By Michael A. Moore

While Canada and the U.S. boast great plans for the Arctic, but are slow to deliver, Russia is sailing ahead with long-term plans that include expanding search-and-rescue capabilities, and continuing minerals, energy and military-infrastructure development.

Despite predictions that the Russian economy will shrink in 2015, which has prompted calls by some government officials for reduced spending, Russian President Vladimir Putin is maintaining his schedule for several new Arctic initiatives. To that end, even mid-level Russian officials maintain cordial ties with Arctic community counterparts in Canada, as well as the U.S. and the other Arctic countries.

“The Russians recognize that their long-term interests are best served by maintaining cordial working relations with the other members of the Arctic Council,” said Robert Huebert, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and an authority on Russia and the Arctic.

One current initiative is a $148 million upgrade of Russia’s northernmost Arctic airbase. Nagurskoye will receive a series of infrastructure improvements, including a new aerodrome, new living quarters, new administrative and storage facilities, as well as upgrades to its road and engineering networks. Built in the 1950s for use by Soviet long-range military aircraft, the base fell into partial disrepair following the collapse of the Soviet Union, before returning to operation in 2012.

Russia has been more consistently completing plans in the Arctic than Canada, according to Capt. David (Duke) Snider, Senior Vice-President of the U.K.-based Nautical Institute and Chief Executive and Principal Consultant of Martech Polar Consulting Ltd of Victoria, B.C.

“Putin is moving forward in the Arctic because he wants to ensure Russia’s backyard is protected,” Capt. Snider said. “He has never said he will claim more than what is Russia’s by international law and treaties. The initial Russian claim to the North Pole contained errors, which it has recognized. Russia is a signatory to the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Treaty, known as UNCLOS, which is straightforward and based on science. “If you don’t have the science to prove your continental shelf reaches out, you won’t be able to claim that territory,” he said. “If the dividing line between Canada, Russia and Denmark runs over the North Pole, then an adjudication process will kick in. All the coastal Arctic states are working together to solve the overlap question.

“The fact is, Russia has been building the infrastructure they have been proclaiming they will build,” Capt. Snider said. “The Russians are specifically prioritizing new Arctic coastal SAR coastal shore stations and building six new icebreakers – two are already built.

“Canada has not done the same, has not backed its own rhetoric,” he said. “The Canadian government scaled back plans for an ‘Arctic port’ to refurbishing the abandoned fuel tank farm at Nanisivik for Coast Guard and Naval use only. Canada has made no commitments to increasing in-region SAR facilities in any way, and Canada’s single Polar icebreaker delivery has been pushed from 2017 to 2020 and is now rumoured to be 2022.”