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Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the launch of a missile during naval exercises in Russia’s Arctic North on board the nuclear missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great) in August, 2005.ITAR TASS/Reuters

Fallout from crisis as far away as the Crimea is starting to complicate the already-dicey regime grappling with a fast-changing the Arctic even as the grab for riches, routes and resources heats up in a 21st century version of the Great Game.

The major powers (China, Russia and the United States) are jockeying for advantage in the Arctic, and Canada – weaker and with less leverage – now finds itself at odds with all three over various interlocking issues.

Last month, despite Canada holding the chair of the Arctic Council, the Harper government snubbed Moscow by boycotting a critical environmental meeting to show its anger over the Kremlin's meddling in Ukraine.

"Increasingly we are seeing non-Arctic issues spilling into (Canada's Arctic) relationships," said Rob Huebert, associate director of the Military and Strategic Studies centre at the University of Calgary. "Canada has cancelled some Arctic Council meetings in protest to Moscow's actions in the Ukraine," he told the Arctic 2014 session "Who gets a Voice and Why it Matters" at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The competing and potentially conflicting claims of major Arctic powers and those – like China, South Korea and Japan – that are fast forcing their way into the polar conversation may soon outstrip the cosy, non-confrontational approach taken at the Arctic Council, the creation of the eight circumpolar nations that has no mandate to resolve disputes.

Yet the Arctic is making for odd alliances.

For instance, while Ottawa struggles to find support for its tenuous claim that the Northwest Passage are Canadian waters – not an international strait – it has no backers for its stance, except Moscow.

"Russians have moved very extensively to assert complete control over the Northern Sea route; they demand a fee; they offer icebreaking escort," said Mr. Huebert, one of a half-dozen Arctic experts examining the overlapping interests of major players. "They don't make the public pronouncements as Canada does, they simply assert control," he added. Russia also has a fleet of huge, nuclear-powered icebreakers with three more on order; each several times more capable than the aging heavy icebreakers – one each – owned by the Canadian and U.S. coast guards.

Given Russia's demonstrated control of its northern sea passage and Canada's comparative weakness, Mr. Huebert said that "Canada may be a softer target for the Europeans and Americans to assert that (the northern sea passages, now increasingly free of ice in the summer) are international waterways that to take on the Russians."

For nations that seek to demonstrate free passage through international straits, the choice may be between sailing waters claimed by Canada compared to those claimed by – and heavily patrolled – by Russia.

Ottawa and Washington have – for decades – agreed to disagree over the Northwest Passage, a useful way of ignoring an issue that didn't matter because no one was using it. But steadily increasing commercial shipping, fishing and oil exploration looms on the horizon.

"This is a critical one for the relationship; it should be easily manageable but it is politically sensitive," Mr. Huebert said. "Canada claims it is internal waters; the United States says it a strait used for international navigation. For the U.S. it's about (keeping open vital international shipping routes like) the Straits of Hormuz; for Canada is (a political issue) for domestic consumption."

Arctic nations find themselves in shifting alliances of convenience, depending on the issue.

Mr. Huebert said Canada may need to re-consider its rejection of anti-missile missile defences, including an expanded launcher site in Alaska, if it wants to persuade Washington that perimeter defence is sufficiently worthwhile to consider accepting the Northwest Passage as internal Canadian waters.

But even as Ottawa might want Moscow support on sovereignty over northern waterways, Canada is at odds with Russia, not just over Ukraine, but also because the two largest Arctic nations will stake overlapping claims to continental shelves that may harbour rich undersea oil reserves.

It's not just Canada dealing with shifting alliances.

Heather Conley, a senior fellow at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Obama administration has belatedly recognized the importance of the Arctic and will soon appoint a special representative ahead of it two-year stint as chair of the Arctic Council.

She said Washington still has no long-range planning for the Arctic but expects that the United States will face an "increasingly adversarial role with the Arctic superpower which is Russia."

Meanwhile, new players, like China and South Korea are building new icebreakers and committing money and resources on an unprecedented scale to the Arctic.

Paul Koring reports from Washington.