It is widely known that Russia and Canada are not the best of friends in the Arctic. They are the first and second largest countries in the region, and both base their Arctic policies heavily on the concept of sovereignty and the sanctity of territory. In part due to the lukewarm relations between the two countries, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has urged the creation of a joint scientific council with Canada in which potential continental shelf disputes could be discussed. There are no official disputes now, but one could occur if both Russia and Canada claimed an extension of the continental shelf more than 200 miles from their coastlines. Then, these two claims could overlap around the North Pole. Russia was the first country to submit its claims to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in December 2001, but they were rejected, and it has yet to submit its revisions. Canada has until next year to make its claims, so there remains some time before any disputes actually become official. In fact, Canada has a more defined and longstanding dispute with its southern neighbor, the U.S., over the Beaufort Sea.
Putin expressed his desire for a joint council in an interview with the editors of several international newspapers near his residence in suburban Moscow. Though the fact that Putin seeks a diplomatic forum seems positive for Arctic relations, there was an undercurrent of defensiveness to his comments. The Global and Mail reports that he stated, “The border of the continental shelf needs to be determined by scientists.” Later, he added, “You needn’t suspect us of some kind of unilateral action. Yes, we have been exploring the shelf. What’s wrong with that?”
Yet even if Putin’s comments might seem somewhat passive-aggressive to a Canadian, the fact of the matter is that Russia has been, and continues to, play by the rules. They managed to successfully resolve their maritime boundary dispute with Norway, although the latter country admittedly has invested a lot of time and resources into improving bilateral relations. Russia is now making an overture to Canada, but Stephen Harper probably won’t be as receptive as Jens Stoltenberg.
If the council doesn’t pan out, there is still one other arena in which Canada and Russia could meet in a friendly manner. John Stackhouse, Editor in Chief of the Globe and Mail, asked whether Putin would make a trip to Canada to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of a series of Soviet-Canada hockey matches. Putin responded that he had just invited several veteran Canadian hockey players to Russia, and that a reciprocal gesture would be “most welcome.” Hockey diplomacy, anyone?