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The Russians Are Coming!

And we'd better take them damn seriously.

By Rafe Mair 17 Sep 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. You can find previous ones here. To register for free to hear Rafe Live, Mair's new webcast, visit www.rafelive.com.

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Putin: Something to prove.

The shocking news is that Russian scientists have returned from a six-week mission on a nuclear ice-breaker to claim that the 1,220-mile long underwater Lomonosov Ridge is geologically linked to the Siberian continental platform, and similar in structure. In short they claim land that has hitherto been recognized as being owned by Canada and the United States

If you've ever been "Down Under" or to South America you'll have seen world maps which for us are upside down making the point that what's up or down is a matter of ancient prejudice. To see what is really happening in the world one must stand on the North Pole (figuratively of course) and look at where Russia is.

We always think, with our Mercator map mentality, that Russia is that faraway place with the beautiful former capital St. Petersburg and the intriguing Moscow. But what if we look at the map and see Russia from the North Pole? The result is astonishing -- and not a little scary. The following countries, former Russian republics and satellites, border this massive country: Finland, Norway, Denmark (through Greenland), Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, China, North Korea, Mongolia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan via Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China -- and (are you ready for this?) the United States and Canada. Now I realize (the lash marks still show on my back) that some of you are pretty picky about fact checking so let me say that while I pored over an atlas with a magnifying glass for an hour I may have missed a "-stan" somewhere so let's just say that Russia, taking into account former republics and latter-day satellites, borders on a hell of a lot of places.

What's amazing about this is that the "west" has treated Russia with indifference, and an air of triumphalism since the U.S.S.R. broke up. It was almost as if the world's largest country, endowed with riches throughout, became some sort of Ruritania, which might make a nuisance of itself from time to time but a patronizing "tut, tut, there, there" would soon whisk the problem away.

'Father of all bombs'

We seemed to forget that Russia still has a huge nuclear arsenal, which doesn't lose its scariness just because the weapons are old.

And now the Russian military announces it has tested the air-delivered "father of all bombs" -- the world's most powerful non-nuclear weapon.

It's not just because we patronized them during their troubles, at the break-up, that has angered Russians but that we actually goaded them by encouraging so many of Russia's former "buffer" states not just to apply for membership in the European Community but NATO as well. Why the hell would we want former satellites as NATO partners when NATO's raison d'etre was and presumably still is to stand ready to fight Russia if that became necessary. How else is the Kremlin to see this new NATO but as a flinging down of the gauntlet when it seemed Russia was too helpless to do anything about it.

I don't suggest that Russia is spoiling for a war but simply that a proud nation, one once powerful and able to be powerful again, was bound to take this NATO move as an insult.

Return to world power

This behaviour comes at a time when Russia is led by a very ambitious and dedicated man, Vladimir Putin, who is determined to re-establish Russia as a world power. Unless he gets a change in the constitution allowing him to succeed himself, there will be a new president next year who'll probably be a "Putin man" or perhaps even more ambitious yet.

What this has done is move Russia and China back into a closer relationship within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) formed in 2001 by the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Iran having observer status. Mongolia, Pakistan and Iran have also applied for its full membership. The SCO isn't the equivalent of NATO -- yet.

Looking at maps and atlases from the equator up and down, thus seeing two hemispheres forbiddingly cold at the top and bottom and the rest livable, has caused us to always assume our sovereignty of the Arctic right up to the North Pole. It was an easy assumption to make – I mean who the hell cared about a bunch of ice, polar bears, walruses, some narwhals and what do we call those people? Eskimos? Inuit? Whatever. Because there didn't seem to be any reason to see things differently, we looked at the Canadian North as that part populated by a few people that needed our patronizing generosity from time to time. Oil and natural gas changed all that.

Oil and ice

Not that the interest in Arctic petroleum and gas is new.

On May 9, 1977, my classmate Tom Berger filed his Mackenzie Pipeline Report and we've been debating northern oil and gas issues since. What's different is that we have a new player, big time: Russia who claims jurisdiction under the North Pole and has stuck a flag under it to make her point. Now that global warming is making a reality out of the fabled Northwest Passage, that part of the world is "in play." No longer is the Arctic the land of the midnight sun dappled with neat little igloos and little economic importance. Nobody cared very much who claimed ownership. Suddenly, that's not longer true.

Russia, a recovering power, seething with anger at the West generally but especially at the United States, has laid claim to what we've always seen as ours.

Since we neither want an armed struggle over this land, nor could we win one, the time as come to do two things. Act respectfully not to say obsequiously towards Russia. And open talks.

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