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Eight years ago a Russian polar expedition descended through the waters of the Arctic Ocean in a Mir submarine and dropped a canister containing a Russian flag to the sea bed, 2.5 miles beneath the North Pole.
Per Stig Moller, a former foreign minister of Denmark, which has also staked a claim to the pole, told his Russian counterpart: “Just because you plant a flag there doesn’t mean you own it,” to which the Russian replied: “Just because the Americans planted a flag on the Moon. ...”
Some tended to view the incident as a stunt. Others were less nonchalant and that mood has since been reinforced by the saber-rattling Russia has since indulged in, culminating with its annexation of Crimea, the threat it has posed to the Ukraine and the Baltic states and the combat exercises it has conducted in the Arctic.
That military presence in the Arctic - which has involved 38,000 troops, 50 surface ships and submarines and 110 aircraft this summer - has included the restoration of a Soviet-era base on the New Siberian Islands, along with other military outposts in the region.
Any doubts about the seriousness of Russia’s activities in the region have now been put to rest, with Moscow’s unveiling earlier in August of a revised international submission that lays claim to a broad expanse of Arctic territory, including the North Pole.
The Russian foreign ministry said it is claiming control over 463,000 square miles of Arctic sea shelf extending about 350 nautical miles from the shore.
Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway have all been trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates has one-eighth of the world’s untapped oil and a quarter of its natural gas.
Rivalry for development of those resources - which some had once hoped would be a gentlemanly competition - has intensified as shrinking polar ice has opened up new opportunities for shipping and exploration and lowered drilling costs in the process.
Russia was first to submit its claim in 2002, but the United Nations sent that back for lack of evidence.
The resubmitted bid contains “ample scientific data collected in years of Arctic research” to support the claim, the Russian ministry said, indicating it now expects the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to start reviewing the bid this fall.
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows all coastal nations to extend their jurisdiction beyond 200 nautical miles as long as they can prove the boundary claim is a natural extension.
The submission made by Denmark last December is seen as a test of whether Russia is willing to uphold its commitment and abide by the convention which says countries may control an area of seabed if they can show it is an extension of their continental shelf.
The key element of the counterclaims is the Lomonosov Ridge which bisects the Arctic, starting in Greenland.
Canada is also developing its own plan to assert sovereignty over part of the ridge.
In late 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered officials to rewrite Canada’s Arctic claim to include the North Pole and conduct more survey work this summer before submitting the document.
When Russia released its updated submission, its embassy in Ottawa said that Russia and Canada had previously agreed to allow the U.N. commission overseeing the issue to evaluate and rule on the quality of the hydrographic research “without prejudice to the rights of the other state.”
Rob Huebert, a political science professor and an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary, said it is now Harper’s responsibility to make clear whether his government is willing to negotiate with Russia where claims intersect.
“It is in Canada’s interest to have a safe and stable Arctic,” he told the Globe and Mail.
But he suggested Canada’s recent use of the Arctic Council as a forum to hammer Russia and President Vladimir Putin over tensions in the Ukraine might pose a challenge to serious negotiations.
However, Huebert suggested it is “inevitable” that talks will take place over the next five years, adding that the more reasonable Russia appears to be on the issue the more Canada risks being isolated, especially now that it has been chastised by the United States for making the Ukraine an issue at the Arctic Council.
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