Russia's Arctic claim to North Pole could be an election issue

Russia's new bid to the United Nations for vast regions of the Arctic — including the North Pole — may put the Canadian government in a lose-lose situation in an election year.

Campaign may influence how Canadian government responds, expert says

Russia's foreign ministry said Tuesday the country is claiming 1.2 million square kilometres of Arctic sea shelf - dangerous waters for the Conservatives during an election campaign. (Beth Ipsen/Associated Press)

Russia's new bid to the United Nations for vast regions of the Arctic — including the North Pole — may put the Canadian government in a lose-lose situation in an election year.

In a statement released Tuesday, Russia's foreign ministry said their country is claiming 1.2 million square kilometres of Arctic sea shelf. The area extends more than 650 kilometres from the shore. 

"I think the election will have a very strong influence on the immediate reaction of the Canadian government," said Rob Huebert from the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

He says Arctic sovereignty has been one of the major platforms of the Conservative government, and in an election year it can become a hot-button issue.
Arctic security expert Rob Huebert says the Conservatives will have to be mindful of critics who may see Russia's Arctic bid as that country's way of scoring political points. (CBC)

If the government decides the Russian claim is acceptable, "the opposition parties can turn around and say that Canada has this out-of-touch leadership that wants to hurt international peace and stability," Huebert said.

"On the other hand, if you do take a strong position [against the claim], what then becomes the Russian response? And all this, of course, in a very long election period."​

'It's a good news story'

Russia's claim is part of a process that several countries, including Canada, agreed to more than three decades ago.

This is Russia's second bid; their first was rejected due to a lack of scientific evidence.

"The reason we have international law is to take the politics out of these situations," said Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia. "To reduce the temptations for politicians to play electoral games with things like Arctic sovereignty."

Byers says these are rules that Canada agreed to, and Russia's adherence to these rules is a cause for celebration.  

"It's a good news story. Especially given the crisis in Ukraine. At least in the Arctic, Russia is still following the rules," Byers said.   

Huebert says the Conservatives will have to be mindful of critics who may see Russia's Arctic bid as that country's way of scoring political points.  

"There will be those that will be suggesting that this is in fact just a means by which the Russians are trying to normalize relationships after successfully hiving off parts of the Crimea and other parts of the Ukraine."

Canada has yet to make Arctic claim

Canada had planned to submit its own Arctic claim in December of 2013. At the last minute, the Harper government ordered officials to rewrite Canada's Arctic claim to include the North Pole and more survey work is taking place this summer before Ottawa submits the document.

"For the last year and this year we've been doing more science just to make sure that when we do the submission we are able to submit to the fullest extent of research," Huebert said.

Rivalry for Arctic resources has intensified as shrinking polar ice is opening new opportunities for exploration.

With files from The Canadian Press


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