In September 2010, the German news magazine Der Spiegel explained that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has a "soft spot for the Arctic," with Putin saying Russia "will put huge amounts of money into environmental protection" and is "planning to do a serious spring cleaning of our Arctic territories."
Putin was up there petting polar bears to drive home his dedication to his new heartfelt cause. I'm not kidding -- although researchers had to first sedate the bear he caressed as he spoke. Putin also didn't let the bear go without first attaching a transmitter. Old KGB habits die hard, I guess.
That was then. Today, Putin is focused on re-presidenting himself next March, and musing that he wants the Arctic Passage to become the next Suez Canal. "But how will the polar bears feel about all the traffic?" you might ask. Remember, if the bear causes any trouble, it's still wearing that transmitter and will probably be shot from a plane.
This is a typical case of "cover for action": claiming environmental concern as a reason for Arctic interest and presence when the deeper interest is an economic one. Welcome, world, to "Cold War Reloaded: The Arctic Frontier." Time to pull the pin out of the top of that dusty globe you have on your desk and have a look at the battle line of the future -- rife with oil and high-value raw minerals.
So, how will the squabbling go down? It will ultimately be Russia against everyone else. Canada and Russia have the bulk of Arctic land, with the USA, Denmark, Iceland and Norway also having some claim. Canadian fighter jets chased Russian military aircraft out of Canadian Arctic territory in 2009 and 2010, with the first incident occurring just before President Obama's official visit to Canada.
There's no better match for Putin on the international stage than conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- so aloof, enigmatic and mysterious that he has managed on occasion to elude world leader group photos at summits, despite being in attendance. Harper's Arctic defense spending spree indicates that he knows where this is all headed. When Canada appears to be in a full-out arms race, it's a pretty reliable sign that something significant is going on.
Canada's recent purchases include 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and eight Arctic/offshore patrol ships for what a Canadian Navy backgrounder calls Canada's "Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs)." Not "Polar Bear Playgrounds (PBPs)." Not "Awesomely Big Hockey Rinks (ABHRs)." This is about national wealth -- which means being less reliant in the future on having to deal with regimes that don't share similar values. As the backgrounder states: "This government recognizes that an increased Canadian Forces (CF) presence in the Arctic is essential to achieving our goals in this region, which is critical to our national interest and sense of identity."
The notion of Canada being at the forefront of any conflict with Russia into which America is ultimately drawn isn't a new one. The entire Cold War era started in Canada. On Sept. 5, 1945, a Soviet Embassy employee in Ottawa, Igor Gouzenko, handed over more than 100 documents to Canadian national police detailing Soviet spying on Canadian and American interests.
These days, the Western public seems to have trouble taking any potential Russian threat seriously, probably because we're so far into the era of visible and overt Islamic terrorism that we're convinced that's all there is. The Cold War didn't end just because Soviet tanks aren't being shown on American TV screens every night. Russia built Iran's nuclear reactor. Russia enjoys an exclusive bilateral trade deal with China. Russia is managing to buy back influence in all of its former satellite states through investments made by Kremlin-backed oligarchs, and further stretching that influence into the West via similar business-investment activity.
Only a few days ago, Russia's ambassador to Canada was complaining in the Canadian media that Harper vilified Russia in an attempt to boost support and gain a majority government -- which he did earlier this year. Harper wasn't Bear-baiting -- he'd be about 25 years too late for that to actually work on Canadians as a political tactic. It was just a rare case of a politician being genuine.