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Russia, Canada, and China Are Fighting for Control of the Arctic

There's a lot of potential money to be made in the Far North as the ice caps melt and expose shipping routes and natural resources. Russia, the US, and China all want a piece of the action. Can Canada compete with those global powers?

An example of the Arctic ice that Canada, Russia, and a few other nations are so hot for. Photo via

You might think the only bad blood between Russia and Canada would be over a hockey game, but for the past seven years the Canucks and Russians have been in a diplomatic pissing match over Arctic land sovereignty after Russian explorers planted a tiny flag on an underwater ridge in the Arctic Ocean and the Canadians called bullshit. The issue is that with the ice caps melting, the Northwest Passage has the potential to become a sort of Arctic Suez Canal—not to mention the possibly billions of dollars in fossil fuel that are there for the taking. The Canadian government is naturally looking to cash in, making an aggressive claim at the United Nations in December to extend its northern sea boundary in opposition to four other nations that say they have claims: Russia, Denmark, the US, and Norway. As you can imagine, this move rattled Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has vowed to beef up his military presence in the Arctic amid bold Canadian diplomatic actions.


Arctic politics have involved a surprising amount of cloak-and-dagger operations over the years. In 1945, the Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko revealed the presence of Communist spies in Canada, and the Chinese allegedly ran a 1,000-agent espionage network on Canadian soil in 2005. In 2011, a Canadian naval intelligence officer named Jeffrey Delisle made off with stolen secrets on a USB stick he simply plugged into his work station, then sold to the intel to the Russians. (The Delisle cache may have included Arctic-related intelligence.) Most recently, in December 2013, an alleged Chinese spy was found stealing design plans for Canadian patrol ships potentially destined for missions protecting Arctic sovereignty.

“In Canada we tend to think that nobody pays attention to us. But a lot of people pay attention to us,” Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary, told me. Huebert said the recent incidents of spying demonstrate China and Russia's growing interest in Canadian strategic plans.

“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 stretegists in the Stephen Harper government view the Arctic as a potential cash cow and a lynchpin of the future Canadian economy. Some estimates put as much one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered energy resources in the Arctic crust, and control over those resources would give the Canucks a second source of oil along with the tar sands. “The real reason driving all of the competing Arctic claimants, is, of course, oil and gas,” said Huebert.


An aerial view of an oil and gas extraction plant in Alaska. Photo via

The Harper government has carefully crafted a public relations strategy for their sovereignty claims. The prime minister takes Arctic tours every summer where he admires Inuit art and talks about stealth snowmobiles, and he's sanctioned a search for the lost wreckage of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition in an effort to establish historical precedent for Canadian control of the North Pole. This isn’t the first time Canada has pulled desperate moves to claim Arctic sovereignty: In the 1950s, the government forcibly relocated Inuit all over the High Arctic region to show it was actually inhabited and under Canadian law. (By comparison, Siberia is inhabited by over half a million people, while the three Arctic territories barely boast a combined population of 100,000.)

Publicity stunts aside, the fate of the Arctic region won’t be decided by Harper’s political ploys but by cold consideration of geological facts by the United Nations. “It’s a science-based determination,” said Huebert, “based on a formula.” It will consider factors 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,’” Huebert said.

Military intimitadion is also a big part of Arctic politics, and the Russians have the undisputed upper hand there. While Harper continues to acquire Sea King helicopters and rushes to build new ships for the country's aging navy, Putin is stocking up on supersized icebreakers, constructing 40 new naval vessels—including a brand new nuclear attack submarine—and an intercontinental ballistic missile system that is supposed to be ready by 2018, all while refurbishing old Soviet military bases in the Far North. It’s not that Canada will ever go to war with Russia, but beefing up its military as a show of force is an old Russian diplomatic trick. Let’s not forget about the Chinese either—they’re playing the long game when it comes to Arctic sovereignty, not making aggressive claims in public while simultaneously beefing up their maritime power, concealing attempts to buy Arctic land in Iceland, and investing in Greenland.

Unfortunately for Harper, some invisible snowmobiles and a quest for some long-forgotten ships probably won’t lead to Canadian Arctic dominance. To counter Russian and Chinese aggression in the coming years the Canucks will likely have to get some help from the US, which of course has its own interests in the north. For a country with such a large land mass, it sometimes feels like Canada is a very small country.