In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, Prime Minister Medvedev articulated a new Russian foreign
policy doctrine with stunning implications. The phrase that caught international attention was Medvedev’s statement that Russia enjoyed a “Sphere of Privileged interests’, which included those states which bordered upon Russia, but not limited to those states. To put the statement into context, Russia had just invaded a sovereign state, and severed the breakaway regions of South Ossetia, and Abkhazia from Georgia. Changing the borders of a neighboring state by military force was a clear violation of International Law, including the Charter of the UN. The situation leading up to Russia’s invasion was not an unambiguous case of innocent Georgia callously invaded by Russia. The Russian dominated regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were under civil, and military pressure by Georgia, and Russia had avoided direct military engagement with Georgia until the Georgian Army took action against the breakaway regions. Yet neither was Russia blameless, as Russia maintained a military presence, and close economic ties which enabled the breakaway regions to thumb their noses at the Georgian government. One can readily envision the frustration of the Georgian government at Russian interference within their borders, and Russian threats should Georgia carry through with their plans to accede to a closer engagement with NATO, and the European Union.
In that context, a Russian Sphere of privileged interest gave the world notice that Russia did not consider themselves bound by treaties, the United Nations, or anything other than Russia’s interests when dealing with their sovereign neighbors. The additional comments by Medvedev that Russia did not seek to isolate herself, and wanted to work within the bounds of international law were no doubt intended to sound conciliatory, but had little real meaning when uttered in the wake of a flagrant breach of international law, and the sovereignty of a neighboring state. Since 2008, Russia has continued to meddle in the internal affairs of her neighbors, maintaining close contact and support with Russian communities such as the separatist enclave of Transdneistra in Moldova, the Baltic states, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and indeed all the former republics of the USSR. Recently, Russia has unambiguously invoked their ‘privileged interests’ with the invasion, and annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine, and further incursions into the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine. The fact that Russia had specifically guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity by treaty both at the dissolution of the USSR, and by signing the Budapest memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders underscore Russia’s belief that their sphere of privileged interest trumps accepted international norms.
That brings me to a little reported, but in my opinion extremely significant utterance by Vladimir Putin on April 22. 2014 with respect to the Arctic. The following is a quote from the English translation provided by Putins official website: “This region has traditionally been a sphere of our special interest. It is a concentration of practically all aspects of national security – military, political, economic, technological, environmental and that of resources.” Please note that the official translation mimics the language used by Medvedev in articulating Russia’s ‘sphere of privileged interests’ policy to consider her interests in spite of restrictions imposed by international law. I do not believe that to be an accident. In fact, I would view this as a direct challenge to Canada specifically, and the 5 States vying for control over Arctic borders and resources more generally.
In happier days of 1996 the Ottawa Declaration, was issued as a joint communique whereby Russia joined with Canada, the USA, Denmark, Norway, and with less relevance Finland and Iceland in forming the Arctic Council. The function of the council was to provide, ” a high-level intergovernmental forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues; in particular, issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.” Over the years, there have been a number of multi-lateral agreements signed between the member states, including agreements governing safety and maintenance of new shipping routes expected to open as a consequence of global warming, and specifically the loss of ice cover in the Arctic ocean.
In 2008, the five nations bordering on the Arctic Ocean, (The US, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark) signed the Ilulissat_Declaration, which amongst other things, specifically agreed to submit to arbitration by the
Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. (CLCS). The CLCS is a body of Scientists elected by the member states of the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). The function of the CLCS is simple. It adjudicates claims relating to exclusive economic zones based upon extensions of the Continental shelf. One of the key elements of UNCLOS is that signatories to the treaty are allowed to claim an exclusive economic zone over any extension of their territorial Continental shelf. The USA Senate has refused to ratify the treaty, so they are shut out of the high Arctic, but Russia has not been so short-sighted. In 2001, Russia made a claim that the underwater Lomonosov, and Mendeleev ridges are extensions of the Eurasian landmass, which extends Russia`s claim right into the heart of the Arctic Ocean. The CLCS gave Russia until 2012 to provide evidence that the Lomonosov ridge was indeed an extension of the Eurasian continental shelf. Russia was supporting this claim when they conducted underwater surveys, and infamously planted the Russian flag on the sea bed at the North Pole in 2009. If you look at the Wikipedia bathyscopic map to the left, you will see that the Ridge appears to start at the North American Continental shelf, off the coast of Greenland-Ellesmere Island. It tapers into a quite tenuous connection to the East Siberian shelf.
Now this is where the colossal blunder our Conservative Government committed comes into the picture. On Dec.6, 2013 Canada made a ‘partial submisson‘ to the CLCS outlining our claims in the Grand Banks, and Labrador Sea. Canada had an equal opportunity to map the Lomonosov ridge starting from the Canadian end working North. There were alternate submission processes open to Canada but the salient point is that once the initial submission has been made to the CLCS, there is a ten year limit for presenting scientific data to support a claim, or counterclaim. Once the CLCS makes recommendation based on the submitted data, the recommendations become final and binding upon all signatories to UNCLOS. Canada`s ten year limit expired on Dec 7, 2013, the tenth anniversary of Canada’s accession to UNCLOS with no Canadian submission of Arctic data. In other words, Canadian claims will be irrevocably determined by the data submitted by Russia. The legal issues are pretty well outlined in this paper by Dalaina Heiberg from UBC: Dalaina_Heiberg_submission
Why didn’t Canada submit their own evidence to the CLCS? We had TEN YEARS to prepare our case. The Government of Canada is strangely quiet about the reasons, but a hint can be found on the Foreign Affairs ministry website dated Oct 2011. Here is the quote: “
Recommendation: That NRCan, DFO and DFAIT develop a plan to address future human resource and financial resource challenges. Evidence demonstrates that the Program currently has sufficient scientific and legal expertise to address its performance needs but there are funding shortfalls both prior to submission in December 2013 and for activities following submission. This is especially evident for DFAIT. Evidence suggests that the Program will not have the capacity to meet its objectives if these funding issues are not addressed.”
If you read the whole web page, you will find that DFAIT no longer has any scientists in their employ who are competent to prepare the Arctic submission. This was known in 2011, but nothing was done to rectify the problem. Can you believe it? I am having trouble with it myself. Proven resources in excess of 1.6 TRILLION tons of Oil and equivalents are at stake. From what Foreign Affairs had to say in 2011, Canada failed to make a case because the one competent scientist on the payroll was due to retire before the submission was prepared. Oh dear….
In the meantime, Russia has been far from idle. Amongst other measures announced on April 22, 2014 The Russian Army is forming two new Arctic brigades. Russia is commissioning the first of 4 nuclear power generating ships that also serve as Ice breakers. These are intended to provide power for drilling platforms, and the mainland infrastructure supporting Russia’s military. The Russian Arctic fleet represents 60% of Russia’s Navy, a total of approximately 80 warships, with new hulls under construction ongoing. A new signals intelligence infrastructure, staffed with 3,000 signals intelligence officers is to be constructed. Better and more satellite surveillance assets are to be deployed. This quote from Putin’s April 22 speech is illuminating:
“Meanwhile we are aware of the growing interest in the Arctic on the part of the international community. Ever more frequently, we see the collision of interests of Arctic nations, and not only them: countries far removed from this area are showing a growing interest as well. We should also bear in mind the dynamic and ever-changing political and socioeconomic situation in the world, which is fraught with new risks and challenges to Russia’s national interests, including those in the Arctic. I would like to repeat that, given the circumstances, we need to take additional measures so as not to fall behind our partners, to maintain Russia’s influence in the region and maybe, in some areas, to be ahead of our partners. These are our priority tasks. “
In this context, it is laughable that Canada is about to commit some $40 billion to a fleet of single engine F-35`s that do not have the range for, and are unsafe to operate in the Arctic. It appears that we are preparing to bomb impoverished middle eastern states rather than defend our sovereignty in the high Arctic. Canada`s military shipbuilding program seems to be a complete shambles. The Arctic Patrol Ship Project purports to be building 6-8 Arctic patrol warships, but the thickened hulls are not suitable for year round use in the Arctic. They have been jokingly referred to as slush-breakers by Gary Stern, chief scientist aboard the CCGC Admundsun. The planned Coast Guard Ice Breaker, the John G Diefenbaker is an on again, off again project, whose cost has ballooned from $720 million to $1.3 billion before it has even left the drawing board. Will it be built? Apparently the new naval supply ships take precedence, so the earliest date for completion has now moved to 2021-2022 . There is little money for surveillance satellites, and no plans to ever build submarines that could actually function under the ice.
Canada is facing off against a serious, well prepared adversary in the Arctic. This adversary has thrown down the gauntlet to the world, and has proven their willingness to use force against their neighbours in pursuit of their interests. Canada could readily afford every military and civilian asset required to safeguard our Arctic borders, and resources. I would suggest Canada should do so with hydrocarbons totaling 1.6 trillion tons, sovereignty over the Northwest passage, and Canada’s Arctic borders at stake. I understand that Irving Shipbuilding really really wants every penny the Canadian taxpayer is willing to give them, but there is a whole world filled with shipyards that are able and willing to build the ships Canada needs now, not in two decades. Based on what I have seen of the Canadian Governments competence at military purchasing from domestic vendors, it could be done quickly at a much lower cost. With a totally incoherent Arctic policy, and shambolic procurement plans, Canada is indeed playing Russian Roulette in the Arctic. Our children, and Grand-children will be cursing our incompetence in the decades to come.