Cold War at North Pole?

Russia plants its flag on North Pole in advance of plans to tap oil, gas.


July 31, 2007 — -- This week, Russia sent a nuclear submarine to drill a hole in the ice over the North Pole. Through this hole two mini-submarines descended three miles to the bottom of the Arctic Sea.

The purpose of this high-tech expedition was to prove that the resource-rich seabed—which holds possibly the planet's largest untapped reserves of oil and natural gas—belongs to Russia.

Warmer temperatures in the Arctic Sea are making it feasible to reach over 460,000 square miles of seabed that was previously blocked off by an impermeable layer of ice. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the area may contain a quarter of the world's oil and gas reserves.

To stake their claim to these riches, the Russians intend to plant a titanium Russian flag on the seabed.

"The Arctic is Russian," veteran explorer Artur Chilingarov told reporters last week. "We are going to be the first to plant a flag there, a Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, at the very point of the North Pole."

Princeton University Russian specialist Gilbert Rozman sees the move as "a Russian power grab and in line with the assertive foreign policy of this year, visible in its dealings in Europe and Asia and now even in the Arctic."

Dr. Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, agrees: "Russia is not exploring the Arctic continental shelf in a cooperative mode, but in [a way] which raises hackles from other Arctic powers such as Canada, the U.S., Norway, and Denmark."

Not everyone agrees with this assessment.

Steven Pifer, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic International Studies and a former senior State Department official, doesn't view the Russian actions as overly aggressive. He told ABC News that it was natural that "the Russians are trying, in part, to enhance their position as an energy provider."

Controlling this territory would certainly secure Russia's current place as world's No. 1 energy provider. The seabed at stake is one of the last untouched reserves of hydrocarbon deposits. An added bonus for the Russians is that if the ice cap continues to melt, the area could become a commercially viable waterway as well as a valuable new source of fish.

But does Russia's latest expedition strengthen its claim over the area?

No, said David Rivkin Jr., a maritime law expert who served in the Departments of Justice and Energy and White House counsel's office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. "Russia has always employed a muscular rhetoric that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Planting a flag somewhere doesn't make it your territory."

According to international law, coastal states have territorial control of 12 nautical miles outside their land borders but have economic use that extends to 200 nautical miles. A state may claim control over areas outside that 200 mile limit, if it can prove the areas in question are linked to its continental shelf.

Ambassador Pifer interpreted "the main purpose" of Russia's expedition as "[determining] the extent of [its] continental shelf." If the Russians can make the claim that the shelf is connected to the seabed, he said, "they have the right to extract oil and gas."

The other Arctic powers—the U.S., Canada, Norway, and Denmark—all have similar claims.

The first research dives of the Russian expedition came a few weeks after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced intentions to aggressively uphold his country's previous claims to the Arctic seabed. The prime minister's vows to "defend [Canada's] sovereignty over the Arctic" were backed by an approximately $7 billion (Canadian) investment, which includes icebreaker ships to drill into the polar icecap.

Though the other Arctic power governments have remained relatively silent, a State Department official said that the United States is "interested in this issue" but also pointed to a similar claim the Russians made in 2001.

The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "The U.S. commented on the nature of the ridges at the time as oceanic, not continental, and therefore not a part of the continental shelf." He said that "the U.S. remains skeptical because we have not had the opportunity to examine the [Russian] data ourselves."

The official also pointed out that the Russians' data and analysis would not be available until Russia submits its claim to a U.N. commission in 2009. This same commission rejected Russia's claim to the territory in 2001.

International lawyer David Rivkin said Russia hasn't broken any international rules yet. "Exploring mineral deposits is permissible as a matter of customary law," he said. "The only reason no nation did it before was a matter of lacking the technology, as well as the billions in funds for exploration and production costs."

"The lack of government reaction says that other nations are waiting to see what Russia comes up with," Pifer said. "If the Russians come back and claim the continental shelf extends significantly, then other countries will speak up and ask, 'What is the basis for that?'"

With energy prices rising, Cohen suggests that the latest Russian claims are just the beginning of a major territorial tussle among the world's industrial powers. "This is going to be a huge issue for 21st century competition for Arctic oil and gas, especially if we see the continued melting of the ice cap."

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