Gold rush under the ice
Russia wants a vast slice of the Arctic
RUSSIA’s foray into the Arctic is an audacious geopolitical adventure, as popular at home as it is troubling for outsiders. At stake are the region’s natural riches, until now frozen both in law and in nature. But global warming is making them look more accessible. They may include 10 billion tonnes of oil and gas deposits, tin, manganese, gold, nickel, lead, platinum and diamonds, plus fish and perhaps even lucrative freight routes. Exploiting them will be technically tricky, and is probably decades away. But as the ice melts, the row is hotting up about who owns what’s underneath it.
The five Arctic Circle countries—America, Canada, Denmark (which looks after Greenland’s interests), Norway and Russia—each have a 200 mile (322km) “economic zone” allowed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Russia argued in 2001 that its continental shelf stretched out into the Arctic, entitling it to a larger chunk. The UN said it needed more evidence.
That is what this week’s expedition, led by Russia’s most glamorous explorer, Artur Chilingarov, is trying to prove. By taking rock samples from the seabed, it hopes to arm Russian scientists with proof that the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain chain, is a continuation of Russia’s landmass.
That would allow the Kremlin to annex a 460,000 square mile wedge of territory, roughly the size of western Europe, between Russia’s northern coastline and the North Pole. Such international maritime-border wrangles normally progress at a snail's pace, and are stupefyingly boring. When Denmark allocated $25m in 2004 to try to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge was connected to Greenland, few noticed or cared.
But the latest Russian expedition is not just collecting geological samples; on Thursday August 2nd it placed the Russian flag (in titanium) on the yellow gravel 4,200 metres below the surface at the site of the North Pole. That was the first manned mission there, mounted by a polar flotilla that no other country could match. A mighty nuclear-powered icebreaker shepherded a research vessel that launched hi-tech mini-submarines capable of pinpoint navigation under the Arctic ice.
For outsiders used to stories of Russian bungling and backwardness, that was a salutary reminder of the world-class technical clout and human genius the Kremlin can still command.
Even more startling, though, was Russia’s rhetoric. “The Arctic is ours and we should manifest our presence,” said Mr Chilingarov, a charismatic figure whom President Vladimir Putin has named as “presidential envoy” to the Arctic. “This is like placing a flag on the moon” said Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Institute.
The stunt has no legal force. But it still scandalised Canada’s foreign minister, Peter MacKay. “This isn’t the 15th century,” he complained. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory’.” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, insisted that his country was doing nothing of the kind. But Andrei Kokoshin, chair of a parliamentary committee on the ex-Soviet region, said Russia “will have to actively defend its interests in the Arctic”, adding: “There is something to think about on the military side as well. We need to reinforce our Northern Fleet and our border guards and build airfields so that we can ensure full control.”
Canada, punily defended since the end of the cold war, is now planning to spend $7 billion on eight new Arctic patrol vessels. America’s Congress is considering spending $100m to update three ageing polar icebreakers and build two more.
But the biggest change may be in America’s attitude to international law. A small but vocal lobby that objects to international administration of seabed mining has so far blocked the Bush administration’s attempts to have the Convention on the Law of the Sea ratified by Congress. But even the most die-hard American freemarketeer may have to accept that international bureaucrats are a better bet than the Kremlin’s crony capitalists when it comes to getting a fair slice of the polar action.