Northern Diplomacy: Russian Implications on Canadian Arctic Sovereignty and Security

Written By: Stefan Venceljovski

This paper investigates Russia’s recent actions and strategic initiatives in Svalbard, an Arctic Archipelago near Norway. The focus is on Russia’s efforts to expand its influence through tourism ventures, military posturing, and geopolitical maneuvers, challenging Norway’s longstanding dominance in Svalbard’s tourism sector and raising significant regional and global implications. The analysis begins with a detailed examination of Russia’s economic and military interests in the Arctic, drawing on recent developments and expert analyses to illustrate the strategic importance of Svalbard. It explores Russia’s hybrid approach of combining economic expansion with military assertiveness, underscored by its strategic documents and recent policy shifts. Additionally, the paper discusses the responses and concerns of Norway and other Arctic nations, particularly Canada, in navigating these developments. The conclusion highlights the complexities of Arctic geopolitics, emphasizing the need for proactive diplomatic strategies, robust defence policies, and international cooperation to safeguard national interests amidst evolving Arctic dynamics. This paper aims to contribute insights into understanding and managing Arctic disputes and strategies in a competitive global context.

In Recent News…


On May 13, 2024, Henry Wilkins delivered a news report for Voice of America focusing on the island of Svalbard off the coast of Norway. In April of 2024, Russia announced plans to send tourist boats for expeditions to the island in a bid to take up a market share of the tourist industry, a move that not only signals a bolstering of the northern Russian economy but also poses a potential threat to the dominance of Norwegian companies and governmental influence in the tourism sector on Svalbard. While Norwegian companies have long dominated tourism in Svalbard, Russia has increasingly shown interest in the industry. Given the unique economic status of the island, it has taken steps to infringe on it with limited recourse.[1]

Wilkins also reports several other infractions on the island, most notable in the town of Barentsburg, a predominantly Russian-occupied town of 400 ethnically Russian and Ukrainian people. Infractions such as the unauthorized use of helicopters and the use of Russian license plates on vehicles further exacerbate tensions and strain the situation between Norway and Russia.[2] And while not an illegal event, The Victory Day parade, celebrating Russian victory over Nazi Germany and the expulsion of the invading Germans from Russia Territory in May 2023, marked by militaristic overtones, painted a scene of Russian dominance on the island further pushing Norwegian officials to view the Russian presence as a potential threat. Although this year’s celebrations were reported to be more subdued, the underlying tension remains palpable.[3]

Arild Moe from the Fridtjof Nansen Institute also notes heightened rhetoric from Russia regarding the island and the northern region, pointing out things like potential Russian accusations of Norway militarizing the island and justifying direct actions to defend its interests. Moe also warns that Russia’s actions could shift the balance of power in the Arctic, with potential implications for global geopolitics.[4]

These events, combined with Russia’s hybrid approach of expanding industry, research, and tourism while enhancing maritime presence, raise concerns for the Norwegian government and those on the island. Geopolitically, Svalbard is a crucial gateway and staging point for any northern fleet. This strategic location allows Norway and the West, including NATO, to potentially blockade Russian imports and ships passing through the Norwegian/Greenland Sea. With Russia’s presence on the island, such blockades become more challenging as they establish a forward position. It also legitimizes Russia’s claims into the Arctic by adding another Russian enclave that needs Russian support and protection in an Arctic region and additional potential resources to extract, in this case, the tourist industry. While seemingly small, the news of an influx of Russian tourist boats signifies an expansion of Russian influence and interest and a clear message of increased activity in the Arctic region.[5]

But these kinds of events are not isolated and are not new either. Russia’s evolving approach to the Arctic involves a significant military and economic agenda, emphasizing the Arctic’s role as a strategic resource base is evident when examining Russia’s strategic documents, including the 2023 Foreign Policy Concept, the 2023 amendments to the 2020 Arctic Strategy, the 2022 Maritime Doctrine, and the 2021 National Security Strategy. As Alexander Dalziel notes, these documents prioritize the Arctic, advocating for extended jurisdiction and resource exploitation rights while expressing a readiness to defend these interests militarily. [6] Russia’s stance contrasts with the scientific and diplomatic efforts of Canada, Denmark, and other Arctic states to demarcate the continental shelf under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This stance has also materialized, with a recent announcement from the Russian foreign ministry denouncing the American claim to a continental shelf in the Arctic further than its 200 nautical mile claim.[7] While this is openly disputed between other article nations, Canada and Denmark are likely to negotiate amicably; Russia’s approach may be less cooperative, potentially involving coercive hybrid tactics below the threshold of open conflict, as already highlighted.

The US has recognized these tactics, and in response to these claims and other Russian actions, The US State Department announced sanctions relating to Russian Arctic interests to not only slow down their resources related to the Ukraine war but also to take a punch at the growing Russian Arctic infrastructure and presence. These sanctions include a new round targeting future liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects such as Obsky LNG, Arctic LNG 1, and Arctic LNG 3. These sanctions build on previous measures that successfully stalled the Arctic LNG 2 project and degraded related infrastructure. U.S. officials had previously expressed their intent to “kill the Arctic LNG 2 project” and have extended these measures to include other vital projects. These sanctions also target entities constructing these natural gas projects and manufacturing specialized equipment, such as Baltmash and Regent Baltica. Cutting off Russia’s access to critical materials and equipment from international suppliers further impedes Russia’s ability to create a profitable presence in the Arctic. It is important to note, though, that, as stated above, when examining recent Russian policy, this is also very likely to cause tensions between Arctic powers.[8]

Thinking About the Impact on Canada


When considering this news in a Canadian context, one must remember that Canada has 162,000 km of the Arctic coastline and is very much an Arctic country, just as Russia and Norway are. As an Arctic nation, Canada’s economic interests are deeply intertwined with the region’s stability and resource management. The developments in Svalbard and Russian rhetoric provide an insightful case study for Canadian policymakers, particularly regarding the economic implications of increased Russian activity in the Arctic. How Norway navigates this issue can be informative in a situation that sees similar incursions and clashes between Russian and Canadian interests in the Arctic.

After all, long-standing disputes between Russia and Canada over the northern maritime borders have yet to be fully resolved and accepted by both parties, as shown in the above figure, which depicts the current claims over the North Pole and the surrounding waters and land. While these disputes exist between Canada, Norway, Greenland, and the US, they remain less significant given the close interwoven relationships between those countries due to close collaboration through institutions like NATO and the UN. However, Canada faces potential economic challenges as Russia escalates its Arctic presence through aggressive claims and expanded maritime boundaries. The competition for limited Arctic space could constrain Canada’s ability to exploit its resources and maintain economic stability. This is further complicated by Russia being positioned as a non-liberal, authoritarian-style regime in the eyes of the Canadian government. This regime sees very little engagement in the form of good-faith dialogue. So Canada then finds itself competing over the minimal space in the Arctic, with little recourse to fight back against Russia in meaningful ways. Sanctions by Canada are significantly less impactful, and rhetorical posturing is just that, posturing.

This is concerning as Russia’s increased rhetoric around the Arctic is seemingly backed up by concrete actions, as seen in the recent news discussion, and its willingness to commit resources in defence of its claims and perceived interests. This, therefore, highlights the imperative for Canada to assert its sovereignty in the region in tangible ways. This involves diplomatic efforts to negotiate agreements, uphold international law, and establish strategic partnerships with other Arctic nations to address mutual concerns and prevent military escalation in the region. It also includes being proactive and adamant over Canadian claims to the land in the North Pole and surrounding waters in international forums and among partners. [1]

And while the recent events in Svalbard only point to a potential military build-up, we know from other events and Russian rhetoric, chiefly the conflict in Ukraine but also directly regarding the arctic, that Russia is more than willing to back up its territorial claims with potential military action if it feels its interests are being threatened. Therefore, the potential for military buildup and conflict in the Arctic also underscores the need for Canada to maintain a robust defence posture in the region. This includes investing in Arctic defence infrastructure and capabilities to protect Canadian interests and maintain security and open dialogue and communication with Russian counterparts to promote bilateral Arctic security and prosperity.[2]

Canada’s foreign policy in the Arctic, therefore, requires a multifaceted approach that integrates diplomacy, defence, economic development, and environmental stewardship to effectively address the challenges and opportunities the changing Arctic landscape presents. Engaging with domestic stakeholders, such as indigenous communities in the Arctic, can provide all these elements while also doing good for the region. Engaging Arctic Indigenous communities in defence while providing funds for meaningful economic and social development can result in a Canadian posture in the Arctic with a stiff spine and tangible claim. Of course, this is just a potential avenue, and further research would need to be done on such actions’ feasibility, effectiveness and ethics. For now, Canada must continue with active and loud engagement in multi-faceted international forums where it is placed on a level playing field with Russian and other arctic state interests lest it be left in the snow.


The recent developments in Svalbard highlight the increasing geopolitical significance of Arctic regions and Russia’s strategic maneuvers to expand its influence. These events are not isolated; they reflect a broader pattern of Russian actions to assert dominance in the Arctic, as evidenced by their strategic documents and recent activities. For Canada, these developments serve as a critical case study, underscoring the need for proactive measures to protect its interests in the Arctic. Canada must recognize the Arctic as essential for national security and economic stability. This requires a multifaceted approach, integrating diplomatic efforts, robust defence capabilities, and strategic partnerships with other Arctic nations. Additionally, engaging with Indigenous communities to ensure their involvement in defence and development initiatives can strengthen Canada’s position in the region, but more research is required to ensure a proper policy framework is developed. Norway’s experience with Russia’s actions in Svalbard also provides valuable lessons for Canada. By closely monitoring these developments and adapting its strategies accordingly, Canada can better navigate the complexities of Arctic geopolitics. Canada must assert its sovereignty through active participation in international forums, continuous investment in Arctic infrastructure, and open dialogue with all Arctic stakeholders.

In summary, the situation in Svalbard is a crucial reminder of Arctic geopolitics’ dynamic and often contentious nature. Canada must be vigilant and strategic in its approach, ensuring that it remains a key player in shaping the future of the Arctic. By learning from the experiences of other Arctic nations and reinforcing its policies, Canada can effectively address the challenges and capitalize on the opportunities presented by the evolving Arctic landscape.


Belouizdad, Skander. “Russia’s Tough Talk on Arctic Sovereignty Must Be Taken Seriously: Alexander Dalziel in Geopolitical Monitor: MacDonald-Laurier Institute.” Macdonald, March 7, 2024.

Bryant, Miranda. “Barentsburg: The Norwegian Town Feeling the Chill of the Ukraine War.” The Guardian, October 10, 2023.

Charron, Andrea, Joël Plouffe, and Stéphane Roussel. “The Russian Arctic Hegemon: Foreign Policy Implications for Canada.” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 18, no. 1 (2012): 38–50. doi:10.1080/11926422.2012.674384.

Durham University Center for Border Research, Continental Shelf Submission in the Central Arctic Ocean, 400 miles/600 kilometres, “Polar Journal,” January 2023, May 15th, 2024,

Henry Wilkins, “Russia Using ‘Hybrid’ Approach to Grow Arctic Presence,” Voice of America Video, May 13, 2024, 3:58.

Humpert, Malte. “U.S. Targets Future Russian Energy Projects in Arctic in New Round of Sanctions.” High North News, June 13, 2024.

Lackenbauer, P. Whitney, and Alexander Sergunin. “Canada’s and Russia’s Security and Defence Strategies in the Arctic: A Comparative Analysis.” Arctic Review on Law and Politics 13 (2022): 232–57.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Non-Recognition by the Russian Federation of the Outer Limits of the US Continental Shelf Established Unilaterally,” Press Release, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, March 25, 2024,

Nahmen, Alexandra von. “Tensions on Svalbard between Russians and Norwegians – DW – 10/02/2023.”, October 2, 2023.

US Department of State. “Taking Additional Measures to Degrade Russia’s Wartime Economy – United States Department of State.” US Department of State, June 12, 2024.

Wall, Colin, and Njord Wegge. “The Russian Arctic Threat: Consequences of the Ukraine War.” CSIS, January 25, 2023.

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