Security in the Arctic: Travels in Siberia

Prof. Emily Gilbert
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I had the great fortune of travelling to Siberia, Russia in June 2013. I was there at the invitation of colleagues in the Faculty of Law at the Novosibirsk National Research State University. The occasion was a conference on Security in the Arctic, where I presented a paper on Canada’s Arctic security initiatives.

Novosibirsk is the third largest city in Russia, and the largest in Siberia. Founded in 1893, it was built as a hub on the Trans-Siberian railway. In its relatively short life-span, the city has grown at a rapid pace, and now numbers about 1.5 million residents. Signs of growth are everywhere, with cranes and new skyscrapers dotting the city. Situated about mid-way across the country, in the southwestern part of Siberia, Novosibirsk is positioning itself as a meeting point between Europe and Asia. It is not far from where Russia’s borders meet with the borders of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. Located on the majestic Ob, the world’s seventh longest river, which flows into the Arctic Ocean, Novosibirsk is also a gateway to Russia’s Arctic.

The conference featured a wide range of presentations all with an eye to furthering Russia-Canada relations. Scholars from a variety of fields presented a wide range of papers on international law, mineral development, medical issues, urban para-diplomacy, and information networks. My paper focused on the military build-up that is underway in Arctic states. Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Demark all are expanding their northern military presence, and acquiring military arsenal capable for operation in high Arctic conditions. Only Iceland has reduced its military presence in recent years. Other non-Arctic states, such as China, are developing Arctic-capable vessels. While the biggest players in the Arctic have signalled that war over resources and transportation routes is not on the horizon, the militarization of the north, I argued, makes this outcome much more of a possibility.

The conference was a wonderful opportunity to share ideas and experiences between Canadian and Russian academics. Representation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Novosibirsk and the Mayor’s Office in Novosibirsk were indicative of the opportunities that Russians see in promoting dialogue between the two countries. In anticipation that climate change will create year-round transportation routes across the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route, there is a sense that both Russia and Canada will be faced with shared concerns regarding how to govern these internal waters in the face of international government and private sector interests.

While in Novosibirsk I also had the opportunity to give two lectures to the university’s law students, one on Canada-US border security initiatives, and the other on changes to Canadian immigration legislation. This was a wonderful opportunity to interact with the students in their international law program. I was extremely impressed with their language skills, as they asked sophisticated questions on subjects with which they were not particularly familiar. I was amazed to learn that the students are also learning to speak Chinese!

The hospitality during my stay in Novosibirsk was wonderful. Professor Sergei Proskunin, who arranged my visit, made sure that I was taken care of at every step. My translator, Olga Khotskina, was wonderful to work with: patient, clear and with an open sense of humor. The Dean of the Faculty of Law, Professor Kurcheev V.S., was delightful to interact with, as we shared stories about our respective universities. I ate heartily while I was there, sampling specialities from Russia, Kazakhstan, and beyond. The sushi that I had one evening was astonishingly fresh! I was given a guided tour of the city, which also detailed the remarkable changes that the country has been through in the last century. The World War II war monument was unforgettable: imposing blocks of towering marble listed the thousands of dead from this relatively small part of Russia. On a more upbeat note, I was also taken to hear a wonderful concert at the renowned Philharmonic Chamber Hall.

Preliminary plans are now underway to bring a delegation from the University of Novosibirsk to visit faculty and students at the University of Toronto in November, 2013. I hope that we will be able to provide them with the same warmth and hospitality that I was shown on my visit.


Emily Gilbert is the Director of the University College Canadian Studies program.