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Moscow Diary: The icy frontier

The BBC's James Rodgers is back from a holiday and here he examines Russia's controversial Arctic ambitions. Is Russia fuelling a risky new "Race to the Pole"? His diary is published fortnightly.

NORTHERN ADVENTURE

Russia rattled its rivals. Moscow stole a march on its competitors in staking a claim to the mineral riches of the Arctic.

Russian flag planted on Arctic seabed, 3 Aug 07
Russia's moment of Arctic triumph was captured on film

Russia rarely takes the easy way. They did not just say, "We think we might have a reasonable claim". Their expedition last August, led by explorer Artur Chilingarov, planted a Russian tricolour flag on the seabed at the North Pole.

The feat led other nations whose territory approaches the ice cap to remind Russia that it wasn't as simple as all that.

Ever since then, there have been rumblings that this could be the issue that will lead Russia and its former foes back into full-on confrontation. The fact that it is focused on the Arctic has led to endless speculative headlines punning on the phrase "Cold War".

Some of the members of the expedition that dived to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean were keener to talk about the technical and scientific achievement it represented.

Pretty much everyone else, in Russia and elsewhere, either celebrated or condemned what they saw as the acts of pioneers or pirates, depending on their point of view.

Russia's claim to the North Pole cannot be decided on the basis of the flag-planting alone, but the adventurous act was totally in keeping with the way the country has always been ready to challenge the Arctic.

Arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov
Arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov became a Russian hero last year

According to Sergei Pryamikov, an expert at Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, "Canada and Denmark are just as active as us in pursuing their Arctic claims - they just don't do it with as much fanfare".

Speaking to the BBC this week, he said all five countries bordering on the Arctic were seeking to stake out territory there - legally.

"They are all worried about securing energy resources - but there are no conflicting claims to specific seabed resources, so I doubt very much that a war could break out," he said.

Russia was one of the first to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, he noted, and as there is a 10-year time-limit for making a claim, "we have to present our case ahead of the others". Russia is preparing a fresh submission of Arctic data to the UN, in support of its claim.

ARCTIC HEROISM

On a recent visit to St Petersburg, with my head full of headlines about a new space race/Cold War/land grab, I decided to go to the Russian State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Greenland icebergs (file pic)
Warmer temperatures are making access to the Arctic easier

The museum's facade was being restored - in itself perhaps a reflection of the fact that the oil wealth which has funded a new era of exploration is also helping to fill the coffers of cultural institutions.

The building itself, like so many in St Petersburg, tells the history of the city as well as any lecture. It was built in the 19th Century and used as a church until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Along with many of St Petersburg's artistic treasures, the museum was moved to Siberia as Hitler's forces prepared to besiege the city.

Perhaps because it was a Soviet-era creation, the museum celebrates that epoch most of all. The forging of a new way of life, combined with the constant improvement of 20th-Century technology, seemed to inspire explorers as never before.

There are exhibits celebrating bold trans-Arctic flights. There's the tale of the Chelyushkin, a ship crushed in the polar ice. Those on board survived for 60 days on drift ice, during the Arctic winter.

The pilots who finally rescued them were awarded communist Russia's greatest honour, "Hero of the Soviet Union".

Then there was the story of a certain L. Rogozov. Struck by appendicitis a hopeless distance from anything like a hospital, he operated on himself. There was a picture of him sitting up in bed, carrying out the surgery by looking in a mirror placed somewhere around the top of his thighs. The phrases "hard man" or "tough guy" simply seem inadequate.

I got chatting to one of the museum staff, who was keen to practise his English. He gave me a brochure that had been produced in the mid-1990s. It told a familiar story: an impoverished ex-Soviet institution offering its expertise to foreign partners in return for funds.

The man I was talking to apologised that the brochure was out of date. It certainly was. Russia today doesn't want, or need, any help to go exploring.


Your comments:

Look at the globe from above the geographical North Pole, and you will understand how the Arctic Ocean remains crucial in the eyes of the Russians to their security. Not for nothing were their SSBNs based on the shores adjoining these waters. The Northern Fleet still remains the most important Naval Force for their protection. Remember that Alaska used to be part of Russia, and you will understand the Russian mindset in this important area.
Alasdair Campbell, Bath, UK

If Russia decides the pole is theirs, and moves in forces to protect the claim, is Denmark or Canada or even the USA really going to stop them? It's a bit like the Iraq war, the Russians, French and the Chinese were opposed but not willing to take the argument to the battlefield.
Christian Oster, Sydney, Australia

All that we have now is our big oil resources. What unexpected news! Do people not become bored of this permanent mention of Russia's high oil prices? Even with the price at USD 25 for a barrel we'd have the same national budget due to consumer market growth.
Tolissimus, Saint-Petersburg, Russia

I think the North Pole should become a protected natural resource and no nation should be able to take land as their own, when the only purpose is to make money and destroy the pole from the inside.
Jesse, Fernie, Canada

So-called claims made on parts of geographic poles are but an extension of the senseless destruction of environmental resources continuing further inland in most countries of the world. The sooner humans encroach upon the little-damaged poles, the faster will they make the rate of debilitation which won't be restricted to 'environmental contents'.
Paritosh Kimothi, Dehradun, India

A good, concise homage to Russian explorers and to the Russians in general. What they have achieved is very much to their credit. Lucky they chose to be explorers and not merely capitalists. It is very strange to me that we should feel threatened by the undersea Russian flag. It seems to me that we do not want the Russians to do what we would be eager to do ourselves. We are such a shameful lot.
Raymond Sammut, Canberra, Australia

The stupendous greed of all nations is very harmful for life on earth. There are enough resources to go around, but some people hang onto them because that makes them more valuable. And then there is the distribution problem. I tell you, in 1000 years, our times will be described as the Dark Ages.
Talleyrand, Basel, Switzerland

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JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

FEBRUARY - AUGUST 2007
 

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