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Putin urges joint Arctic scientific council with Canada

Russian leader Vladimir Putin during a meeting with editors-in-chief of western newspapers

Russian leader Vladimir Putin challenged Canada to set up a joint scientific council with his country to investigate issues over Arctic sovereignty and help the United Nations draw new boundaries in the northern regions, where fast-melting ice is opening channels for oil drilling, mining and shipping.

There are Canadian concerns that Russia is exploring the shelf under the Arctic Ocean with an eye to expanding its territorial boundaries and, with it, resource rights and shipping access.

The tension has been magnified by a cool relationship between the Harper government and Moscow over several issues ranging from visa permits to Russia's position in the Middle East.

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"We have normal relations," Mr. Putin said, adding that he would like to meet with Mr. Harper at coming G8 and G20 summits.

"The volume of trade is very low. Perhaps that is part of the problem."

The Russian leader spoke to a group of six newspaper editors invited to his residence outside Moscow.

In response to questions about Canadian relations, he said he would push for a joint scientific team, and pointed to a successful Russia-Norway approach to Arctic sovereignty.

"The border of the continental shelf needs to be determined by scientists," he said.

He also tried to calm concerns over Russian exploration. "You needn't suspect us of some kind of unilateral action. Yes, we have been exploring the shelf. What's wrong with that?"

On other bilateral issues, Mr. Putin said he is concerned about the low level of trade and investment between Canada and Russia, given the two countries' vast natural resources and large corporate exposure to oil and gas, mining and agriculture. He cautioned Canadian companies not to ignore Russia for long, as Japanese, German and Chinese companies are quickly moving into new areas of investment.

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With respect to energy development, Mr. Putin encouraged Canada to diversify from the U.S. market. "You have only one customer, that's not good," he said, adding that China is a "reliable" customer even when the Chinese are "tough negotiators."

He also promoted ideas for a reunion hockey event this September, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Canada-USSR hockey series.

Mr. Putin recalled watching the series with his parents in their impoverished quarter of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) – before he went on to a career in the KGB and rose through the ranks of Russian government.

He said the hockey series changed his teenaged view of the world – particularly Game One that was won by the Soviets. "It showed we could take on the world," he said.

The offer from Mr. Putin on setting up a joint scientific council comes as the two countries – and others with title in the Arctic – stake claims to valuable resources that lie below the frozen ocean.

The North has become more accessible as a result of global warming. And the possibility that it could hold the Earth's last great reserves of oil and gas has enticed many nations, even those like China that do not have land in the region.

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Russia, which has spent decades exerting control over its Arctic coast, is well ahead of the game. Canada, however, has an opportunity to exert its influence in the region when it heads the eight-member Arctic Council in April of 2013. The council is an intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by Arctic governments and indigenous peoples in the region.

In August, 2007, the Russians sent a three-person submersible four kilometres below the ice to plant a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag on the sea floor of the North Pole – a symbolic assertion of sovereignty that had no legal consequence.

In 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a session of the UN Security Council that his country was prepared to defend its Arctic mineral rights with force, if necessary. And, as recently as last year, Russia has said it would increase its Arctic military presence.

For his part, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has responded to the fist thumping by ordering annual displays of Canada's own might in the Far North. His Arctic policy has been categorical for much of his time in office. "Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic; either we use it or we lose it," Mr. Harper said in 2007. But privately he has acknowledged to NATO officials that Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic.

The remaining disputes will ultimately be settled through intensive mapping and, for four years, Canada and the United States have been working together to establish the shape of the continental shelf, which will determine the division of resource rights.

The information they have obtained will be submitted to a UN commission that is responsible for substantiating ownership in the hotly contested region.

With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa

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