As Russia staked a high-profile claim to the seabed under the Arctic Ocean, the country’s experts remain divided over the venture’s relevance. The liberal Nezavisimaya gazeta newspaper cited experts as saying that Russia’s polar venture did more harm than good. The expedition actually damaged Russia’s chances of claiming the shelf, according to Leopold Lobkovsky, deputy director of the Russian Institute of Oceanography. He argued that samples taken from the seabed proved nothing, because Russia needs to drill at depths of 5-7 kilometers to back up its claim. Lobkovsky dismissed Russia’s latest Arctic expedition as a publicity stunt. “We have taken samples from the seabed before, and drilled in the Lomonosov Ridge to a depth of 400 meters several years ago, but nobody wrote much about it,” Lobkovsky said. However, on August 13 the daily commented that Russia had started a pro-active expansion into the Arctic (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 10-13).
Russia seeks to claim the potentially energy-rich seabed under the Arctic Ocean. From late July to early August, the Akademik Fedorov research vessel undertook an Arctic voyage, including deployment of the Mir-1 and Mir-2 mini-submarines to a depth of more than four kilometers near the North Pole, close to the Lomonosov Ridge (see EDM, August 7). The mission of 85 researchers was headed by Artur Chilingarov, deputy speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. The Rossiya nuclear-powered icebreaker led the Akademik Fedorov through the Arctic ice.
On August 2, the two mini-subs placed a Russian flag on the seabed near the North Pole and took samples of soil and water to study. Upon arrival back to Moscow on August 7, Chilingarov stated that the Arctic always was Russia’s and would always belong to Russia. Following this statement, Chilingarov was received by Russian President Vladimir Putin to report the results of the mission.
Kommersant daily agreed that the samples lifted from Arctic seabed would be of limited impact. Despite the obvious scientific value of samples, they would not determine whether the Lomonosov ridge is a continuation of Russia’s continental shelf, according to Robert Nigmatulin, director of the Russian Institute of Oceanography. Nothing but deep drilling could give a final proof, he said (Kommersant, August 10).
Russia has been keen to discover a link between a major underwater ridge and Russia’s coastal shelf. The mission claimed that the Lomonosov Ridge, running across the North Pole, was an extension of the Eurasian continent. These claims were supposed to provide support for Moscow to lay claim to the seabed under the Arctic Ocean. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country can claim exclusive economic rights within 200 miles. If a country can prove that its continental shelf extends beyond the 200-mile economic zone, it can claim similar rights over a larger area.
Russia first presented its claim to the Arctic Ocean seabed to the United Nations in 2001. Moscow now has until 2009 to prove that its shelf came is actually an extension of the Siberian continental platform in order to extend the delineation of its continental shelf beyond the 200-mile zone.
Nonetheless, in June 2007 Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute announced that Russia could lay claim to more than one million square kilometers of territory under the Arctic Ocean, which may contain up to 10 billion tons of hydrocarbons, as well as diamonds and metal ores.
The country’s legal experts warned against excessive optimism in the wake of Russia’s Arctic expedition. Anatoly Kolodkin, head of the International Maritime Law Association and a judge at the UN Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, conceded that placing Russia’s flag at the North Pole seabed was of pure symbolic value and has no legal meaning (Interfax, Kommersant, August 9).
However, Russia has now announced yet another Arctic project. On August 10, Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor approved plans to create a “Russian Arctic” national park. It would involve 8.4 million hectares of land, mainly portions of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, and 6.1 million hectares of territorial waters, the agency said. The national park is due to be launched by 2010.
Meanwhile, Moscow was also backing its claim by exercises its military muscle. On August 8, Russia’s strategic aviation units began military flights over the North Pole and started to conduct test launches of cruise missiles. Four Tu-160 Blackjack bombers, 12 Tu-95 Bear-H strategic bombers, and 14 Tu-22 Backfire-C theater bombers carried out simulated bombing raids, fired eight cruise missile at the Pemboi range near Vorkuta, and flew over the North Pole, the Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. Six long-range aviation regiments were involved in the exercise to practice interacting with fighter aircraft, air refueling, and overcoming air defenses (RIA-Novosti, August 8).