Joakim Sandberg/Wikimedia Commons

“Defending Canada’s interests in the North.” “Flex our Arctic muscles.” These are some of the op-ed headlines to come out in recent days in reaction to the Russians’ announcement that they would create two brigades to be stationed in the Arctic. This really should not come as a surprise. First, Russia has been increasing its military presence in the Arctic over the past couple of years. Earlier this year, the country announced plans to establish a special Arctic Forces brigade in Pechenga, near the border with Norway. The brigade should be active by the end of 2011 and will have DT-30P Vityaz all-terrain articulated tracked carriers, which can operate in snowy Arctic conditions. All of this increased activity is part of Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020, which calls for increasing the number of brigades from 70 to 109 by the end of this decade. If only two of those 49 new brigades are currently slated to be sent to the Arctic, then that shows that Russia has military concerns other than the Arctic – and that Canada needn’t be overly worried that Russia is expending all of its energy on encroaching on Canadian territory.

Second, all of the countries in the Arctic (save perhaps the U.S.) are significantly strengthening their manpower and infrastructure up North. For instance, the picture at left does not show Russian or Canadian solders, but rather Swedish Arctic Rangers (Lapplandsjagarna, or “Lappland’s hunters,” in Swedish). Arctic Rangers train in Kiruna, Sweden, far north of the Arctic Circle. Training involves things like learning how to drive a snowmobile and how to recognize Russian vehicles. Yet Swedish newspapers are not reacting in hysterics to Russia’s plans.

Finland, which shares the longest border of any of the Arctic states with Russia, is working hard to improve its relations with the former menace to the east. On June 18, Finnish President Tarja Halonen met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who remarked:

“Relations between Russia and Finland are at a high level and we are trying to develop them so that they become even better.”

Halonen also commented that she would seek to improve cooperation with Russia in the Nordic and Arctic regions. Thus, we see the two countries that share a land border with Russia striving for cooperation, while journalists in distant Canada come up with statements such as the following:

“To do nothing beyond sticking to the status quo of a relatively minor military exercise would be foolish with Russia so hopped up on establishing itself in our Arctic territory, so Canada’s announcement of a beefed-up presence in August will hopefully let the Russians know their plan will not go down without pushback.”

The question here is, what does “our Arctic territory” mean? Does Russia really wish to establish itself in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago? If the journalist means that Russia is bent on establishing itself on the Lomonosov Ridge, which could be potentially disputed territory depending on the claims that Canada, Russia, and also Denmark submit to the UN, well – that area isn’t quite Canada’s just yet. That decision will be made by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Russia is preparing to submit its official claim next year, while Canada is aiming for 2013. It doesn’t really matter when the claim is submitted, since the decision will be based on scientific findings rather than first-come-first-serve.

Russia is abiding by the rules. It will submit its territorial claims in accordance with UNCLOS and is publicly disclosing its plans to increase its forces in the Arctic. Were it a secret build-up, then Canada might have something to worry about. But this activity is all part of the Arctic states’ natural reactions to protecting land and water that is becoming more valuable as the ice melts. It doesn’t mean, however, that each country needs to be trigger-happy and at the ready, bristling to display its strength as soon as another country plays its hand.

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Canadian newspapers react predictably to Russian build-up

  1. Good points. I think our Canadian government IS a bit too “trigger-happy” on this issue and its possible that Defence Minister McKay wants to do something now that Canadian troops are leaving Afghanistan to the Americans this week and Canadians are skeptical of spending many billions on new fighter-jets.

    The notion of conflict over oil and gas reserves, as well as Arctic waters environmental issues is hardly a reason to be bolstering military strength in the Arctic, but suspicions of Putin’s character and policies may also be feeding some of the Canadian sabre-rattling.

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