MOSCOW – The United States and Canada have scoffed at a Russian submarine expedition that planted a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole. Coming home to a hero’s welcome Tuesday, the famous polar scientist who led the risky voyage did not mince words in responding.
“I don’t give a damn what all these foreign politicians there are saying about this,” Artur Chilingarov told a throng of well-wishers. “If someone doesn’t like this, let them go down themselves … and then try to put something there. Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian.”
Thursday’s dive by two small submarines was partly a scientific expedition. But it could mark the start of a fierce legal scramble for control of the seabed — and what could be vast energy reserves beneath — among nations that border the Arctic, including Russia, the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark, through its territory Greenland.
The United States promptly dismissed the Russian move as legally meaningless whether it planted “a metal flag, a rubber flag or a bedsheet.” Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Mackay said the voyage was “just a show” and that Russia could not expect to claim territory under the rules of “the 15th century.”
But in Russia, the tone of state-run television reports have been triumphant since the submarines planted the titanium flag on the Arctic Ocean floor.
Chilingarov, who became a Soviet hero in the 1980s after successfully leading an expedition aboard a research vessel that was trapped for a time in Antarctic sea ice, was shown brandishing the Russian tricolor and spraying champagne from a huge bottle. President Vladimir Putin quickly telephoned the crew to offer his congratulations.
Officials said the expedition was more about gathering evidence for the case Russia hopes to make for ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region. A U.N. commission, which has rejected Moscow’s claims in the past, will ultimately make the decision.
Canada answered the Russian move with a clear message, highlighting plans to spend up to $7.12 billion to build and operate eight patrol ships to help protect its sovereignty in the Arctic.
Moscow has sought to position itself as a force to be reckoned with in international disputes from Middle East peacemaking to U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, seeking to reclaim much of the clout it had when it was the capital of the Soviet empire.
Russia’s bold and sometimes confrontational positions have brought it increasingly at odds with the West.
Ties with Britain plummeted Moscow refused to send a Russian businessman to England for trial in the poisoning death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.
Relations between Washington and Moscow are at their lowest level in years because of disputes including the final status of Kosovo and U.S. plans to put missile defense elements in former Soviet bloc countries.
Last month, Putin suspended Russia’s participation in a key Soviet-era arms control treaty for Europe and threatened to withdraw from it completely.
Western reaction to the Arctic voyage “is nothing but the latest attempt to put Russia in its place,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explained the flag-planting with a precedent vividly etched in the modern imagination.
“Whenever explorers reach some sort of point that no one else has explored, they plant a flag,” he said. “That’s how it was on the moon, by the way.”