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Russia's Next Face Off on Ice

Christopher Sands

Team Canada’s heartbreaking defeat at the World Junior Hockey semifinals in Calgary has many Canadians thinking ruefully about their Russian rivals on ice: the Russian juniors beat the Canadians in the gold medal game last year too, and now Canada will miss the finals altogether. Fans can only hope for better luck next year.

While they do, Canadians would be wise to begin paying attention to another Russian rivalry on ice: Vladimir Putin’s aggressive new push to expand Russian arctic sovereignty claims.

A December report from the Jamestown Foundation in Washington argues that Putin’s goal is to win recognition of Russian claims to sovereignty to the full limit of the continental shelf at the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2012. The Commission was formed in 2007 by the countries party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Russia is one of the 21 countries represented on the Commission (neither Canada nor the United States is) whose five year mandate expires in June 2012.

Russia has also been expanding its investment in arctic capabilities, increasing funding for scientific and naval missions in the arctic over the past few years. The Putin government announced in December that construction will begin this year on a new arctic oil pipeline that could carry as much as 15 percent of Russian production from new arctic fields to markets in Europe and Asia.

Canada’s position in the arctic is not as strong as it could be. The Harper government has upheld Canada’s longstanding claims to sovereignty beyond the Arctic Archipelago to include the waters of the Northwest Passage and significant portions of the Beaufort Sea. Yet Canada continues to develop its arctic capabilities and presence very slowly, and the Mackenzie Valley and Denali pipeline projects are stalled.

Russia’s arctic push is a signal that Canada should be prepared to bring its best game to the arctic. One way to do so would be to resolve outstanding differences over the region with the United States: settlement of the bilateral border dispute in the Beaufort Sea, and a working agreement with regard to the Northwest Passage.

As one of his last official acts, President George W. Bush issued a new U.S. policy under which the United States would expand its capabilities and presence in the arctic to secure commercial shipping and scientific research in the region. The Obama administration has continued the policy, and the hope in the United States is that Canadian capabilities and presence in the arctic will grow so that Canada will gradually take on a larger share of this responsibility; to borrow a phrase from the U.S. military in Iraq, the U.S. would stand down as Canada stands up.

Increasing air patrols and surveillance through NORAD would be a start. Expanding joint scientific research support would be another: perhaps through the establishment of a U.S.-Canada Clean Arctic Dialogue modeled on the existing bilateral Clean Energy Dialogue. And both countries could do more to coordinate diplomacy at the United Nations and elsewhere to counter Russian attempts to press the reset button on arctic sovereignty in their favor and at Canada’s expense.

The World Junior Hockey championships will be held on Russian ice in 2012, in Ufa. The United Nations discussions are already underway. Team Canada needs to get to work now to be ready for the next face off in both arenas.

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