Andrea Charron: Canada and the Arctic, Part 2

Photo: DND/MDN

Veteran contributor and CDA Institute Research Fellow Andrea Charron PhD, Director of the Centre for Security, Intelligence and Defence Studies, Carleton University outlines several key and well-grounded considerations concerning Canada and the Arctic as attention swings once again to this important region of our country.



Given a new US President and an aggressive Russia what might these factors portend for Canada and the Arctic especially given geopolitical events elsewhere?  Having looked at the relationship between the US and Canada, Part 2 will focus on Russia.

For many nothing grabs the headlines like concerns for Russia’s presumed nefarious designs on the Arctic. Such assertions are made despite Russia having demonstrated that it has adhered to international law with respect to Arctic issues (e.g., the Ilulissat Declaration of the five Arctic coastal states, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea , which the US has yet to adopt formally, and the process for delimiting extended continental shelves). Russia’s activities in Syria and Ukraine are presented as evidence of its intent to threaten the Arctic with military confrontation as well. We need to unpack this slippery slope connection.

First, the activities of Russia in Syria and Ukraine are reprehensible.  Full stop.  Yes, Russia has the potential to hit major North American centres with an arsenal of missiles.  Yet such actions are not de facto evidence of designs around the globe, or particularly for the Arctic.  Russia is certainly opportunistic, seizing on frozen conflicts from the Cold War as well as undermining and exploiting states in its near abroad, especially those with pro-Russian and usually authoritarian leadership that have populations that could be fractured along national lines.  The Arctic does not fit this profile. Russia mythologizes its Arctic to posit a singular history of pride in overcoming adversity (failing to mention much of its Arctic was developed under the Gulag system with prisoners), conveniently glossing over growing ethnic divides among its minority groups and a very tense relationship with its own indigenous peoples.  Canada has also been known to frame its Arctic to suit its myths created by “southerners”: the Arctic is simultaneously unique and the symbol of Canada, conveniently devoid of English and French tensions – all of which overlooks the peoples who live there and the fraught relationships governments have had managing, governing and understanding the Arctic.

Second, Russia has high hopes that the Arctic will be a potential fix for what is looking like deep economic malaise. With three large rivers the length of the Mississippi draining into the Arctic basin and a Northern Sea Route that links Russia to China and Europe, Russia is hoping its port cities, like Murmansk, oil and gas resources, and its Northern Sea Route are the economic engines that will save the Russian economy.  We’ll have to wait and see if this actually materializes. Analysts who claim Russia is “grabbing” extra territory would do well to remember that Russia has made its submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for review. Canada has yet to complete its Arctic submission (only its Atlantic submission) and the US is not a party to UNCLOS.

As well, it is important to remember that the extended continental shelf, however delimited, gives the coastal state first rights to resources on and below the ocean floor – not the waters or air space above. In other words, the process does not extend territorial waters or exclusive economic zones and the high seas will remain the high seas. Furthermore, we need to remember that Russia has maritime boundary agreements with both Norway and the US.  The latter Agreement extends to cover whatever shelf area exists for the two States beyond 200 nautical miles. Russia has indicated in diplomatic correspondence available on the CLCS website to both Canada and Denmark that there is a need to resolve possible continental shelf overlaps eventually.  Also, a quick look at the Russian submission to the CLCS indicates that Russia did not “claim” as much seafloor area as it might have – in particular with regards to the Gakkel Ridge. The Russians appear to be acting consistently with the relevant provisions of the UNCLOS. This is to be acknowledged.

Third, the Arctic is a region that Russia dominates because of the size of its Arctic territory, its large Arctic population and its 41+ icebreakers (6 of which are heavy polar, nuclear powered vessels). The Arctic is the one issue area in which it is a peer to the US. Indeed, Russia is the Arctic power. Its expansion/refurbishment of its northern bases is not entirely unlike Canadian and US spending on military equipment and bases – as a source of economic stimulus, among other reasons. More to the point, Russia’s general military buildup is a convenient way to whip up nationalism and divert its public’s attention away from the lack of services, increasingly closed government, and poor results in nearly all measures of health and economic status.  While Russia has emerged as the third largest defence spender in the world, this level is still dwarfed by American defence spending.  The US spent $US 596,024 million in 2015 on defence vs Russia’s $US 91,081 million in 2015 – representing a 6.5 times factor on defence spending. Nevertheless, the fact that Russia is better able to monitor its vast Arctic, with nodes and networks of bases and forward operating locations, means that NATO allies need to improve and expand surveillance and share information.

The military expansion and buildup must be tracked, of course. Russia has the greatest strategic latitude to operate in the Arctic. Scandinavian and European partners are particularly weary of Russian intentions; everyone is rediscovering their deterrence and containment theory textbooks.  NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Bradshaw recently described the likelihood of a military confrontation with Russia as low but added “there is a very small risk and because the consequences would be catastrophic, we have absolutely got to deal with the risks.”  To put it in the starkest of terms, if spillover from other conflicts results in Russia escalating, it could choose the Arctic as a target to force the US to deescalate elsewhere in the world. The Alliance, in turn, could invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. In such a scenario, war is a possibility.

That being said, Russia does not want to engage NATO directly; rather it seeks to create disunity among NATO and European Union allies. Maintaining capabilities and working with Russia, therefore, is a way of ensuring that activities in the Arctic do not increase risks of opportunistic escalation, ensuring allies work together more regularly as well as reducing tensions elsewhere. Not only is Russia essential to tackling some of the common issues in the Arctic, like improving health indicators, telecommunication, and important scientific research, but it represents a safer topic on which other geopolitical issues can be broached.

So where does this leave Canada?

As Finland replaces the US as Chair of the Arctic Council in May for 2017 – 2019, all Arctic and non-Arctic Observer states need to reconfirm their focus on key issues of environmental protection and sustainable development.  Most importantly, the US and Russia must try to seek opportunities for dialogue by building on the cooperation that already exists in the Arctic. So far, the Arctic remains relatively untouched from the rising tension that has marred relations with Russia in other parts of the world, from Ukraine to Syria. Canada and its allies have an interest in ensuring that relations in the Arctic do not deteriorate further, much as they have done so in other issue areas. At the same time, Canada needs to continue tracking military developments in the Arctic, improve its surveillance and information-sharing, and avoid linkages with other areas of the world of actual and potential military confrontation, lest it leads to escalation. Dialogue can have a strategic purpose, and need not be naïve. A pragmatic Canada would seek every opportunity to encourage such talks.

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