Erik Henningsmoen
Reconstituting Russia-Canada Relations in the Arctic
  • Erik Henningsmoen
    Canadian International Council,
    Young Professionals Network
  • The Russian Federation is now deep into its "special military operation" in Ukraine. In response to the February 2022 outbreak of armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, western counties, including Canada, have all but ended any constructive relationship with Russia.

    Canada, along with the others in the western alliance, have comprehensively backed Ukraine in the current conflict. In response to Russia's special military operation, western countries have placed the most comprehensive and wide-ranging economic sanctions ever conceived upon Russia. Furthermore, individual Western corporations have en masse extracted themselves from the Russian market. The diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties that once provided a platform for constructive international dialogue between Russia and the West are almost completely severed.
Russia's special military operation in Ukraine has sunk Russia-Canada relations to depths not seen since the Cold War. The most apt words that could be used to describe Russia and Canada's international relationship would be "adversarial" and "hostile." While Russia and Canada are not currently in a state of armed conflict with one another, Canada is sending significant amounts of lethal and non-lethal military aid to Ukraine.

It is not even entirely clear if an armed conflict between NATO and Russia can be avoided. If such a conflict were to take place, Canada would, without a doubt, enter the conflict alongside the rest of its NATO allies. The future looks grim between Russia and the West. Long-term prospects for warm diplomatic relations between Russia and Canada look, at best, distant.

Yet, when the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine eventually does end, Russia and Canada will still have foreign relations — icy and hostile foreign relations — yet foreign relations, nonetheless. The march of world events will go on and both countries will still need to engage with one another in a fractured world. Despite their vicious disagreement over the future of Ukraine, both countries have a national interest in peaceful and productive relations with one another in the long term.

So, in a future scenario where the conflict between Russia and Ukraine does end, two questions for Russian and Canadian policymakers will be:

  • Could Russia-Canada relations be reconstituted in the wake of the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine?
  • Is such a reconstitution of Russia-Canada relations desirable?

By this author's own estimation, the answer to both of these questions is yes. Reconstituting Russia-Canada relations is both possible and desirable for both countries. The eventual reconstitution of relations is in both countries' long-term national interests.

But, if it is both possible and desirable to reconstitute relations between Russia and Canada, what avenues exist for the two countries to do so? Under what context could the two countries work to repair their adversarial relations?

It is unlikely that Canada will be willing to repair its adversarial relationship with Russia within the context of any future peace negotiations to end the conflict in Ukraine. Nor is it likely that Canada will break with its NATO allies and reconstitute relations with Russia via Eastern Europe. Canada is not in a geopolitical position to act bilaterally with Russia in Eastern Europe, nor would it be interested in doing so. Seeking enough common ground between Russia and Canada in Ukraine, or anywhere in Europe, to reconstitute relations between the two countries is doomed to fail. The only region where Russia and Canada can work together bilaterally to reconstitute their relations is the Arctic.
Canada's Special Partnership with Ukraine

Canada has been a staunch and long-term supporter of post-Soviet Ukraine. Canada was the first western country to recognize Ukraine as a sovereign state in 1991. Canada and Ukraine strengthened their diplomatic relations through the signing of a Joint Declaration on Special Partnership in 1994 and the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA) in 2017.

Canada is home to a significant Ukrainian diaspora community and enjoys the third largest number of ethnic Ukrainians in the world — only behind Russia and Ukraine itself. Furthermore, Canada maintains cultural links to Ukraine though official government programming, academic and civil society groups, and private linkages between individual Ukrainian and Canadian citizens.

While Ukraine should not be considered a formal ally of Canada, Ukraine, and Canada do share what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described as a "special partnership." As part of this partnership, the Canadian government has furnished Ukraine with significant development assistance and bilateral loans valued in the billions of dollars over the decades. Since 2014, prior to the current round of fighting between Russia and Ukraine, Canada provisioned the Ukrainian government with technical expertise and military and security cooperation programming. As of July 2022, lethal and non-lethal Canadian military aid to Ukraine amounts to $626 million, according to the Government of Canada. Furthermore, Canada is reported to have special operations forces inside Ukraine, alongside its NATO allies, coordinating the delivery of this military aid to the Ukrainian government. The Canadian government has also announced that Canadian Armed Forces personnel will begin training Ukrainian military forces in the United Kingdom.

Reconstituting Canada-Russia Relations Over Ukraine?

Within Ukraine itself, the Russian and Canadian diplomatic positions are in direct opposition to one another. While Russia's current strategic intentions are not completely clear at present, every indication suggests that Russia desires comprehensive regime change in Ukraine. This outcome would be unacceptable for the NATO alliance, and existential for the Ukrainian government, so fighting can be expected to continue.

And as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, Canada will continue in its cooperation with the United States and its other NATO allies, leaving little room for Russia and Canada to cooperate on anything of substance. The United States, the United Kingdom, and major European countries such as Germany and France can be expected to lead the Western dialogue with Russia. Canada will only play a peripheral and supporting role in any negotiations.

However, eventually a diplomatic solution would be found to end the Russia-Ukrainian conflict. At such a point, while there could be room for dialogue between Russia and Canada on Ukraine, but there is no conceivable space to use such dialogue towards reconstitution of Canada-Russia relations. Tensions would still be too high.
A CH-148 Cyclone helicopter takes off from HMCS Ville de Québec in the Atlantic Ocean during Operation REASSURANCE on 20 July 2018. (Photo: MCpl André Maillet, MARPAC Imaging Services)
Reconstituting Canada-Russia Relations in Eastern Europe?

Outside of Ukraine, but still within Eastern Europe, the prospects for a reconstitution of relations between Russia and Canada are equally grim. Like the Russian and Canadian positions on Ukraine itself, the two countries' interests in Eastern Europe at large are similarly diametrically opposed.

Canada is a strong supporter and founding member of NATO. Since 2014, in the wake of the first round of fighting between Russia and Ukraine, Canada deployed air, sea, and land forces to Eastern Europe under Operation REASSURANCE. The goal of these actions is deterring potential Russian military aggression against NATO member states.

This commitment to NATO currently includes over 1,000 Canadian Armed Forces personnel, including ground forces based in Latvia. Ground forces are especially significant in this context, as due to their relative immobility, when compared to air or naval assets, their presence in an ally's territory sends a strong signal of commitment to both allies and adversaries alike. As a part of Operation REASSURANCE, Canadian fighter aircraft have also intercepted Russian military aircraft over the Black Sea and Baltic Sea in recent years.

There is no question as to where Canada stands diplomatically and militarily in Eastern Europe. The security of NATO members, and the continuance and expansion of the NATO alliance are firmly within Canada's national interests. Canada has a core national interest in maintaining its status within NATO and ensuring the effectiveness of the alliance. Keeping NATO intact and effective is one of Canada's core national security concerns. On the Nordic front, Canada enthusiastically supported Sweden and Finland's recent request to join NATO. Canada was in fact the first NATO ally to ratify the two countries' NATO memberships.

Likewise, it is within Russia's national interest to see NATO eventually dissolve under geopolitical pressure, or simply become so ineffective that it withers away towards irrelevance. Russia also desires securing buffer territories — oft referred to as a "zone of privileged interest" — in Eastern Europe to check future western expansion.

As with the question of Ukrainian sovereignty, there is little diplomatic space available regarding NATO and its Eastern European members for Russia and Canada to find room to cooperate. The two countries' national interests in this region of the world are at odds with one another. While room for dialogue exists, a clear opening for the reconstitution of relations between Russia and Canada will not be found in Eastern Europe.
Other Issues in Russia-Canada Relations

In cooperation with the United States, Canada participates in North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint combine military command tasked with defending Canada and the United States' collective air and maritime space.

While NORAD has an expansive mandate to defend North America from a variety of potential threats, its historical origins were centred upon guarding North American airspace from Soviet military aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles coming over the North Pole. Today Canadian and American military aircraft regularly intercept Russian air incursions into North American airspace. In June 2022, the Canadian government announced a 20-year $38.6 billion dollar modernization program for NORAD installations and other assets located in Canada. While these investments in NORAD are reported to have been in planning for some time, the June 2022 announcement of the funding aligns conspicuously with Canada's other policy actions towards Russia.

Within a multilateral context, Russia and Canada maintain membership in common international organizations and global fora. Common membership includes the United Nations (UN), the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the G20. Yet during the current crisis surrounding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, common membership in multilateral institutions has amounted to little. These large multilateral bodies remain an important part of global governance, but they will be unlikely to act as platforms for Russia and Canada to reconstitute their foreign relations within.

Russia and Canada also have common membership in the Artic Council. However, in protest to Russia's February 2022 special military operation in Ukraine, Canada, along with Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States, suspended participation in the Arctic Council. Russia, who currently holds the Arctic Council chair, is currently the council's only participating member. It is unclear when and if the Arctic Council will be able to resume its regular activities. Due to the Arctic Council's key role in Arctic cooperation and governance, reinvigorating the council is of critical importance to the region.

There has been some discussion in the West about forming alternatives to the Arctic Council, sans Russia. However, it is doubtful if such a multilateral body without Russia could be effective or legitimate.

An Opening in the Arctic?

Despite a fractured and non-functioning Arctic Council, the Arctic region offers Russia and Canada a distinct opportunity to identify common challenges and collaborate on joint solutions. The Arctic Circle is a long way from the conflict in Ukraine and geopolitical tensons in Eastern Europe. When compared to all the other regions Russia and Canada are currently diplomatically engaged, the Arctic offers a most robust geography that Russia and Canada can use to reconstitute their foreign relations within.

The Arctic region is outside of Eastern Europe, and far from the flashpoint that is present day Ukraine, and thus outside of the main zone of geopolitical conflict between the Western powers and Russia. While the Arctic is indeed a zone of substantial geopolitical tension, and possible kinetic conflict, between NATO and Russia, the Arctic is also complex and multifaceted. The Arctic presents Russia and Canada a menu of policy areas in which they can interact in a constructive manner.

These Arctic policy areas, which Russia and Canada can use to resume cooperation, are one step removed from the high politics of international security affairs and instead consist of matters of a technical or socio-cultural nature. These types of technical policy issues that have both domestic and international dimensions would not classify themselves as traditional topics of foreign policy, yet they are also impossible to effectively address without international cooperation — they are "intermestic" in nature. [1]

Most crucially for Canada, the Arctic is also a region in which the country can afford to act in a more independent manner, in divergence from the United States and its other NATO allies. If both Russia and Canada can decouple their adversarial relationship vis-à-vis Ukraine towards the development of a constructive bilateral approach to the Arctic, a reconstitution of relations could be developed from the Far North.

Russia and Canada face many of the same policy challenges in their respective Arctic regions. They recognize the new opportunities for maritime navigation, coupled with new environmental vulnerabilities, caused by melting arctic sea ice. Canada and Russia also have shared interests in northern economic development, environmental sustainability and combating the effects of climate change in their northern territories. Both countries also strive to maintain search and rescue (SAR) capabilities in some of the most inhospitable and challenging operational environments in the world. [2]

The two countries also share the same concerns regarding outside challenges to the sovereignty of their respective northern waterways against great powers such as the People's Republic of China and the United States. Building and empowering their northern and communities and preserving their Indigenous populations' unique ways of life are also concerns for both countries. Russia and Canada are also on the same page when it comes to maintaining international law and norms produced by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) process. [3]

These Arctic issues provide opportunities for Russia and Canada to cooperate. They are all challenging policy problems that poise Russia and Canada not as adversaries but as partners. However, to make an Arctic partnership possible, policy leaders in the two countries must resist the temptation to roll foreign policy issues from Ukraine and Eastern Europe into constructive joint work in the Arctic. Decoupling Arctic cooperation from other foreign policy concerns is of critical importance, as Canada and Russia are destined to be at loggerheads over the conflict in Ukraine and European security issues for the foreseeable future — possibly for decades.

[1] Ryan J. Barilleaux, "The President "Intermestic" Issues, and the Rise of Policy Leadership," Presidential Studies Quarterly, 15(4), Fall 1985.

[2] Kari Roberts, Understanding Russia's Security Priorities in the Arctic: Why Canada-Russia Cooperation is Still Possible, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 27(2), 2021, p.221.

[3] Kari Roberts, "Understanding Russia's Security Priorities in the Arctic: Why Canada-Russia Cooperation is Still Possible," Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 27(2), 2021, p.221.

Practical Steps Towards Reconstituting Canada-Russia Relations in the Arctic

If it is in both Russia and Canada's long-term interests to reconstitute their relations using common policy challenges in the Arctic, are there practical steps that the two countries can take to work together?
Cooperation in Arctic Search and Rescue — to start, Russia and Canada could use the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement (2011), which they have jointly signed in partnership with the other Arctic Council member states, as a platform to bilaterally share best practices in arctic search and rescue, and even hold joint training exercises and personnel exchanges in the future.

As more economic activity takes place in the Arctic in the coming years, it will be critical that all arctic states have the best search and rescue capabilities possible in such a challenging operational environment. The potential for a future major maritime or aviation disaster in the high north underscores this need to cooperate.
Joint Northern Research and Innovation Funding for Arctic Issues — Russia and Canada could also use their respective scientific and innovation funding programs to offer jointly funded research and development programs on arctic issues of common concern. For example, joint bilateral funding could be developed in pursuit of innovative solutions for common areas of concern in the Arctic. Members of the international scientific community have decried the disruptions to important arctic research taking place due to geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West.

Thematic areas for such funding could include as northern development and infrastructure, sustainable energy solutions for arctic climates, public heath in northern communities, climate change and environmental sustainability, and cultural and historical preservation for northern Indigenous communities. A funding partnership between Russia's Mega Grants international scientific cooperation program and Grand Challenges Canada could be an ideal vehicle for such collaboration.
Northern Infrastructure, Sustainability, and Renewable Energy Collaboration both Russia and Canada struggle with deficits in northern infrastructure, sustainability, and renewable energy solutions adapted for arctic climates. There is an opportunity for the two countries to work together to solve these common challenges. To address these gaps, a partnership model already exists in the Canadian oil and gas industry that could be utilized by Russia and Canada. The model is named Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).

Launched in 2012, COSIA is an alliance of seven large Canadian energy companies who work jointly, in consortia with academic institutions and government agencies, on environmental sustainability issues related to oil sands development in Northern Alberta. COSIA acts as a technology and innovation clearing house for best practices in improving oil sands producers' environmental footprints. While these companies are fierce competitors in the energy market, they place this competition to the side when it comes to reducing the collective environmental impact of their industry.

Russia and Canada, in cooperation with other Arctic states, could develop a similar multilateral development alliance to deal with the most difficult of arctic infrastructure, environmental sustainability, and renewable energy issues. Such an alliance would acts as a clearing house for arctic technology and innovative practices.

This would allow for arctic innovations developed in one country to benefit all others in a common circumpolar future. Like the energy companies that participate in COSIA, yet maintain their commercial rivalries, Russia and Canada can set their geopolitical differences to the side when dealing with northern infrastructure, sustainability, and renewable energy issues through such an alliance.
Cultural Exchange and Public Diplomacy — due to the heated geopolitical climate in Europe it may be difficult for national leaders to participate in constructive high-level discussions on Russia and Canada's shared arctic initiatives. However, individual citizens and civil society groups within Russia and Canada certainly could. As the arctic policy issues that have been discussed rest outside of the confines of high politics and instead focus on technical and cultural issues — and are of an intermestic nature — multi-track diplomacy is an ideal tool to begin the reconstitution of Russia-Canada relations.

Such programming could include collaborative opportunities for Russian and Canadian post-secondary students, young professionals, civil society groups, and researchers to discuss and collaborate in addressing Arctic issues. It should also include opportunities for northern and Indigenous communities in Russia and Canada to participate in bi-lateral cultural exchanges. Officials from the Russian and Canadian governments could participate in these programs, but only as observers, not as drivers. Over time, as person-to-person contacts grow through such programming, it will be easier for Russian and Canadian government officials to develop trust and mend their countries' relations.
Roy Tan Jun Yi Blog
Reconstitution Canada-Russia Relations

The likely continuation of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine will cause Canada and Russia's international relations, which are already in a dire condition, to topple further. There is little space for Russia and Canada to reconstitute their relations anywhere on the European continent. For this reason, even if the conflict in Ukraine were to end soon, we can expect Russia and Canada to be adversaries in Eastern Europe for years to come.

Yet Russia and Canada will still have foreign relations in the future. It is both possible and desirable for the two countries to improve these relations. While it may not be possible, even in the long-term, for Canada and Russia to do so in Europe, there is a distinct opening in the Arctic to do so in the near-term.

As both Russia and Canada are major Arctic states, who face similar policy problems in their high northern regions, it is within the two countries' national interests to do so. Russia and Canada have a unique and compelling opportunity to reconstitute their relations in the Arctic.
Cover: Arctic Archipelago, Baffin, Canada
Photo by Hector Periquin on Unsplash