01/30/2014 03:59 EST | Updated 04/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Putin's Arctic envoy says Russian military buildup about protecting own borders

OTTAWA - Vladimir Putin's senior Arctic envoy has defended Russia's military build-up in the north, saying it is not directed at Canada or any of its allies.

Anton Vasiliev, Russia's ambassador at large for the Arctic, told The Canadian Press that Russia is solely concerned with defending its own vast northern regions, which are becoming more vulnerable due to climate change.

Vasiliev said Russia once had a naturally secure border of 20,000 kilometres of frozen ice, but that is literally melting away as temperatures rise in the Arctic.

"Now the climate is getting milder, the ice is retreating and we simply need to protect our borders from illegal trafficking, illegal border crossing, mass crime, terrorism, narco-trafficking — all these bad things that come through this porous border," Vasiliev said Thursday in an interview.

Russia, Canada, the United States and their five other Arctic Council members all enjoy good military co-operation, he said, stressing that his county's military build-up is not meant to be provocative to any of them.

"We don't feel there is a militarization of the Arctic," Vasiliev said.

"But there is a growing interest for more military presence, more mobilization of military forces going on in each and every Arctic state, including Russia … and we are quite open about that."

He said Russia is also keenly interested in protecting the emerging northern sea route. With growing ship traffic, there will be a need to protect critical infrastructure such as the oil rigs that are expected to become a key feature in the Arctic's future.

Russia is encouraging its Arctic Council allies to bolster their military assets in the Arctic, Vasiliev added.

It was Canada, he said, that initiated regular meetings of the chiefs of defence staff of the eight Arctic Council states, hosting the first one in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., in April 2012.

Vasiliev also debunked the view held by some that there is a race for resources in the Arctic, or that Russia's military build-up is about flexing its military muscles or projecting strength internationally.

In particular, he said, Canada and Russia enjoy very good relations on the Arctic, a view that was echoed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in a recent interview.

To that end, Vasiliev sounded a conciliatory note when asked about another thorny issue in Arctic politics: Canada's decision to extend is Arctic territorial claim beyond what has been mapped out by federal scientists.

Canada's formal scientific submission to the United Nations claimed 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed under the Atlantic, as well as a preliminary claim in the Arctic Ocean. But the Harper government said last month that Canada's Arctic claim will be expanded to include the North Pole, even though Canadian scientists have yet to conduct the detailed mapping necessary to support the bid.

"If there are overlapping claims then they will be treated in an orderly way on the basis of negotiations and on the basis of existing and sufficient international law and goodwill," he said.

Vasiliev also lauded a new Arctic Council initiative, led by Canada, which will focus on fostering business opportunities in the north.

On Wednesday, Leona Aglukkaq, the Harper government's minister for the Arctic Council, announced the creation of the Arctic Economic Council, an independent committee within the larger council that will look for ways to facilitate business opportunities in the north.

Vasiliev said that while the focus would be on exploiting the untapped oil and gas of the Far North, the AEC will also be helping business find opportunities in transport and infrastructure.

All of this will be done with a paramount concern for protecting the environment, he said, for the simple reason it makes good business sense: no company wants to cut what would be a whopping cheque to pay for an oil spill clean-up.

Aglukkaq also delivered that message in her speech to a conference on northern business development in Ottawa earlier in the week.

"Canada believes strongly that economic development is very much at the heart of a positive transformation of the North," Aglukkaq told her audience.

"However, this development must be done in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner so that the land, water and animals that many northern people still depend on are not negatively affected."