You might think the only bad blood between Russia and Canada is over some hockey game, but since about 2007 the Canucks and Russians have been in a diplomatic pissing match over Arctic land sovereignty after Russian explorers planted a tiny flag on the Arctic seafloor and the Canadians called bullshit. Now that the Northwest Passage is melting and becoming a potential Arctic Suez Canal with possibly billions of dollars in fossil fuel for the taking, the Canadian government is looking to cash in, making an aggressive claim at the United Nations in December last year to extend its northern sea boundary, along with four other competing states: Russia, Denmark, the U.S., and Norway. As you can imagine, Harper’s move rattled Russian leader Vladimir Putin who’s now vowing to beef up his military presence in the Arctic amid bold Canadian diplomatic actions.
Legit Arctic claim or not, it hasn’t stopped Russia from spying on Canadian assets in anticipation of mounting tensions. Historically Canada has played host to foreign agents, from the bag wearing Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko in ‘45 revealing mass Russian infiltration, to the 1,000 spy espionage network the Chinese allegedly ran on Canadian soil in 2005. When it comes to the Arctic, rival states may see the potential in once again cherry picking secrets from Canada. And it doesn’t seem so hard: In 2011 Canadian Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle made off with stolen naval secrets on a USB stick he simply plugged into his DND work station, then later sold to the Russians. Speculation is the Delisle cache may have included Arctic intelligence. Then in December 2013 a Chinese spy was found stealing design plans for Canadian patrol ships potentially destined for missions protecting Arctic sovereignty. Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary, says both incidents demonstrate the growing interest in Canadian strategic plans. “In Canada we tend to think that nobody pays attention to us. But a lot of people pay attention to us.”
“For Canadians, the Arctic has always been a source of major nationalism,” said Huebert. “Most recent Canadian governments see this as an opportunity to demonstrate how much they are willing to defend Canadian core interests.”There’s no doubt Harper strategists view the Arctic as a potential cash cow and the lynchpin of future Canadian economies. If that ends up being true, the Canadians may want to wake up and take the Russian threat seriously. Nowadays, some estimates even put one-quarter of the world’s energy resources in the Arctic crust, giving the Canucks a second oil baby after the tar sands.“The real reason driving all of the competing Arctic claimants, is, of course, oil and gas,” said Huebert.
The Harper government has carefully crafted a public relations strategy for their sovereignty claims. Besides his Arctic tours every summer where Harper admires Inuit art and Canadian Forces stealth snowmobiles, he sanctioned a failing search for the lost wreckage of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to establish a historical Canadian precedence to the North Pole. This isn’t the first time Canada has pulled desperate moves to maintain Arctic rule: In the 1950s the feds forcibly relocated Inuit all over the High Arctic region to show it was actually inhabited and under Canadian law. By comparison Siberia is actually inhabited with several cities over half a million people, while the three Arctic territories barely boast 100,000 combined.
Publicity stunts aside, the Arctic region won’t be decided on Harper’s political ploys, but on cold consideration of geological facts by the United Nations. “It’s a science based determination,” said Huebert. “Based on a formula.” It will factor in considerations like soil thickness and slant to determine where the continental shelf ends. After scientists have made their conclusions diplomats will go to work drawing up the new Arctic map. “Everybody is just saying ‘OK we think that there might be oil and gas in this region, we don’t know. But we want to make sure we have the fullest maximization of the area we can claim.’”
Yet after the science and the diplomats, it’s going to be about who carries the proverbial big stick in a logistical competition over sea control. Given the Canadian government is an amateur at arms purchasing, as evidenced by the F-35 procurement circus– the Russians have the undisputed upper hand. While Harper continues the protracted acquisition of Sea King helicopters and rushes to build new ships for an aging navy, Vladimir Putin is stocking up on super-sized icebreakers, 40 new naval vessels, including a brand new nuclear attack submarine, and a new intercontinental ballistic missile system ready by 2018, all the while refurbishing old Soviet military bases in the Far North. It’s not that the Canadians will ever go to war with Russia, beefing up your army is an old Russian diplomatic trick of intimidation to get what they want. Let’s not forget about the Chinese either, they’re playing the classic long-game when it comes to Arctic sovereignty: Playing nice by resisting an aggressive claim while beefing up their maritime power, cloaking attempts at buying into Arctic lands in Iceland, and investing in Greenland. They know the money train at stake and want a piece of the Arctic pie.
Countering Russian and Chinese aggression in the coming years may require the help of CSEC spies (who’ve been practising on Brazil) or from our classic American neighbour with its own competing Arctic claims and naval arsenal to boot. Unfortunately for Harper, some invisible snowmobiles and finding some old, long-forgotten ship probably won’t cut it.