Two weeks after Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada's plans to assert itself more vigorously in the Arctic, a Russian expedition set sail yesterday for the North Pole, where it plans to send a mini-submarine crew to plant a flag on the seabed and symbolically claim the Arctic for the Kremlin.
The mission is part of a race to assert rights over the Lomonosov Ridge, a barren but energy-rich wasteland that stretches across 11 time zones. Scientists estimate the glassy icescape is rich with 10 billion tonnes of gas and oil deposits.
The Russians have long claimed the ridge, which extends into northern Canada, as an extension of their continent.
"The Arctic is Russian," Artur Chilingarov, the expedition leader and deputy leader of the country's parliament, told Russian television.
"We are going to be the first to put a flag there, a Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, at the very point of the North Pole."
Legal and defence experts see the move as part of a Russian push to assert itself globally and equally, a canny public relations move.
"They're really playing to the press," said University of British Columbia international law professor Michael Byers. "Canada and Russia are similar in that they are using a tried and tested technique of northern nationalism."
The three members of the Russian submarine team say they plan to carry out scientific research.
If all goes according to plan, the nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya will smash through the weakened ice, leading the way for the main expedition ship, which will launch the submarine. A Mir submersible vehicle will delve 4,000 metres to the bottom of the ocean beneath the pole.
One of the biggest worries is resurfacing at the same hole in the ice the scientists dove into -- the crew risks becoming trapped if the mini-submarine is not powerful enough to break through the ice. The descent is to begin on Sunday. As it stands, no country lays exclusive claim to the region. Rather, Arctic nations Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway all have maritime jurisdictions that extend 200 nautical miles off their coastlines. If one of the states want to expand its zone, it will need more than a flag to prove it.
It needs hard, expensive science. It must validate that the structure of its shelf is consistent with its own geological structure of its own terrain. "We're not talking about a contest of sovereignty and territory. We're talking about a scientific process involving complex seismology and sonar measurements," Prof. Byers said.
Since 2001,Russia has claimed a larger slice extending as far as the North Pole because Moscow says the Arctic seabed and Siberia are linked via the same continental shelf. In a proposal to a United Nations commission, Russia claimed extra-territorial waters off its northern coast. But the world body kicked the proposal back the Russians, asking for more scientific information.
Now flush with revenues from oil, gas and metals, Russia has the muscle and cash to fund the expedition and beef up their claims.