When Russian Arctic scientist Artur Chilingarov – member of the Duma and special representative to President Vladimir Putin for the Arctic – planted a Russian flag at the North Pole in 2007, he created a media storm in Canada. Then-defense minister Peter MacKay was particularly critical of the Russian action, saying that this is no longer the 14th or 15th century.
But somewhat surprisingly, many Canadian commentators were not critical of the Russian action, but instead were very critical of Mr. Mackay and the government's response. It was suggested that Mr. Chilingarov was only acting as a scientist and that this was not official Russian action. (How exactly these commentators knew this was the case was never disclosed.) They also suggested the planting of flag at the North Pole had about as much meaning as the Americans planting a flag on the Moon. As such, the common wisdom developed that Canada overreacted and that the Russians did not mean anything by this action.
It turns out that this was only the opening act for the Russians. This summer, the Smolensk – an Oscar II class nuclear-powered and nuclear-missile-carrying submarine will go to the North Pole to raise the Russian flag. Her captain said in late December that this was a major mission for the submarine, which is just coming out of a two year refit.
Let's be clear so there is no misunderstanding on this action. A Russian captain is only allowed to say what is official policy – their public comments are more tightly controlled than even Canadian bureaucrats, scientists and military officials. A Russian navy submarine is also an instrument of the state. There can be no doubt that unlike Mr. Chilingarov's 2007 trip with French submarines, this is a clear expression of state policy. When the captain of the Smolensk goes to the North Pole to plant the Russian flag he is making a clear official political statement by the most powerful military instrument of the Russian state.
What should be the most disturbing for Canadians is that this announcement comes immediately after Canada has indicated that it may be including the region near and surrounding the North Pole in its submission regarding the outer limits of its continental shelf. The timing of the captain's announcement of this mission is not a coincidence. The Russians have been sending their nuclear submarines into Arctic waters since the Cold War; planting flags is not a normal part of missions.
This is clearly a message to Canada that the Russians see the North Pole as theirs. This action is also a repudiation by Russia of the promises made by all five Arctic states that can establish an extended continental shelf in the Arctic not to use military actions to support or sustain their relevant claims. In 2008, the United States, Norway, Denmark, Canada and Russia met in Ilulissat, Greenland, and promised each other that in the event of overlaps in their submissions that they would follow the processes provided through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to peacefully and diplomatically work out any differences. Nowhere in the Convention does it say that the usage of a nuclear missile carrying submarines should be used as a means of peacefully resolving differences. This is clearly an effort to intimidate Canada.
Ultimately, Canada must be careful not to let such action unnerved its resolve to ensure that it establish what it can rightfully and fairly claim. Canadian officials need to note that the Russians will play hardball on this issue and should be prepared for such actions. But if Canadian scientists can demonstrate that we have as good if not better scientific claim for the seabed of the region under the North Pole, we should be prepared to push forward. But no one should be under any illusions about how the Russians will behave in this regards. Where are those Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels for the Navy?
Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.