Baird & Putin dance round pole

Wednesday, 11 December, 2013

As Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird declared on Monday that Canada had filed a submission to a UN commission claiming the North Pole, Denmark and Russia - particularly Russia - geared up to compete on the basis that they own the pole because it lies on a continental shelf that they “control”. 

Baird’s take: “we have asked our officials and scientists to do additional and necessary work to ensure that a submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada's claim to the North Pole".

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in characteristically emollient form, responded immediately and strongly to the Canadian statement.  He told an expanded defence ministry meeting, which happened to be televised, that Russia's national interests and security lay in extreme northern heft. “I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic,” he told fellow attendees including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Shoigu’s response: “In 2014, we intend to create military units and forces for ensuring the military security and protecting the national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic.”

The world’s favourite tiger-sedating taekwondo black belt was in worringly bellicose form: “next year, we have to complete the formation of new large units and military divisions [in the Arctic, that remain on constant combat alert]… Russia must possess all the levers necessary for protecting its security and national interests”.  Russia has form in this area: in 2007 a Russian submarine stuck a Russian flag into the North Pole. On the bottom of the sea.

This energy-pedia article cites Independent military analyst Alexander Golts on the possibly rather serious repercussions of all this:

“The plans outlined by Putin particularly concerned establishing new air bases or expanding existing ones in the Arctic Siberian town of Tiksi and the northwestern naval port of Severomorsk [and restoring] a Soviet-era military base on the New Siberian Islands in the extreme north of eastern Siberia... Golts said Putin's orders reflected a 'return to a Cold War mentality' in which Moscow viewed the Arctic as a battlefield with specific winners and losers. 'The rumour is that they want to deploy an air defence system on the New Siberian Islands,' Golts told AFP. 'The rest of the bases appear to be intended for various (military) jets.'

Russia is currently completing the development of a state programme for tapping… Arctic energy riches over the coming two decades with the help of such multinational giants as ExxonMobil. The Ernst and Young consultancy noted in a recent report that Russia was also 'preparing an application to extend its borders over 1.2 million square kilometres (465,000 square miles) of Arctic waters’… by the end of the year.

Some analysts link the claim to Kremlin expectations of continued global warming and the gradual retreat of thick ice from both promising energy deposits and shipping lanes. The Kremlin in particular appears eager to control the so-called Northern Sea Route that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along Russia's northern coast. 'But that leads us into direct conflict with the United States because it backs an 'open seas' policy in international waters,' said military affairs writer Pavel Felgenhauer. 'The US navy will be ready to defend these (free passage) rights,' the analyst said.”

Baird’s take on behalf of Canada was equally in accordance with national stereotype: “Canada is going to fight to assert its sovereignty in the north but I think we will be good neighbours in doing so.”  

But as the Guardian points out, the Canadians are arguably quite aggressive too:

"It's often said that the Russians act with their Arctic policy in an aggressive, nationalistic and unilateral way. The same thing can be said about the Canadians," said Andrew Foxall, director of the Russian Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society. "Harper has said Canada is an Arctic nation. He frequently goes up into Canada's high Arctic. There are large-scale military exercises there”… The Canadian media reported that Harper personally insisted the north pole be included in any new claim even though the scientific evidence put Canada's boundary just south of it. The Arctic has been a popular domestic issue for the prime minister, who has talked of his country's northern national identity.” 

In 2010 Canada even tried to stake a claim to Santa - or Father Christmas, as he’s properly called.

As the same article elaborates, some describe Canada’s claim to the pole as a long shot: 

“This week Baird said it would take several years for Canada to map the continental shelf and to complete its full UN submission… Michael Byers, an expert on Arctic and international law at the University of British Columbia, said the planned UN submission was clearly political. "[Harper] does not want to be the prime minister seen publicly as having surrendered the north pole, even if the scientific facts don't support a Canadian claim," he said. "What he's essentially doing here is holding this place, standing up for Canadian sovereignty, while in private he knows full well that position is untenable."

It could well be that this one plays out over a long time; hopefully it'll remain in the realm of political posturing.

Some grounds for hope that an icy apocalypse remains some way off is offered by this final opinion (via the Guardian again) from Phil Steinberg, director of the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University, who said that "in practice Canada and Russia co-operated with each other. Their rhetoric over the Arctic was politically charged but scientists from the rival states were working closely together to map the frozen region. The north pole, meanwhile, was not home to untold oil and gas riches... "It's more a symbol of national pride.””