Russian aggression is the greatest challenge facing Canada and Western democracies right now as the Kremlin tries to dismantle the rules-based international order that’s existed since the end of the Second World War, military experts are warning.
And as a result, some say Canada and its allies should consider themselves already at war with Russia.
“This is not an interwar period. The war is on,” said Frederick Kagan, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on critical threats.
“The principal challenge is our own failure to recognize we are involved in a great-scale conflict with Russia.”
Kagan and others spoke on a Wednesday panel discussion organized by the CDA Institute for its annual Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence.
Their focus was on relations with Russia and how escalating tensions are challenging the existing security structures that Canada and its allies depend on, including the NORAD continental defence arrangement between Canada and the U.S.
NORAD is the ongoing joint operation by Canada and the U.S. to assert sovereignty over North American airspace. It was created in the 1950s as a way to try to counter the threat of aircraft bombers from the then-Soviet Union attacking from over the Arctic.
But as Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved the country towards a more aggressive position in recent years, the alliance’s capabilities and the ability of Western military alliances to respond to Russian incursions, not only physically but also in cyberspace, have faced tough questions.
Canadian Lt.-Gen. Christopher Coates, deputy commander of NORAD, said that while the threat isn’t necessarily one of Russian armies landing on Canadian shores, that doesn’t make the situation any less critical for leaders to address.
“North America is no longer a sanctuary,” he said, stressing that NORAD needs to adjust to the reality that the world is in a new period of uncertainty and challenges to global institutions and alliances.
“Russia and others are engaged in an uncontrolled race for dominance across a variety of domains … Russia’s actions and capabilities are a large part of what’s driving that need for change.
“Russia today represents the greatest short-term threat to North America.”
His comments come just weeks after U.S. Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the commander of NORAD, warned American lawmakers in a letter to the U.S. Senate committee on armed services that Canada and the U.S. have lost their military advantage over Russia in the Arctic.
“The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall and our oceans are no longer protective moats, they are now avenues of approach for advanced conventional weapons and the platforms that carry them,” O’Shaughnessy wrote.
“Russia has left us with no choice but to improve our homeland defence capability and capacity.”
Coates wouldn’t get into specifics about which areas of NORAD he thinks need the most urgent updates but did say that the shift in global power dynamics, including increasing foreign policy and military partnerships between Russia and China, means the NORAD alliance must adapt.
Jodi Thomas, Canada’s deputy minister of national defence, didn’t provide details on what the government plans to do to address the changing nature of the threats but said it was clear the changes are happening quickly.
“The world is changing faster than first projected when we presented our defence policy,” she said, referencing the policy reset document the Liberal government released in 2017 known as Strong, Secure, Engaged. “We’re at a critical time for Canada and a critical time for the world.”
Kagan argued the power shift and the renewed emphasis on the Arctic means Canada will need to step up to take on a bigger role.
“The more the focus moves to the Arctic, the more important Canada becomes,” he said, but warned there might be little political will to do so.
“You have a lot of opinions on what the world order should be but very little interest in acting to make it so.”