There has been no shortage of messages sent between Moscow and Ottawa since the outbreak of tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine.
In the most recent development, Moscow announced on Tuesday that it had expelled a Canadian diplomat. No reason was indicated for the decision, but it comes amid a tit-for-tat game that has also included sanctions against Russia and, last week, the announcement that Canada was boycotting an Arctic Council meeting being held in Moscow.
Even before the West locked horns with Russia over Ukraine, Russia’s Arctic neighbours had been wary of the country’s renewed focus on the region. Still, as the conflict emerged, all eight members of the Arctic Council worked hard to keep up a business as usual appearance, pointing most recently to last month’s successful senior-level meeting in Yellowknife as proof.
Analysts, though, had suggested it was just a matter of time before the Ukraine conflict spilled over into the Arctic, and Ottawa’s announcement of a boycott was the proof they needed that it was happening. But experts suggest that it is unlikely Canada is using the conflict to posture itself in the Arctic at Russia’s expense.
“Ukraine,” says Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, an Arctic expert with the Danish Institute for International Studies, “has motivated Canada to pursue a harsher stance against Russia in the Arctic, for instance by boycotting the Arctic Council meeting. Canada doesn’t generally have an interest in souring relations with Russia in the Arctic, but apparently Ukraine is important enough for Ottawa to go against its own Arctic interests.”
One Arctic diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Ottawa’s decision to skip the Moscow meeting had been “an easy one”, given the low-level nature of the talks, and the location, saying it would have sent a mixed message to attend the meeting at the same time it was expelling diplomats.
For that reason, it is widely expected that a series of senior meetings, scheduled to be held in Canada in June, will proceed with Russian participation. But that does not mean that Canada’s boycott did not go unnoticed, according to Igor Novikov, a Russian diplomat.
“This meeting was not expected to produce important treaties … but at the same time the absence of any country can slow down the progress on important issues of co-operation,” Novikov wrote in an e-mail to Canadian website Embassy News.
He confirmed that Russia was planning to attend all future scheduled Arctic Council meetings, but others have expressed concern that by skipping the meeting, Canada has confirmed that the Arctic is in bounds when trying to punish Russia for its agreesion in Ukraine.
Early on in the conflict, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, put on a show of Arctic muscle by ordering a number of military exercises. In the latest set of moves, he announced this week that the country was steppng up its presence in the Arctic by building a new naval base, purchasing new military hardware and creating a state agency to co-ordinate Arctic policy.
If the proposals become reality, it would only serve to increase Russia’s lead in an Arctic arms race. Given the growing imbalance of power in the region, trying to get tough with Russia, according to Robert W Murray, the vice president of Research Frontier Centre for Public Policy, is ineffective.
“It is also questionable whether Russia really even cares about how other states are pursuing their Arctic interests, other than the US. To date, Russia has been fairly open about the fact that it plans to use whatever means necessary to reinforce its claims and while other states have reacted through their own domestic policies, there has been no escalation of any kind beyond the political or diplomatic realms.”
This is something Canadian lawmakers are fully aware of, reckons Mikå Mered, of Polarrisk Analytics. He agreed that the country’s government was trying to send a message, but said the audience was a lot closer to home than Moscow.
“The Harper administration’s anti-Russia strategy is first and foremost aimed at the Canadian public so as to reinforce the Tories against the Liberals before the 2015 federal election campaign.”
Re-invoking cold-war rhetoric and being firm against Putin, he said, is an attempt to show voters that the Tories are able to give a new and greater foreign dimension to Canada.
“From a foreign policy perspective, Canada’s offensive gestures against Russia and the voluntary spillover of the Ukraine issue into the Arctic debate looks more like a strategy aimed at protecting Canada’s Arctic interests than directly harming Russia’s.”