The Soviet Union's proposal for an ``Arctic zone of peace'' has put the spotlight once more on Canada's controversial plan to build 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines. Alexei Makarov, first counselor at the Soviet Embassy here, called a rare press conference Tuesday to suggest that the subs might be ``unnecessary'' if the Soviet proposal was implemented.
Referring to the $8 billion or so (Canadian; US$6.2 billion) cost of the underwater vessels, he commented in a subsequent telephone interview: ``If you are so rich, okay. That's up to you.''
Any plan for demilitarizing the Arctic has appeal to Canadians, who hear increasingly of the danger of Soviet nuclear subs launching cruise missiles from Arctic waters over Canada at the United States and fighting US subs for control of that under-ice sea in the event of war.
The Soviet proposal was first outlined Oct. 1 by Communist Party chief Mikhail Gorbachev in Murmansk, a major Soviet port on the Arctic Ocean. He called for the northern nations, including the US, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, to join in talks aimed at reducing military confrontation in the Arctic as a step toward global arms reduction.
Mr. Gorbachev spoke of limiting military activity in the waters of the Baltic, North, Norwegian, and Greenland Seas, a nuclear-free zone in northern Europe, and banning all naval activity in mutually agreed upon waters.
Subsequently, Soviet Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov expanded on the theme in talks in Oslo and Stockholm. He spoke of a reduction in the frequency of both NATO and Warsaw Pact military maneuvers in the Arctic to once every two years, a limitation on Soviet and US submarine activity in the Arctic, and curtailment of anti-submarine activity in the North Atlantic by both sides.
Mr. Makarov, in his remarks here, said the plan would enable Canada to scale down its own ``militarization'' of the north, including ending approval of US cruise missile testing over the Northwest Territories as well as canceling the purchase of the sub fleet.
The reaction in Canada has been cautious. The government wants the subs both to defend the three oceans around Canada and to affirm Canadian sovereignty in the North where only nuclear-powered subs can roam under the ice. But neither the government nor outside defense experts are dismissing the Soviet proposals entirely as what used to be called in Cold War terms, a ``peace offensive,'' that is, a propaganda ploy to torpedo the subs.
Defense Minister Perrin Beatty said last week the Soviet proposal is unacceptable if it does not specifically include the huge Soviet military installation on the Kola Peninsula southeast of Murmansk. It is the largest single concentration of Soviet military might, including the home base for the Soviet northern fleet.
Mr. Makarov raised the possibility of putting the Kola Peninsula facilities on the agenda once Arctic talks are under way.
``We are quite open,'' he said. ``We are damn serious about this proposal. We are now waiting for the Americans and Canadians to make their proposals, if there are any.''
But he argued that dismantling of military facilities on the Kola Peninsula would be too one-sided, since that area is the only outlet for the Soviet naval fleet to the West and the Atlantic. He compared it to the US demilitarizing its Atlantic Coast.
The Soviets presented their proposal formally to the Canadian Parliament's standing committee on external affairs and national defense last week. The committee is scheduled to hold more hearings on the subs during the next two weeks, including the question of costs.
John Lamb, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, sees the proposal as a ``mixed bag'' that includes a not-so-veiled effort by the Soviets to split off the Scandinavian members of NATO - Norway, Denmark, and Iceland - from the alliance.
Nonetheless, he would like the government ``to explore the possibilities'' in the proposal for avoiding the growing militarization in the Arctic. ``It doesn't serve Canadian security to ignore any opportunity to counter that trend,'' says Mr. Lamb.
He is opposed to purchase of the subs. Anticipating overruns on construction costs, he regards them as too expensive for Canada. ``I don't know of many people who believe these subs will hit the water,'' he concludes. ``But the defense department is putting up a brave front.''
Rear Adm. John Anderson, who is in charge of the program for purchasing the subs over the next 20 years, says a choice will be made by late spring between a British and a French nuclear sub. The first sub is not scheduled to come out of a shipyard until 1996.
But an actual government appropriation of construction funds is not likely before a federal election expected to be called this summer or fall. If the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney were to lose, that would probably end the project. Both opposition parties, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party, are opposed to nuclear-propelled subs.
The subs are part of Canadian defense policy outlined in a major white paper approved by the Cabinet last June.