Foreign policy expert Aurel Braun says Canada will need to buttress its foundation of Arctic security following Russia’s aggressive turn towards expansionism.

OTTAWA, Sept. 25, 2014 – Russia’s aggressive gambit to seize territory in Europe has amplified the need for Canada to fortify its claims to potentially disputed territory in the Arctic, says foreign policy expert Aurel Braun in a new commentary for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Braun, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto, says Russia has succinctly revealed its imperial ambitions in recent months.

The invasion and annexation of Crimea, coupled with continued attempts to foment strife in Ukraine, are symptomatic of a broader Russian strategy. Braun calls them thinly-veiled attempts to kickstart a sputtering Russian economy while puffing up delusions of restoring the country as a world superpower.

But what does all this mean for potentially conflicting claims between Canada and Russia in the Arctic?

Rather than relying on its allies, Braun calls on the federal government to consolidate its military power in the region while rallying public opinion against the Russian threat.

In the commentary, titled “North American Defence, Arctic Security, and Russian Imperial Delusions”, Braun says that Russia has signaled its imperial ambitions don’t extend just to its western borders.

An expanded Russian presence in the Arctic

Under Putin, Russian claims to the Arctic have multiplied. He has also instructed his military to make the area a priority and is in the process of reopening, strengthening and constructing new bases in the area.

Putin has also demonstrated a willingness to cast aside international law in staking its claim to the Arctic. In contrast to Canada, which has made an application to the United Nations regarding the limits of Russia’s continental shelf, Putin has preferred a blatant assertion signifying that it won’t rely to the same extent on international institutions.

“What Russia is doing in Ukraine cannot be segregated from Moscow’s policies or ambitions in the Arctic”, says Braun.

Canada's response: Arctic security

Braun says Canada has three layers of defense against Russian aggression: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and its own self-reliance.

Canada has powerful allies in NATO and NORAD. However, Braun warns, these are dependent on leadership from the United States – a country that under President Barack Obama has yet to demonstrate a willingness to mobilize the full extent of its power against Russia.

Braun recommends that Canada devote most of its energy to fortifying the third wave by relying on what he calls the country’s “hardware” and “software”.

The federal government can improve on its hard power by upgrading its military capacity in the region. Braun says this requires “significant additional expenditures” that include advanced aircraft, surface vessels (including powerful icebreakers) and modern submarines with Arctic capacity.

Strengthening its soft power will require enhancing the consensus among Canadian voters that the country will need to respond to Russian delusions of grandeur, Braun says.

“While Ottawa should continue to foster strong diplomatic and military support among our NATO allies and continue to work within the Arctic Council, it should also signal unequivocally to Russia that it is willing to strongly defend Canadian sovereignty and national interest in the Arctic”, says Braun.

The commentary is based on testimony Braun gave to the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence on May 8, 2014.

The full report is available on our website.

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Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and a visitng professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University. He also serves as a research associate at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies and the Centre for International Studies at U of T. He is the author of several books and articles on communist affairs and strategic studies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is the only non-partisan, independent national public policy think tank in Ottawa focusing on the full range of issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

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