The (Russian) Arctic is open for business – by Michael Byers (Globe and Mail – August 12, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

In the 1990 thriller The Hunt for Red October, the rogue captain of a Soviet submarine evades the U.S. and Soviet navies by threading his way through a narrow – but precisely charted – mid-ocean trench.

In real life, the Soviet navy’s charting efforts extended to the heart of the Canadian Arctic. Soviet-era charts, available today, show more depth soundings in the Northwest Passage than Canada’s most recent charts do.

The Cold War is over, but Russia still takes the Arctic seriously. Russian nuclear-powered submarines still sail under the sea ice, where Canada’s diesel-powered submarines cannot venture.

Russia is intent on transforming its Arctic coastline into a commercially viable alternative to the Suez Canal. In 2011, President Vladimir Putin said: “I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security and quality.”

Russia uses icebreakers to escort commercial vessels, and charges fees for the service. In 2007, it launched the Fifty Years of Victory, a nuclear-powered behemoth able to break 2.5 metres of ice at speed.

Canada’s diesel-powered icebreakers are much older and smaller. Although some money was recently budgeted for refits, there are plans for only one new vessel – and no construction contract has been signed. Canadian icebreakers generally aren’t used for escorting commercial vessels in the Arctic, and when they are, no cost recovery takes place.

Russia is building 10 search-and-rescue stations in the Arctic, each with its own ships and aircraft. The stations will supplement the icebreakers, their on-board helicopters and numerous military bases.

Not a single Canadian search-and-rescue aircraft is based in the Arctic. Helicopters and 45-year-old Hercules planes are deployed from Canada’s more southerly regions. An attempt to procure replacement planes began in 2002, but again, no construction contract has been signed.

Russia has 16 deep-water ports in the Arctic. Canada’s sole Arctic port is at Churchill, Man., nearly 2,000 kilometres south of the Northwest Passage. A plan to transform a disused wharf on Baffin Island into an all-year naval base, announced in 2007, has been delayed and curtailed.

The combination of melting ice and Russian state investment has led to a recent tenfold increase in shipping along the Northern Sea Route, with more than 40 large ships – mostly bulk carriers and oil tankers – sailing through last year.

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