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Petroleum News: Russia defends North Pole flag-planting

Vol. 12, No. 32  Week of August 12, 2007
The Associated Press

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 Aug. 8, 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, 68, 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.”

On Aug. 2, the scientists dove in two mini-submarines some two miles beneath the pole, and dropped a metal capsule containing the Russian flag on the sea bed.

Chilingarov, who surfaced to cheers from colleagues aboard the polar research vessel Akademik Fyodorov, spent 8 hours and 40 minutes submerged with his two crew mates, ITAR-Tass said, with the last 40 minutes used to find the break in the ice. The second sub and its three-member crew, including a Swede and an Australian, surfaced more than an hour after the first, after about 9 hours under the ice.

Expedition organizers said the greatest risk was being trapped under the ice and running out of air. Each sub had a 72-hour air supply.

They surfaced near the pole, guided from the murky depths by four radio beacons on the perimeter of a football field-sized hole cut in the thick Arctic pack ice.

The symbolic gesture, along with geologic data being gathered by expedition scientists, is intended to prop up Moscow’s claims to more than 460,000 square miles of the Arctic shelf — which by some estimates may contain 10 billion tons of oil and gas deposits.

“There’s no question that this particular expedition does have some kind of larger political and economic focus,” Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, told the Associated Press.

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 United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark, through its territory Greenland.

U.S. says meaningless

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.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned a precedent. “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.”

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.

Putin says congratulations

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.l

—Mike Eckel Associated Press Writer, Moscow, contributed to this report

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