OTTAWA – Like a pristine winter landscape, all looks surprisingly serene among Russia, Canada and their fellow Arctic Council members.
But just beneath the unblemished surface, political fault lines are forming, a ripple effect of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Canada’s allies in the G7 and NATO may have ostracized Russia over its occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, but at the Arctic Council, it appears to be business as usual, at least for now.
Canadian officials say Russia will be at the table later this month when the eight-country council next meets, even as tensions in Ukraine continue to simmer.
Canada is the rotating chair of the council and all countries appear to want to deal with the boundary, economic and resource issues that are at the heart of the alliance’s work in the Far North.
Canada will host the next meeting of the council in Yellowknife March 25-27.
“Canada will be chairing the meeting with senior Arctic officials from all Arctic Council states and representatives of the permanent participant organizations invited,” said Amanda Gordon, spokeswoman for Leona Aglukkaq, the Harper government’s minister for the Arctic Council.
At least one council member, Iceland, is expressing concern about the Ukraine situation. The country’s prime minister recently questioned whether Russia’s strong-arm tactics in Crimea might spill over into Arctic affairs.
“Clearly, it has made many players in the Arctic quite worried about developments and whether they might be a sign of what is to come,” Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson said recently in Edmonton, where he was on a trade mission.
Superficially, the council will keep functioning because “everybody has swallowed the Kool-Aid about how we get along and it has nothing to do about other political aspects,” said Rob Huebert, the associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
Beneath the surface, though, some council members, especially Finland and Sweden, are very nervous about the implications of what their Russian neighbour is up to in Crimea, Hubert said..
He noted how a debate about joining NATO has been rekindled in Sweden and Finland, especially in light of recent events. They would be protected under NATO’s Article 5, which specifies that an attack on one alliance member is an attack on all.
In that light, Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada recently lamented his country’s stalled bid to join NATO.
“Finland’s got a border (with Russia) and Sweden is pretty close, so the way that it will spill over into the Arctic is that that element of the Arctic Council gets politicized,” Huebert said.
Both those countries would need NATO if their sovereignty were ever jeopardized by Russia, he said.
Norway, a member of both the council and NATO, has been quietly, but conspicuously taking steps to protect its interests.
“It has been rearming extensively — war fighting capabilities, integrating very closely with the Americans, making huge defence expenditures,” Huebert said.
So the Norwegians will say, ‘let’s talk to them, we’d rather have Russia as a friend then an enemy’.”
Superficially, he said, the competing territorial claims in the Arctic won’t be affected because all sides will say that science will make the final decision.
Russia and Canada already have their own simmering territorial dispute in the Arctic. Both countries play down any tensions, saying disagreements can be settled by the existing United Nations legal framework.
Canada’s initial scientific submission to the UN claimed 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed under the Atlantic Ocean, as well as a preliminary claim in the Arctic Ocean.
But the government has since said 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.
“But science is as political as anything else,” Huebert said.
He said Russia is already positioning itself to play hardball in the Arctic, noting that a nuclear-powered submarine was ordered in December to plant a flag at the North Pole.
That’s a sequel to the 2007 incident in which a Russian submarine dropped a flag on the seabed under the pole, sparking friction between Ottawa and Moscow.
“It’s not just about the Arctic anymore,” said Huebert. “The Arctic is becoming so connected to these other regions and there’s the inevitable spillover.”