Canada is to improve our protective capabilities and assume the threat is real. Canada must get much more serious and do what it says it’s going to do.

What kinds of infrastructure needs to be prioritized the most in the Arctic? What are the potential obstacles or challenges to ensuring we address security gaps in the region?

We must ensure that the infrastructure allows us to defend against the Russians. General Van Herk has repeatedly said we need an extended integrated deterrence. We must show the Russians that if push comes to shove, we will prevail. On the Canadian side, there can’t be weak points within the northern continent. We must ensure that our various surveillance capabilities are actually put into place. We also have to get serious about implementing an underwater capability. Is it a full fledge SOSUS? Once again, that’s going to depend on technical evaluations, but the Russians must know that there is a seamless ability of the North American countries to detect any attack – underwater, on water, and in the aerospace region. We also have to make sure that we have the ability to respond. If an MiG-31 is sighted, we need to have airfields with the support and infrastructure that allow us to respond immediately. That means, not only having airfields ready 24/7, but having a capability fully integrated into the American system at the level of NORAD, but also in terms of operational capabilities.

We also need to have something there to defend with. Our F-18s were all purchased in 1982, except for the Australian aircraft. These are aging aircraft, and so, we need a modern fighter, which seems to be the F-31. We also need refuelling capabilities, because if we’re responding to the Russian aerospace threat in the north, we have to refuel these aircraft. I think the biggest challenge is that our political elites aren’t paying proper attention to this issue. This is evident from the lack of actual commitments of money, action, and the constant refrain of senior political leaders that there is a limited threat. This government has to figure out how it can address domestic security issues that it absolutely has to address such as the many human security threats to northern Canadians and especially to Northern Canadian Indigenous Peoples. It also has to figure out how to address these other threats. At the same time the current economic situation we are facing is so problematic, that all the government’s actions and promises are going to be cut back.

How has the war in Ukraine impacted Russia’s relationship with China, and in what ways might China benefit from Russia’s current position? CDS General Wayne Eyre recently said that Russia could essentially ‘become a vassal state of China. What do you think about this assessment?

Others have made the analogy that what we’re seeing now is a repetition of 1938-39. Italy had been the leading, aggressive fascist state in Europe, as evidenced by Mussolini’s efforts in Northern Africa. Many saw Mussolini as the senior spokesperson for the authoritarian states in the middle of the 1930s. Chamberlain and Daladier had the mistaken belief that Mussolini could contain Hitler at the Munich conference (or betrayal as some call it), which wasn’t going to happen at that point. We’re seeing a similar process. Russia has got a GDP that is less than Canada’s on a per annual basis. Yet, look at the military capabilities that they have built up. It takes an extreme effort to achieve that. China is significantly more powerful than Russia. With a navy and air force that is catching up with the Americans, China is the more powerful state, but it has not been as overtly aggressive in terms of international relations. Nonetheless, China still talks about remedying the century of humiliation, which involves redrawing the boundaries that they feel were unfairly imposed upon them. I think the Chinese realize that they have a great opportunity to consolidate and ensure that they are creating a new rules-based system that is going to be centred around them. Relying on Russia as a junior partner makes eminent sense in this context. The Chinese statement that the Arctic Council can’t go ahead without Russia is a clear effort to try to paralyse the Arctic Council, because the Chinese know that the Russians aren’t going to want to go back, and the west has made it clear that Russia has to pull out of Ukraine before it can re-engage. Thus, the Chinese show they will remain supportive of Russia.

I think it’s very much in China’s interest to tie the Russians to them as close as possible. It allows them to challenge the Western based international system, and compounds all the difficulties of the West’s ability to respond to a Chinese intervention against Taiwan. Russia serves Chinese interests very well. Russia is militarily inferior to China, however both Russia and China face the common opposition of the West. You can see what the medium- and long-term future holds for us.

The Arctic is important because of geography and weapons technology. It’s where the Russians put their most dangerous weapons that could potentially escalate the war in Ukraine. That’s why the Arctic is central to all of this. I want to make it clear. We’re not fighting over the Arctic, but we’re fighting because of the geography of Russia and the American requirement to then respond to the Russian threat. The issue in Canada that we have not addressed yet is this changing weapons technology. I fear that, since about 2007, when the Russians made a determined effort to respond to the American advancements in anti-ballistic missile systems, we entered a new era of nuclear weapons competition. This is something that I don’t think has come to the forefront of our thinking.

I don’t think that nuclear deterrence has come to an end. I think that it is still the major backbone stopping a nuclear war. Nonetheless, I think there have been very terrifying inroads into the development of nuclear delivery systems that have started to blur that differential between nuclear deterrence and the possibility that, under certain circumstances, a nuclear power may decide that there is an advantage to using a limited nuclear strike against of its enemies. In Canada, we have not yet come to terms with this. The difficulty we had in responding to the pandemic, the organisation required that we didn’t have, and the opposition to vaccines and other measures to address COVID-19, which you would think should be common sense, is telling. What does it all mean? We couldn’t respond to the pandemic. How will we respond to a nuclear war?

Rob Huebert is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He also served as the associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. He was appointed as a member to the Canadian Polar Commission (now renamed Canada Polar Knowledge) for a term lasting from 2010 to 2015. He is also a research fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Dr. Huebert has taught at Memorial University, Dalhousie University, and the University of Manitoba. He publishes on the issue of Canadian Arctic Security, Maritime Security, and Canadian Defence. His work has appeared in International Journal; Canadian Foreign Policy; Isuma-Canadian Journal of Policy Research and Canadian Military Journal. He was co-editor of Commercial Satellite Imagery and United Nations Peacekeeping and Breaking Ice: Canadian Integrated Ocean Management in the Canadian North. He also comments on Canadian security and Arctic issues in both the Canadian and international media.

University of Calgary photo

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