Four Canadian and U.S. fighter jets were scrambled to meet two Russian bomber planes found flying on the edge of Canada's Arctic airspace hours before President Barack Obama arrived in Ottawa for his first foreign visit, Canada's Defence Minister, Peter MacKay said yesterday.
The incident occurred Feb. 18, about 24 hours before Obama travelled to Canada for his first foreign visit. Canadian CF-18 fighter jets were scrambled from Cold Lake, Alta., to intercept the long-range Tupolev TU-95s and signal them to back off, MacKay told reporters in Ottawa. While he noted that the Russian flight took place when Canada's security focus was on Ottawa, in preparation for the Obama visit. "I am not going to stand here and accuse the Russians of having deliberately done this during the presidential visit, but it was a strong coincidence which we met with the presence ... of F-18 fighter planes and world-class pilots that know their business and send a strong signal that they should back off and stay out of our airspace," he told reporters.
In Moscow, an unnamed government official called MacKay's statement a "farce" and said the Russian government was reacting to Canada's objections with "astonishment," news agency RIA-Novosti reported.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the incident was a real cause for concern that will not intimidate Canada. "This government has responded every time the Russians have done that. We will continue to respond. We will defend our airspace." The Russian planes broke no international laws when they encroached on the 200-mile (320-kilometre) Canadian perimeter, 190 kilometres northeast of Tuktoyaktuk, but experts say it is a clear attempt to test defence systems in the disputed Arctic territories.
NORAD spokesperson Michael Kucharek said Canadian and U.S. fighter jets have been scrambled more than 20 times since early 2007 to perform visual identification of Russian bombers and to direct them away from North American airspace. "Russia has become more active than in the past," said Ray Henault, formerly Canada's chief of defence staff. Henault, who served as chair of NATO's military council until last year, said the bomber flights are a "legitimate activity" that have nonetheless complicated relations with other Arctic nations in recent years.
It's not clear why Canada chose yesterday to draw attention to what is a fairly common occurrence. In addition, it's a diplomatic rebuff to Russian officials who have complained in the last week about nations "militarizing" the Arctic to bolster claims to valuable energy and mineral resources beneath the thawing tundra and the seabed.
"We know that the waters are opening up, we know that other countries have expressed interest in the Arctic and that we intend to have a very real and current activity and presence in the Arctic," MacKay said yesterday. The Defence Minister added that he has asked Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Russia's ambassador to Canada to give Ottawa notice when such flights are planned.
"To date, we have not received this type of notice," he said.
Renuart has also asked Russian officials to file formal international notice of the flights, but to no avail, said Kucharek. The RIA-Novosti agency quoted Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky, a defence ministry spokesperson, saying that neighbouring states had been previously notified of the bomber flight.
Opposition parties accused the Tories of using tough talk on Russia to shift the political debate away from mounting deficits and economic woes. "Everything the government does in these circumstances is an effort to change the channel," Liberal MP Bob Rae said.
U.S. General Gene Renuart, commander of North American Aerospace Defence Command, said Canadian and U.S. jets have visually identified more than 20 Russian aircraft in recent years that were conducting exercises near North American airspace.
Mr. MacKay said the Russians have turned a deaf ear to his request for advance notice of such near incursions.
"It's not a game at all ... I have personally asked both the Russian ambassador and my counterpart [in Russia] that we are given a heads up when this type of air traffic is to occur, and to date we have not received that kind of notice."
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989 crippled Russia's economy and brought such long-range flights, a staple of the Cold War, to an end. But the flights have resumed in recent years.