Cold war goes North


The competition between Russia and the West has, apparently, opened a new front, the Arctic front.

The US was extremely displeased on Friday with Russia’s planting its flag at the North Pole in the seabed. Washington’s stand was supported by other Western states, which are ready to counteract Moscow’s claims on the ocean shelf rich in resources. “I’m not sure whether they’ve - you know, put a metal flag, a rubber flag, or a bed sheet on the ocean floor. Either way, it doesn’t have any legal standing or effect on this claim. We certainly are skeptical about the claims made,” Tom Casey, deputy spokesman of the US Department of State, told the reporters on August 2, commenting on Russia’s Arktika-2007 expedition. Canada’s Foreign Minister Peter McKay expressed even stronger irritation: “Look, this isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory’.”

Moscow’s response to the West’s tough reaction came soon. “I was amazed by my Canadian counterpart’s statement that we are planting flags around. We’re not throwing flags around. We just do what other discoverers did. The purpose of the expedition is not to stake whatever rights of Russia, but to prove that our shelf extends to the North Pole,” explained Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Meanwhile, the proof that the Mendeleev Ridge and the Lomonosov Ridge, which are underwater Arctic ridges, are an extension of the Eurasian continent, and consequently a part of Russia’s continental shelf, will allow Moscow to claim 1.2 million square kilometers of the ocean bed, in accordance with UN the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982. “We hope the scientific data gathered by our expedition will present new evidence to support what we’ve been trying to prove since long ago,” said Lavrov.

The world does not doubt that Russia’s interest is not purely scientific. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Arctic Ocean’s seabed contains nearly 25% of the world’s deposits of oil and natural gas. It is also rich in diamonds, gold, platinum, tin, manganese, nickel, and lead. Besides, experts predict that the Arctic Ocean’s major part will be free from ice by 2040, due to the global warming. It will make seabed mineral resources extraction significantly easier, and their transportation – much cheaper. However, exploration of the Arctic Ocean’s resources cannot be done without solving territorial issues and delimiting borders.

In 2001, Russia submitted a corresponding application to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, but Russia’s claims were rejected due to “insufficient evidence”. The Arktika-2007 expedition is to fill that annoying gap. “It is an important geopolitical project,” said Yulduz Halliulin, assistant director of the Oceanics Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the expedition’s organizer. The idea to search in the Arctic Region the borders of Russia’s shelf belongs to famous polar explorer Arthur Chilingarov, associate member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, member of United Russia political party, and the State Duma’s deputy chairman. Speaking at the party’s 6th congress in November 2005, he urged its leaders to give attention to Arctic issues, and to involve the Government in it. The idea was eventually implemented just recently.

The Arktika-2007 expedition started on July 24 from Murmansk on Akademik Fedorov ship and Rossiya icebreaker. The Oceanics Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences is the expedition’s official organizer. The institute signed an agreement with the Polar Research Fund. It is an NGO established by the Russian Polar Explorers Association. The institute refused pointblank to disclose who financed the expedition. However, Chilingarov said it is financed by “Russian businessmen, and not a ruble of budget funds was spent on it”. The expedition’s crew included two quite well-off people. First, Vladimir Gruzdev, State Duma deputy of United Russia faction, who is also a co-owner of Seventh Continent supermarket chain. Second, Frederick Paulsen, Swedish pharmaceutical millionaire, who has recently received a title of Russia’s Honorary Polar Explorer. According to unofficial information, he had to pay for Rossiya icebreaker’s way there and back, for his participation in the expedition. The pleasure must have cost him $100,000 a day.

Although there is no (official, at least) state financing, the Russian authorities favored the project. After Mir-1 and Mir-2 bathyscaphes submerged on Thursday in the North Pole’s area at the depth of over 4,000 meters, Vladimir Putin personally telephoned the expedition’s crew. The president especially praised the installation of the Russian flag, made of titanium, into the ocean bed. Besides, they put to the bottom a capsule with a message to future generations and symbols of United Russia. Federation Council Committee head Mikhail Margelov thinks it is an excellent PR move of his party fellows. “The entire expedition is an excellent opportunity to raise the rating of United Russia, of which I am a member, before the election to the State Duma. The party’s top management made a very timely decision to take up this idea,” Margelov said. Yet, he added that deeper interests stand behind the expedition: “We are not concerned just with politics. Exploring the Arctic Ocean is Russia’s large-scale geopolitical project.”

The US administration showed much interest to the Russian expedition as well. On July 26, the Arktika-2007 crew noticed an American reconnaissance aircraft circling above Akademik Fedorov ship. Soon afterwards, it turned out that the US had sent an expedition to the Arctic Region, organized by a leading US oceanics research center, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The US scientists set out from Norway to the Gakkel Ridge in Odeon ship. Officially, their purpose was as scientific as that of their Russian colleagues: they were looking for “microorganisms in the ocean’s hydrothermal areas”. O August 6, US military icebreaker Healy is to set off to the Arctic Region from Seattle. Healy belongs to the US coast guard service, which is subordinate to the Pentagon. Yet, there will be more than just expeditions.

Tom Casey, deputy spokesman of the US Department of State, said the US cannot yet block Russia’s plans and justify their own claims on the continental shelf, because the US Congress still has not ratified the UN convention of 1982. So, the US is not a member of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Anyway, Casey assured that “when Congress comes back in session, they’ll give it due consideration”. By the way, US President George Bush asked the Senate to do it back in May 2007. “It guarantees the protection of US rights on large sea territories and valuable natural resources there,” Bush said. Speaking to the Senate, influential Senator-Republican Richard Lugar said: “If we now fail to ratify the convention supported by the Pentagon, the Navy, President Bush, and the entire energy sector, it will directly harm US interests.”

Apparently, judging by the US Department of State’s reaction, Washington took the installation of the Russian flag in the seabed at the North Pole nearly as a declaration of war for the Arctic Region. So, the US wants to take up Moscow’s gauntlet. Therefore, the UN convention’s ratification by the Congress is just a matter of time. Then, Washington will be able to enter the big Arctic race. Consequently, the Arctic front will become another field of the competition between Russia and the West. (

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