In recent months, we have seen hunts for suspected Russian submarines off the coasts of Sweden and Scotland and NATO allies report more frequent intercepts of Russian aircraft in the Baltic and North Seas, all while Canada and NATO partners conduct land, air and maritime operations in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. Tensions might not yet have reached levels of the Cold War, but the growing Russian aggression raises questions for Canada about security and sovereignty in the Arctic.

The region is managed by the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum of eight member countries – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States – founded to address issues of sustainable development and environmental protection, climate change, Arctic shipping and exploration for oil, gas and mineral resources.

The Arctic Ocean, to the extent it is or is not international water, will be assessed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), established in December 1982 with comprehensive rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. UNCLOS enshrines the notion that all problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be addressed on a holistic basis, and will make a final decision on Arctic boundary claims based on proposals submitted by the Arctic states in 2013.

While all eight nations have varying claims, the most contentious might be between Canada and Russia and their over-lapping assertions in the area around the North Pole. (Greenland also has a claim on the North Pole area, and Denmark just recently reasserted that position.)

Russia has been the most proactive in developing the Arctic region over the past century. And in response to the 2013 deadline, it mounted an extensive research expedition – the Arktika 2007 – that included a manned drifting ice station, the first of its kind to reach the North Pole, and the first submersible to reach the seabed to collect rock, mud, water and plant samples and to place a Russian titanium flag on the bottom below the North Pole. Though both the U.S. and Canada have dismissed the act as purely symbolic and legally meaningless, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters: “The aim of Arktika 2007 expedition was to back Russia’s 2008 proposal to the UNCLOS stating that these bottom samples prove Russia’s claim that the Lomonosov Ridge is the continuation of the continental shelf that extends from Russia out to the North Pole.”

Canada has been preparing its proposal since 2003, but failed to include the North Pole area at the time of the 2013 deadline, prompting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to withdraw the proposal and request an extension. He has said very clearly that Canada’s “birthright” goes beyond its land mass and right up to the geographic North Pole.

At stake is sovereignty over a vast area that by some analysts’ projections represents US$43 trillion worth of oil and gas (80 percent of today’s world money supply). Canada and Russia have continental shelves that extend beyond the 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This natural prolongation will be recognized by UNCLOS as sovereign rights over the natural resources on the seabed. To determine the outer limits of the shelf, UNCLOS will use the physical attributes of the seabed as well as distance from shore to determine a series of coordinates by which the outer limits are defined. UNCLOS will balance recognition of the inherent rights of a coastal state over their part of the continental shelf.

Theoretically, the competing claims between Canada and Russia could be settled by a compromise placing the border line at the North Pole. However, the U.S. and the international community are pushing for limits to the requests made by Canada and Russia that would restrict their claims to the current 200nm EEZ and make the oil, gas and mineral resources the common heritage of mankind – a proposal based on the existing Antarctic model under which resources would be administered by an International Seabed Authority. With a growing number of observer nations now participating in the Convention’s hearing, Harper has voiced concern that this may influence an unfavourably decision for both Canada and Russia.

For decades the U.S. has used the Arctic with impunity and has resisted any restrictions on traversing and operating in the Arctic Ocean both under and on the surface, bringing into question the outcome of the current attempt to divvy up the Arctic Ocean.

Arctic map

The Russian strategy
A. V. Vasiliev, ambassador at large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Russia’s representative on the Arctic Council, expressed his county’s views in a 2012 magazine article. In 2008 Russia “adopted a long-term strategy for the Arctic region in context of both new and historical conditions.” This strategy contains four national priorities:

1) Protect Russia’s sovereignty over its territories in the Arctic and exploit oil, gas and mineral resources for socio-economic development;
2) Preserve the Arctic as a place of peace, stability and cooperation;
3) Care for the vulnerable Arctic ecosystems, and protect the interests of indigenous peoples of the north; and
4) Take advantage of the northern passage through the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific as an important national transport route.

Although the Russian strategy has a distinctive national “pull,” it also has much in common with the strategies of most other Arctic states, namely the desire to find a reasonable solution to economic development and at the same time protect the environment as well as provide support for its indigenous peoples. All Arctic states recognize the fundamental differences of the Arctic region, its rugged nature, harsh conditions and, despite rapid socio-economic changes, believe it is paramount to retain the Arctic’s unique character which makes it necessary for all to work together to achieve the best overall outcome.

On the surface Vasiliev comments sound conciliatory. But some feel that they are no more than window dressing. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, said: “Moscow’s current geopolitical goal, shaped by Vladimir Putin, reflects a nostalgic obsession with the country’s imperial past, with Putin attempting to recreate in a new guise something akin to the Zar’s Russian empire or the more recent Soviet Union.” Some feel that Russia’s rapid expansion in the Arctic is a way for Putin to achieve part of his new “imperial” vision.

Early manifestations of that ambition were reflected in a grandiose overhaul of the Pacific port of Vladivostok for the 2012 APEC summit and the more than $50 billion spent to host the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, to say nothing of recent actions in the Ukraine. To some these are seen as a harbinger of “things to come” in the Arctic.

While investments by western companies in the Arctic may have been diverted temporarily – in part as a result of actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine – the world’s oil companies are nonetheless eager to exploit the riches of Russian Arctic oil and gas. Norway’s Statoil, France’s Total, Italy’s Enid and others have all registered interest.

There remain big technical challenges to laying and maintaining pipelines under the Arctic ice, a problem that conjures up visions of environmental disaster of an unbelievable magnitude in a fragile region of the planet. But when a Russian political scientist expressed the view that the Arctic, like Antarctic, should be treated as international territory to ensure its preservation, Putin publicly called him a “moron,” bringing into question Vasiliev’s carefully crafted Arctic strategy.

Harper has also dismissed the Antarctic model, saying “it is absolutely and completely unacceptable to the government and the people of Canada.” The Prime Minister has made the North a central pillar of his policy over the past eight years, visiting the region frequently to announce investments. And the Conservative Party’s 2005 election campaign platform boldly spoke of blending military and civilian objectives in the Arctic by promising to build three armed, heavy icebreakers and a military port. However, the difference between the implementation of Russia’s Arctic strategy and the still mostly posturing by Canada shows the classic difference between actions and words.

The Canadian commitment
The 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy carried over a number of programs from previous administrations, unfulfilled promises that represent both modernization of the Canadian military and new capability to address significant security concerns in the Arctic:

• Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR): A plan to replace ageing C-130 Hercules and Buffalos first proposed in 2003, the project has produced a draft RFP but is still awaiting a final request for bids.
• Canadian Multi-Mission Aircraft (CMA): First considered in 2003, it was announced in the CFDS as a priority for delivery in 2020; continued structural upgrades to more of the CP-140 Aurora fleet (now at 14) have likely pushed that out even further.
• Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS): Once listed as a priority in the Conservative’s election platform in 2005, it is still in options analysis.
• Canadian Space Surveillance System (Sapphire): A program initiated in 2000, with a planned launch in 2009-10, it was finally launched in February 2013.
• Protected Military Satellite Communications (PMSC): Initiated in 1988, with phase one funded in 1999, it was launched in 2010.
• Victoria-Class Upgrade: After a failed nuclear submarine replacement in 1988-1991, modernization of four Upholder-class conventional submarines acquired in 1998 has finally reached a steady state, but may be insufficient for persistent Arctic patrol which will require modern nuclear submarines to be effective.

Of the six programs, only the space surveillance and communications satellites have been successfully completed. But they allow Canada to watch the Arctic, not to intervene.

In its 2005 election platform, the Conservative Party announced several additional programs that will affect Arctic capability:

• F-35A Joint Strike Fighter: Initiated by a MOU in 2001 and suspended in 2012 following an Auditor General’s report, a program to replace Canada’s fleet of CF-18 aircraft is now awaiting a Cabinet decision.
• Polar-class icebreakers: What began as three icebreakers expected to be in service by 2017 has been reduced to just one, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, now expect to join the fleet in 2021-2022 or later.
• Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS): Officially announced in 2007, these six ships became part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy in 2010 and will begin cutting steel in 2015.
• Joint Support Ship: First announced in 2006 and then cancelled in 2010 for non-compliant bids, the project will deliver three ships with reinforced hulls to support both Canada’s modernized frigates and the AOPS in the Arctic, likely around 2020.
• Nanisivik Naval Base: A priority when announced as a new military/civilian deepwater harbour, it is unlikely to be completed until at least 2018, and probably on a smaller scale.

If the Arctic is to be Prime Minister Harper’s legacy there is little concrete evidence that his ideas has been supported by concrete actions. Most of these programs have been delayed – in some cases repeatedly – and there is little reason to expect much action until after the 2015 federal election, which could result in new government priorities. The fact that the government cut $3 billion from the 2014 Defence Budget is only proof that its Arctic strategy has also been deferred.

Even with the current commitment for one Polar-class icebreaker, six existing conventional icebreakers and six modest Arctic patrol ships, can Canada reasonably secure its interests, especially given Russian investment? In 2013, 13 ships passed through the Northwest Passage and that is only expected to increase. Although new regulations for ship design will come into effect in 2015 to mitigate against environmental disasters in Arctic passage, can Canada enforce those rules without more icebreakers? Do we risk losing control of our shipping lanes?

By comparison Russia is undergoing a renaissance in nuclear vessel construction with four new nuclear icebreakers – the biggest ever – joining the seven already used to guide cargo ships through the Northern Passage. Russia has also completed its first ice-capable nuclear oil/gas drilling platform – with a second in progress and six more being planned. In 2013, it launched two large barges with 20-tonne floating nuclear power stations to support Russia’s Arctic oil, gas and mining operations. And it is introducing a new fleet of Borei-class nuclear missile submarines while still operating the older Delta-class subs that frequently crisscross under the Arctic ice.

The Canadian government appears to believe our Arctic sovereignty can be guarded by the six new Harry DeWolf-class AOPS (originally eight, but cut back due to budget creep). The fleet has been a high priority naval building program, but many experts see the AOPS as only having a nominal role in the Arctic – mostly during the ice-free summer months. Their design is based on the 85 metre-long, 6,100 tonne Svalbard Class Ocean Patrol Ship built by Tangsten Verf in Kragerø, Norway, the Norwegian Navy’s largest warship with a proven record of breaking one-meter thick new ice. Canada, however, will build a slimmer version at least 1,000 tonnes lighter and perhaps challenged in one-metre new ice.

And while this program has been a government priority, it is not necessarily the Royal Canadian Navy’s. The RCN feels that these vessels are neither icebreakers nor adequate as a surface combatant and therefore an unnecessary diversion from their main missions.

Between their cost and capability, would it be better investing in more Polar-class icebreakers? Canadian Arctic policy has been insufficient to prove our UNCLOS claim (at least to the Prime Minister’s satisfaction). Without more investment, will we be able to protect our interests?
Henning Jacobsen is the owner of HJA Solutions, a consultancy that has advised numerous defence companies. He was an advisor to former Indian Affairs and Northern Development minister Jean Chrétien on Arctic strategy.