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Russia moves to bolster Arctic military presence

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

Just days after Gen. Walt Natynczyk, Canada's chief of defence staff, left Moscow after meeting his counterpart last weekend, a Russian official announced that the country would be increasing its Arctic military presence, a move that could increase tensions in the resource-rich area.

Anton Vasilev, a special ambassador for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was quoted this week by the Interfax news agency as saying his country would be beefing up its presence in the Arctic, and that NATO was not welcome there.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Iceland this week meeting with the country's leaders, with the Arctic being at the top of the agenda, local media reported. Putin, according to the Moscow Times, then announced that Russia would be ordering three nuclear and six diesel icebreakers to be delivered by 2020, with the goal of expanding transportation in the Arctic.

In July, Russia said it would create two specialist brigades to be based in the Arctic. It's not known if the latest announcement is tied to that declaration or if additional forces will be moved to the region. A brigade can typically contain up to a thousand soldiers.

The Canadian military said in a news release that the purpose of Natynczyk's three-day visit to Moscow last weekend was "to gain the Russian perspective on a range of issues to improve and develop Canada's bilateral military relationship with Russia."

Natynczyk told CBC News after the visit that it was a "good relationship-building event."

The Moscow visit by a Canadian chief of defence was the first in almost a decade.

The military highlighted the counter-terrorism training exercises the two countries have been involved in, as well as a number of training programs, in its release, but made no mention about the Arctic.

The Defence Department was asked to provide details of the meeting and what was discussed, and whether the Arctic issue was part of the discussions, but no information was provided. Officials pointed to the press release that was issued prior to the meetings.

Arctic a priority for Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made a priority of increasing Canada's presence in the North, as the countries that border the Arctic region eye the vast amount of oil and other resources in the area.

The North Pole itself is considered an international site and is administered by the International Seabed Authority. But if a country can prove its underwater shelf is an extension of its continental border, then it can claim an economic zone based on that.

There has been tension with Russia as the two countries wait for the UN to rule on legal claims in the resource-rich area. In that vein, a military presence is also seen as a way to stake an even higher claim in the Arctic region.

Since 1994, the Russians have staffed year-round a research base called Ice Station Borneo on the deep Arctic ice, only 60 kilometres from the pole. Their planes have sometimes approached Canadian airspace and jets have been scrambled to shadow them.

The Canadian Forces has said is has a "real, growing, and long-term presence in its Arctic region," and has been in the North since 1898.

In August, Canada held one of its largest military exercises, dubbed Operation Nanook, in the North. The month-long operation involved more than 1,000 troops.

Canada, along with Russia, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. belong to a group called the Arctic Council, which was created by the Arctic nations in 1996 and is billed as a high level intergovernmental forum.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.