With Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan winding down, the military is preparing a greater show of force in the High Arctic just as Russia is expanding its own presence in the region.
While in Kandahar this weekend to mark the end of Canadian troops' military mission in Central Asia, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said this summer's instalment of an annual military exercise in the Arctic will be the largest such operation in recent history.
The month-long exercise, scheduled for August and dubbed Operation Nanook, will take place on Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island and the surrounding area and will involve more than 1,000 troops, Mr. MacKay told reporters. That's at least 100 more than participated in August, 2010, according to a Department of National Defence backgrounder on last year's exercise.
"All of this is very much about enlarging the footprint and the permanent and seasonal presence we have in the North,'' Mr. MacKay said. "It is something that we as a government intend to keep investing in."
Mr. MacKay and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk plan to visit the High Arctic area during this year's exercise, which will come just weeks after Russia's Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, said his country will send two army brigades to help protect its interests in the contested, resource-rich region.
Specifics like troop numbers, weapons or bases reportedly haven't been worked out, but a brigade typically includes a few thousand soldiers.
It is not clear whether DND is making this year's operation bigger in response to the Russian move, but Russia has loomed large in shaping Prime Minister Stephen Harper's approach to the Arctic. Mr. Harper's government has often hinted at potential military encroachment by Russia and stressed the need for beefed-up military hardware to defend the Canadian Arctic, as Canada and other polar countries wait for the United Nations to settle legal claims for offshore turf that could contain as much as a quarter of the planet's undiscovered oil and gas deposits.
Russia has staked a claim to a large part of the Arctic, contending that an underwater ridge running from northern Siberia leads directly to the North Pole.
Last Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said his country "remains open for dialogue" with its Arctic neighbours such as Canada and Denmark, which have claims that overlap somewhat with Russia, but will "strongly and persistently" defend its interests. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Putin also told a party congress in the Ural Mountains that Russia plans to build a $33-billion year-round port in the Russian Arctic.
Operation Nanook is expected to involve just about every aspect of Canada's efforts to use the military to assert its sovereignty in the disputed High Arctic region, including CF-18 fighter jets, surveillance and transport aircraft, a warship, infantry companies from Quebec and Alberta, and Inuit reservists from the Canadian Ranger Patrol Group.
Last year's version – which took place in Nunavut and was Canada's northernmost Arctic-sovereignty exercise to date – involved some 900 Canadian men and women in uniform, plus another 600 personnel from Denmark and the United States.
Despite the military exercises, there are promising signs that the countries involved will be able to settle their disputes through legal, peaceful means.
In May, the Arctic Council, which includes Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland, signed its first legally binding treaty to divide responsibilities for search-and-rescue activities in the Arctic. Although that deal set aside the trickier questions of territorial claims, the Harper government views it as an opportunity to entrench functional co-operation in the region.
Also, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables suggest that Mr. Harper doesn't believe there's a real threat of military conflict in the Arctic.
One of the cables, released by WikiLeaks, described an account from a Canadian official of a meeting in early 2010 between Mr. Harper and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in which the Prime Minister said NATO has no role to play in the region.
"According to PM Harper, Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic, and a NATO presence could backfire by exacerbating tensions," the cable states.
With a report from Campbell Clark