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NATO chief warns Canada that Russia, China have designs on the Arctic

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ended his trip to Canada’s Arctic on Friday by underlining the threats to the region posed by both Russia and China.

Standing alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at one of the country’s principal northern fighter jet bases in Cold Lake, Alta., Stoltenberg cited a list of actions Moscow has taken in the Far North in co-operation with Beijing.

“Russia has set up a new Arctic command,” he said. “It has opened hundreds of new and former Soviet-era Arctic military sites, including airfields and deep water ports. Russia is also using the region as a test bed for many of its new novel weapon systems.”

China is also expanding its reach and has declared itself a “near Arctic” state, with plans to build the world’s largest icebreaker, he added.

“It is investing billions of dollars in energy infrastructure and research projects in the high North,” Stoltenberg said. 

“Beijing and Moscow have also pledged to intensify practical operation in the Arctic. This forms part of the deepening strategic partnership that challenges our values and our interests.”

Stoltenberg also emphasized NATO’s growing interest in Arctic defence, especially in light of Sweden and Finland’s plans to join the military alliance.

The NATO chief and Trudeau spoke about increased co-operation but stopped short of committing to major NATO-led exercises on Canadian soil in the Far North.

Speaking to CBC’s Power & Politics, Defence Minister Anita Anand said allied participation in domestic Canadian military exercises is acceptable to Ottawa but the Liberal government “has no plans” to host a NATO drill similar to the alliance’s annual Exercise Cold Response in Norway.

Yves Brodeur, a former Canadian ambassador to NATO, said formally inviting the alliance to train in the Arctic would send an important signal to Russia.

“That would be a good thing,” Brodeur told Radio-Canada in an interview.

“Taking into account the fact that the high North is really an area which actually offers some pretty hostile conditions — it’s not an easy environment. So, to have NATO troops from NATO nations together with Canada exercising in the high North would be, as far as I’m concerned, a big asset for the organization, for NATO.”

WATCH | NATO chief, PM tour Arctic defence facilities: 

NATO, Trudeau tour Canada’s Arctic defences

During a visit to Nunavut’s Cambridge Bay with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed the importance of defence in Canada’s Far North amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Canada traditionally has been reluctant to work with allies other than the United States in the Far North. The reasons relate to sovereignty.

Many of the country’s closest allies do not recognize Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage. 

According to research by University of Calgary Arctic expert Rob Huebert, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Belgium, Japan, the European Commission, Singapore and Russia (when it was the USSR) have, over the past 40 years, formally protested or registered dissenting opinions over Canada’s claim that the passage is an internal Canadian waterway.

Experts have suggested that asking other nations to help defend the region — especially those that don’t recognize Canada’s claim — could be seen as weakening Canada’s position.

“The Northwest Passage is Canadian waters, period,” Trudeau said, responding to questions along with Stoltenberg on Friday.

Energetic people approach a set of stairs.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, second left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take part in a tour of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, on Thursday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

He acknowledged there has been “a longstanding disagreement with the United States” but said Washington has “understood our position and our allies, you know, respect Canada’s position.”

Huebert said it would be “counterproductive for the Europeans or the Americans to ever press” Canada on its sovereignty claim, especially in the current geopolitical climate.

But if Canada is serious about its claim, he said, it should be investing more in infrastructure — both military and civilian — to reinforce its control over the region.

“When we look at what the Russians have done with the Northern Sea route,” Huebert said, “the reason why no one challenges them — because basically they have created an internal waterway — no one challenges them because the Russians have such a strong capability to defend the region.”

In his remarks, Stoltenberg pointed to that capability while avoiding any criticism of Canada.

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