Canadians who are already shocked watching Russia’s brutal, world-changing military takeover of Ukraine — its neighbouring nation state — should be even more deeply disturbed when they consider the fact that Canada also shares a long, ill-defined and disputed boundary with the Russian Federation.
As citizens of a country that gives only intermittent, fleeting attention to its northern frontier, Canadians tend not to think of Russia as our next-door neighbour. But Canada, Russia and Denmark (by way of its possession of Greenland) have overlapping undersea territorial claims at the North Pole and across vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean.
Each country’s original claims and various amendments have been submitted to a United Nations commission over the past decade. Russia’s latest update to its claim, filed less than a year ago, expanded Moscow’s planned seabed land grab by an astounding 750,000 square kilometres to the very edge of Canada’s 370-kilometre exclusive coastal economic zone off the shores of Nunavut, Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
University of Calgary political scientist Rob Huebert, one of Canada’s leading experts on Arctic geopolitics, has described the new Russian territorial claim as “maximalist” and warned that, “in effect, they’re claiming the entire Arctic Ocean as their continental shelf in regards to where their Arctic comes up against Canada’s and Denmark’s.”
Until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, there had been some confidence that disagreements over who should control what in the Arctic — even with climate change opening ice-bound shipping routes, and billions of barrels of untapped undersea oil deposits on the line — could be resolved peacefully in keeping with the UN Law of the Sea Convention, a slow-moving international dispute-resolution regime framed by relatively clear rules and driven by geological science, diplomacy and good will.
But the unmasked aggression of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, on full display now in Ukraine, is raising fears of once-unthinkable invasions of other countries in Eastern Europe, including the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — all NATO allies of Canada, the U.S. and Britain since 2004.
In this context, concerns that were previously voiced about the future of Arctic security following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea republic in 2014 have heightened enormously in the past 72 hours.
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In a chilling attempt to justify Russia’s invasion of its neighbour last week, Putin concocted an imaginary history of Ukraine as an illegitimate state on territory integral to Russia’s national identity. Putin is similarly known to view Russian control over the Arctic as a vital expression of the country’s mythic destiny.
The idea that Russia might soon be pressured to halt or reverse its imminent conquest of Ukraine — in response, say, to harsh economic sanctions and unified condemnation among Western countries — seems naïve.
That makes it equally hard to imagine a world in which Russia will continue to comply with the genteel terms of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the Law of the Sea convention, or with various security, environmental and cultural agreements struck with Canada and other members of the eight-nation Arctic Council — currently chaired by Russia.
In flouting the international rules-based order with its unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine, Russia can no longer be counted upon as a constructive partner in any of its multilateral involvements with Canada in the Arctic or elsewhere.
Long-time Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is one of Putin’s key lieutenants in the war on Ukraine. Over the 18 years that Lavrov has represented Russia in its dealings with Canada and other Arctic nations, he has flashed a sometimes-stern, sometimes-friendly face when articulating his country’s ambitions in the polar region.
In 2007, after a Russian research team took a mini-submarine to the North Pole seafloor and planted their country’s flag, Canada’s then-foreign minister Peter MacKay condemned the move as a direct challenge to Canadian sovereignty and the orderly U.N. process for determining Arctic offshore boundaries: “This isn’t the 15th century,” said MacKay. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”
A year later, at a landmark summit of Arctic nations in Greenland that was billed as a key step towards securing a lasting peace in the region , Lavrov responded angrily to a question — from this writer — about Russia’s North Pole flag-planting.
“I understand that this is a sexy subject for all of you — flags on the seabed, somebody from this side of the globe getting over the pole and grabbing some land from somebody else,” he said. “It’s all hypothetical. The rules which we agreed to today are based on the Law of Sea convention . . . Whatever is scientifically proven will be accepted.”
Just nine months ago, at the latest Arctic Council ministers meeting in May 2021, Lavrov and the top emissaries of the seven other Arctic nations — including Canada’s then-foreign minister Marc Garneau — were all smiles as they posed for a group picture after signing the Reykjavik Declaration, each of them pledging “our commitment to maintain peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic.”
Such promises from Lavrov are surely suspect now. And Canada, led by current Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, must rapidly rethink its strategy for ensuring Arctic sovereignty and security in a region where the world’s most dangerous belligerent is also Canada’s neighbour.
Randy Boswell is a Carleton University professor and Ottawa-based journalist who has specialized in covering Arctic geopolitics.