OTTAWA – On the eve of Barack Obama’s visit to Ottawa, a Russian jet approached Canada’s Arctic air space and had to be turned away by Canadian warplanes, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Friday at a news conference on Parliament Hill.
With Obama poised to leave American soil for the first time as U.S. president on Feb. 19, the joint Canada-U.S. aerospace command, Norad, detected the Russian plane. Two of Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept one Russian aircraft, MacKay confirmed.
At the time, Canada’s was preparing to host the world’s most popular politician on what would be his first international trip after weeks of preparation that included some of the tightest security ever. Indeed, the airspace over Canada’s capital was temporarily closed to all planes but Obama’s own Air Force One, which arrived and then departed after the seven-hour visit.
MacKay said at no time did the Russian plane enter Canadian air space.
“It’s not a game,” said MacKay, adding that Canada takes the approach of such aircraft seriously.
The incident was disclosed Friday morning at a joint news conference on Parliament Hill with MacKay, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the chief of the defence staff and U.S. Gen. Gene Renuart, the commander of Norad.
In 2007, Russia planted its flag on the seabed below the North Pole and resumed flights of strategic bomber jets over the Arctic Ocean, a practice that stopped after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Harper Conservatives have since unveiled an Arctic strategy to assert Canadian sovereignty, and spur economic and social development in the Far North.
Relations between Russia and the West have been strained since last August when Russian forces marched into Georgia following the Georgian army’s occupation of the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Weeks after that, MacKay travelled to Iqualuit to reinforce his Conservative government’s new sovereignty policy, where he put Russia on notice that Canada intended to be vigilant about foreign incursions in the region.
“We’re obviously very concerned about much of what Russia has been doing lately,” MacKay said last August. “When we see a Russian bear approaching Canadian air space, we meet them with an F-18,” added MacKay, referring to Arctic patrol flights by Russian bombers. “We remind them that this is Canadian air space, that this is Canadian sovereign air space, and they turn back. And we are going to continue to do that, to demonstrate that we are watching closely their activities here.”
Renuart is on a scheduled visit to Ottawa and was to address a major symposium later Friday at the annual meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
Norad is the jewel of Canada-U.S. military relations, and it celebrated its first half decade in existence last year.
Norad was conceived in the Cold War to serve as an early warning system against a nuclear missile attack from the then Soviet Union.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks it remains a major tool in the defence of North America.
A Canadian officer permanently holds the No. 2 position at Norad headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. On the morning of 9/11, it was a Canadian general who was on duty and who ordered the closure of North American airspace, and who dispatched Canadian and American warplanes into the continent’s skies moments after New York and Washington were attacked by hijacked commercial airliners.