Arctic survey suggests concern about potential conflict

Security fears in the Arctic are growing, suggests a new survey of people from the eight countries that ring the North Pole. 'There is a sense that there is a threat,' said Sara French of the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security program.
A giant glacier is seen making its way to the waters of Croaker Bay on Devon Island Friday, July 11, 2008. Security fears in the Arctic are growing, suggests a new survey of people from the eight countries that ring the North Pole. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Security fears in the Arctic are growing, suggests a new survey of people from the eight countries that ring the North Pole.

"There is a sense that there is a threat," said Sara French of the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security program, which conducted the survey of 10,000 people as Canada prepares to hand off leadership of the Arctic Council to the United States this weekend.

The council, which organizes social and environmental research and regulation in the North, has been seen as a model of international co-operation. It has even negotiated a binding international treaty on search and rescue operations.

But Russia's actions in Ukraine, as well as recent massive Arctic military exercises and bomber missions up to the edge of international airspace, may have thrown a chill into northern co-operation.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney has called Russia's recent military actions in the Arctic "aggressive." Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has said she'll take Canada's concerns over Russia's behaviour in Ukraine to her Russian counterpart at the meeting.

About one-third of the people surveyed in five of the eight Arctic countries believes the threat of armed conflict in the Arctic grew over the last year. That ranges from 24 per cent in the continental U.S. to 35 per cent in Norway.

Among Canadians, that percentage stands at 36 per cent in the south and 30 per cent among northerners.

And in Iceland, Finland and Russia, slight majorities agreed the Arctic is less peaceful this year than last.

Meanwhile, fewer than one in 10 surveyed in each country felt the threat had decreased in the region.

Many would even like to see Russia excluded from the council. About 38 per cent of respondents in southern Canada felt that way, along with 32 per cent of Americans and 44 per cent of Swedes.

But French pointed out that none of the eight countries registered a majority wanting Russia out of the council. And she
added that in Russia, only five per cent of the people wanted to leave the council.

"There's no doubt that the kind of politics (we've seen) are having a spillover effect," she said. "The desire to want to
continue to co-operate is still there." 

Other findings suggest respondents are still willing to give peace a chance in the North.

The survey found that support for military spending in the North has dropped in Canada. Only about half of southern Canadians agree, down from 60 per cent five years ago.

The survey also found only a minority supports taking a firm line with other countries in any future border disputes. Support for negotiation in such disputes has grown over the last five years, the survey says.

French said much of the political rhetoric over the Arctic from various leaders is intended for domestic political consumption. The real work of the Arctic Council is unaffected, she said. 

"In Canada and Russia, there's two different Arctic discussions," she said.

One is held at conference tables and meetings, the other is with headlines and sound bites.

"This other discussion has tended to play into national myths," French said. "Keen Arctic observers can separate the two."


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