Russia's Putin rattles military sabre over Canada's claim to North Pole

OTTAWA – Russian President Vladimir Putin is pawing the snow over Canada’s claim to the North Pole.

A day after Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird confirmed Canada is extending its Arctic territorial claim beyond the area mapped by federal scientists, Putin responded Tuesday with a highly visible message to the Russian military.

“I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic,” Putin was quoted saying in televised comments at a meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow.

The country requires “every lever for the protection of its security and national interests there,” Putin said for the cameras.

Last week, Canada made a formal scientific submission to the United Nations claiming 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed under the Atlantic, as well as a preliminary claim in the Arctic Ocean.

Baird held a news conference Monday on Parliament Hill where he asserted the Arctic claim will include the North Pole, although Canada has yet to do the mapping work to support its bid.

Russia is already drilling for oil in the high Arctic, and in 2007 a Russian team planted the country’s flag on the sea floor at the geographic pole.

Baird’s spokesman Rick Roth responded to Putin’s latest Arctic chest-thumping by stating Canada will defend its sovereignty in the region “in adherence to international law, and through science-based measures.”

“We will also continue our co-operation with our partners in the Arctic, as a responsible neighbour should,” Roth added in an email.

“We offer no advice to Russia, but merely point out that they should be cognizant of the message they’re sending to neighbours.”

Putin’s message has been loud and persistent.

Russia is currently building the world’s biggest nuclear icebreaker, which will add to the fleet of five it already has. The country has 10 naval ports in the Arctic, able to service its fleet of nuclear submarines, and has begun restoring Arctic airfields.

As Putin said Tuesday, Russia is “ever-more actively reclaiming this promising region, returning to it,” following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

The Canadian military, by contrast, has conceded that its recent purchase of snowmobiles for the troops will be the last for nearly a decade.

A long-promised winter warfare centre in Nunavut finally opened this past summer, six years after Prime Minister Stephen promised it. The command post in Resolute Bay can handle up to 100 soldiers at a time training for cold-weather operations.

But a deep-water port at Nanisivik, Nunavut, remains under the control of the federal fisheries department, despite long-standing promises of a navel refuelling station. Promised Arctic patrol ships are still in the design stage, and construction of an icebreaker has been put off until at least 2020.

Fortunately for Canada, the Arctic arms race won’t determine territorial claims, according to experts.

Whitney Lackenbauer, a historian who specializes in Arctic sovereignty at the University of Waterloo, Ont., says the sabre-rattling is designed more for domestic political purposes.

“It is a fascinating political dance. But in practical terms this is much ado about nothing,” Lackenbauer said in an interview.

“This is very much an emotional exercise relating to the North Pole as a symbol of the Arctic. The practical aspects are completely immaterial.”

He said both Russian and Canadian governments are playing this game.

“We’re almost mirror images of one another.”

The farcical fringe of Lackenbauer’s argument was illustrated in the House of Commons on Tuesday, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary used the North Pole as seasonal rhetorical cover.

Conservative MP Paul Calandra cited Canada’s nascent claim, to beat up the Liberal opposition.

“We know that the Liberals do not think that the North Pole or Santa Claus are in Canada,” Calandra taunted. “We do. We are going to make sure that we protect them as best we can.”

For serious observers, Putin’s Arctic fixation isn’t about Santa, the Pole, or even the promise of oil and gas and mineral riches.

Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary says that what “isn’t discussed in polite society is the fact that the core Russian strategic interest is part and parcel of the Arctic.”

“For Russia, it’s about getting their submarine fleet up and running again,” Huebert said in an interview. “They are reinvigorating their nuclear deterrent.”

And Huebert is less convinced than Lackenbauer that military capability will carry no weight in the long negotiation over Arctic territorial sovereignty.

“If we have good relations with the Russians, negotiations for any overlap (in claims) will go well,” said Huebert.

“If relations deteriorate — say over Ukraine, or who knows what — then all of sudden negotiations become that much more difficult. Then you start seeing a little more posturing that is clearly intended to put pressure on any negotiating position.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the Russians placed a flag at the magnetic pole.

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