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Putin's Bearish Threats to Canada's Arctic

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When he flew into the Arctic a few years ago for one of his manly photo-ops, this time with a polar bear his image-makers had tranquilized on the ice, Vladimir Putin looked at the unconscious beast and declared: "He's the real master of the Arctic."

We were all assuming Putin was talking about the bear, of course. But now that he's back in the Kremlin, Canadians would be justified in wondering if it's Putin who wants to be the Arctic czar.

Russia's president has big Arctic ambitions. Russia is pouring billions of dollars into major investments in Arctic shipping routes, northern cities, military development, and resource exploration and extraction. No country in the world can compete on such a scale with Russia in the Arctic.

Unfortunately for Canada, Russia's Arctic ambition reaches areas that Ottawa believes belong to Canada. And claiming sovereignty over those disputed areas is clearly one of Putin's priorities in the years ahead.

In the days before his re-election as Russia's president, Putin told The Globe and Mail that Canada and Russia ought to set up a joint scientific council to determine who owns what parts of the Arctic. Putin's intent, ostensibly, is for Canada and Russia to warm up relations and cooperate in determining how far each country's continental shelf extends toward the North Pole.

Determining that fact is crucial because it will decide which parts of the Arctic Canada and Russia can each claim. And in an age when the icecap is opening up to shipping and drilling rigs, that Arctic sovereignty means acquiring not ice, but the rights to vast reserves of oil, gas, and other resources under the pole.

Canadians should be cautious of Putin's proposal for a joint council. The Russian president probably knows a two-nation council is unlikely to ever reach the sort of clarity or joint scientific consensus that will be needed to carve up ownership of the Arctic and its valuable resources.

Canada and Russia are already deeply mired down on the sovereignty issue. One of the key disagreements is over an obscure, under-sea range of mountains known as the Lomonosov Ridge.

Russia claims the Lomonosov Ridge extends from Russia's landmass into the Arctic Ocean, a supposition that would extend Russia's continental shelf deep into Arctic territory, increasing Russia's claim to resources that in dollar terms are worth hundreds of billions, if not trillions.

Canada, meanwhile, has studied the ridge and its geology extensively. It believes hard science now proves the Lomonosov ridge is not Russian in origin. Canada's former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, spelled out Canada's position in Moscow in 2010.

"We will submit our data on the Lomonosov Ridge and we are confident that our case will prevail backed by scientific evidence," Pravda reported Lawrence Cannon telling reporters, with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in attendance.

The good news for Canada is that its claim seems to be supported by most scientists. "The Lomonosov Ridge, which Russia claims is part of their continental shelf, is clearly a separate oceanic seafloor volcanic ridge and thus not part of Russia's continental shelf," GlobalSecurity.org concluded in a recent analysis.

But Russia and its president are not about to give up. Russia continues to invest in scientific studies to make a counter-claim. And if science isn't enough, Russia continues a military and economic buildup in the Arctic that has not been seen since the Cold War. Stephen Blank wrote in the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasian Daily Monitor:

... a key element in Putin's agenda has been his aggressive campaign to assert Russian interests in the Arctic. The aggressiveness has been manifested in earlier rhetorical exchanges and the resumption of Russian military flights over and from the Arctic, as well as pronounced efforts to rebuild Russia's military in addition to its economic presence there. The purpose, along with the ongoing Russian scientific expeditions in the Arctic, is to gather the materials needed to substantiate Moscow's claims to major portions of the disputed Arctic territory when it presents its case to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2012.

Facing off with Russia in the Arctic isn't going to be easy, but Canada punches above its weight. And in April of 2013, we take over the head of the Arctic Council, the eight-nation international body that exerts considerable influence at the top of the world.