Arctic resource race heats up, as Russia, Canada stake new claims

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a rollout of Arctic military bases, one day after Canadian officials said they would claim jurisdiction over the North Pole. 

Sam Soja/CP/AP/File
Ice off the north coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada's far north.

The race to control the Arctic is intensifying as Canada moved this week to assert polar territorial claims and Russia promised of a rapid military buildup in the polar region.

The back-and-forth between Ottawa and Moscow confirms what many observers feared would happen as the global warming climate makes the frigid region and its vast oil, gas, and mineral resources more accessible.

Speaking to Defense Ministry officials Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin ordered stepped up military deployments and construction of permanent infrastructure to host Russian forces.

"I request that you pay special attention to the deployment of infrastructure and military units in the Arctic," Mr. Putin said according to a Kremlin transcript.

"Russia is actively exploring this promising region, returning to it, and should use all possible channels to protect its security and national interests," he said.

Putin’s comments came one day after Canada announced it was preparing to stake a huge territorial claim that would include the North Pole, following a decade-long scientific mapping survey that is nearing completion.

“What we want to do is claim the biggest geographic area possible for Canada,” Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters in Ottawa.

Russian analysts said the Canadian announcement appeared to set off alarm bells in Moscow and prompted Putin’s comments.

"Putin's reaction was provoked by the fact that other countries are jumping ahead and trying to stage a breakthrough, so isn't it just logical for Russia to prepare to defend its Arctic interests?" says Vasily Sokolov, an expert with the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

The rapid retreat of polar icecaps is opening up sea lanes and undersea territory that were previously inaccessible. As much as 15 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas, as well as vast fisheries and other natural resources, may lie beneath the receding ice sheets, according to the US Geological Survey.

Under international law no one owns the Arctic but adjacent countries can ask the United Nations for an extension of their own zones of economic interest beyond the standard 200 miles if they can prove that the seabed is an extension of their own continental shelf. Russia got started early, sending two major scientific expeditions into the deep Arctic to collect evidence that the sea floor all the way up to the North Pole, known as the Lomonosov Shelf, is actually a continuation of the Siberian landmass and thus, Russian territory.

In November, Russia filed a claim with the UN commission overseeing Arctic jurisdiction, asking for the Lomonosov Shelf to be recognized as Russian territory.

"If we get a positive decision from the UN, then we should sit down and talk with the Canadians and others about how best to divide the zones” says Viktor Boyarsky, a polar explorer and director of the Russian State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg. “If the UN rejects our claim, we'll have to go out and find new arguments. It's all in the hands of the UN commission now.”

Five countries -- Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and the US – stand to be big winners if the UN opts to satisfy the territorial claims of Arctic tier countries. Since the US has so far failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is the only one of the group that's ineligible to file a claim.

Last summer Russia reinstated Soviet-era naval patrols in the Arctic, while Canada has been holding annual military exercises, dubbed "Operation Nanook," in the far north for the past seven years.

Under Putin's plan, Russia will restore Soviet-era military airfields in the Arctic, deploy special forces to the north, and attempt to patrol the entire far-flung area between Norway and Alaska.

"The Arctic, in Putin's vision, looks like a miracle, the place from which prosperity for future Russian generations will flow," says Alexander Golts, a military expert and deputy editor of the online journal Yezhednevny Zhurnal. “It follows, in his mind, that if we have it, others will want to take it away. So it must be defended.”

On Wednesday, Canadian officials responded to Putin's comments, saying Canada would assert and defend its Arctic sovereignty.

“We will do so in adherence to international law, and through science-based measures,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Rick Roth in a written statement.

“We will also continue our co-operation with our partners in the Arctic, as a responsible neighbor should,” he said.

Canada does not have a strong Arctic military presence. A winter-warfare training centre opened this past summer in Nunavut. The facility was built six years after plans were announced, and only holds 100 soldiers. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, has made the Far North a central part of his political message in recent years, with summer visits to the Arctic and frequent funding announcements for industrial development

Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, says the world hasn't changed all that much since the Cold War, when US and Soviet ballistic missile submarines lurked under the thick icecaps.

"There is an objective necessity for Russia to restore at least some of its military potential. The more powerful our forces are, the less danger there will be of military conflict in the far north. But let's not fool ourselves, competition for the Arctic is already underway," Mr. Khramchikhin says.

Robert Huebert, a University of Calgary professor who specializes in arctic security, says the main takeaway for Canadians is that they will soon share a border with Russia, which comes with some risks.

“If Russia feels targeted by the West in what it’s doing in Ukraine or in Georgia for example, there could be implications for Canada,” he says.

- Dylan Robertson contributed to this report from Toronto.

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