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Moscow (AFP) Dec 10, 2013
President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia's military on Tuesday to step up its presence in the Arctic after Canada signalled it planned to claim the North Pole and surrounding waters.
The tough and rapid response to Canada's announcement reflected Russia's desire to protect its oil and natural gas interests in the pristine but energy-rich region amid competing claims there by countries that also include Norway and Denmark.
Putin told an expanded defence ministry meeting that Russia's national interests and security lay in a bolstered Arctic presence after a brief post-Soviet retreat.
"I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic," the Kremlin chief said in televised remarks.
Canada last week filed a claim with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf concerning the outer limits of its continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean.
Foreign Minister John Baird said the submission included Canada's stake on the North Pole.
Russia has an overlapping claim to both the North Pole as well as large swathes of the Arctic that the US Geological Survey thinks could hold 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and up to 30 percent of its hidden natural gas reserves.
A government-sponsored diving team in 2007 planted a Russian flag under the North Pole, and the Kremlin has long mulled plans to deploy a large military presence in the region.
Putin told Tuesday's defence ministry meeting that "next year, we have to complete the formation of new large units and military divisions" in the Arctic that remain on constant combat alert.
The Kremlin chief added that Russia must possess "all the levers necessary for protecting its security and national interests" in the area.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that his directives would be strictly followed and implemented on time.
"In 2014, we intend to create military units and forces for ensuring the military security and protecting the national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic," Shoigu said.
The plans outlined by Putin particularly concerned establishing new air bases or expanding existing ones in the Arctic Siberian town of Tiksi and the northwestern naval port of Severomorsk.
Putin added that Russia also intended to restore a Soviet-era military base on the New Siberian Islands in the extreme north of eastern Siberia.
Independent military analyst Alexander Golts said Putin's orders reflected a "return to a Cold War mentality" in which Moscow viewed the Arctic as a battlefield with specific winners and losers.
"The rumour is that they want to deploy an air defence system on the New Siberian Islands," Golts told AFP.
"The rest of the bases appear to be intended for various (military) jets."
Energy riches, shipping lanes
Russia is currently completing the development of a state programme for tapping hard-to-reach Arctic energy riches over the coming two decades with the help of such multinational giants as ExxonMobil.
The Ernst and Young consultancy noted in a recent report that Russia was also "preparing an application to extend its borders over 1.2 million square kilometres (465,000 square miles) of Arctic waters."
Ernst and Young said it expected Putin's team to file its application with the United Nations by the end of the year.
Some analysts link the claim to Kremlin expectations of continued global warming and the gradual retreat of thick ice from both promising energy deposits and shipping lanes.
The Kremlin in particular appears eager to control the so-called Northern Sea Route that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along Russia's northern coast.
"But that leads us into direct conflict with the United States because it backs an 'open seas' policy in international waters," said military affairs writer Pavel Felgenhauer.
"The US navy will be ready to defend these (free passage) rights," the analyst said.
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