One of the key figures of the expedition, which left on July 24 and should reach the North Pole in four days, is Russian polar explorer and State Duma Deputy Artur Chilingarov.
Russian scientists hope to bolster Russia's claim on 1.2 million square kilometers of Arctic territory, which Russia estimates to contain at least 10 billion tons of oil and natural-gas reserves.
Chilingarov and two other explorers are expected to plunge directly under the geographic North Pole, which lies in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, to a depth of 4,300 meters. They will dive down in a deepwater manned submersible "Mir," which was used to investigate the wreck of the "Titanic." On the seabed, Chilingarov and his colleagues will carry out several scientific experiments and install a special titanium capsule adorned with the Russian flag.
The Kremlin has given high priority to the expedition. Russian President Vladimir Putin has given Chilingarov the status of presidential envoy to the Arctic. All national television networks, including the 24-hour English-language news channel Russia Today, have sent teams for live coverage of the event.
The Arctic and Antarctica are the last vast untapped reservoirs of mineral resources on the planet. Underneath the Arctic Ocean, there are gigantic reserves of tin, manganese, nickel, gold, platinum, and diamonds. There are also huge fish stocks. Importantly, the nautical route along the Russian northern coastline is the shortest way from Europe to America and Asia.
But the Arctic's most lucrative treasure is the enormous deposits of oil and gas, which could amount to 25 percent of the world's resources.
With growing demand on the world energy market -- particularly the rising consumption of China and India -- these resources are likely to be the source of international competition in years to come, particularly among the Arctic littoral states of Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the United States.
Global warming in the Arctic region has increased the likely profitability of extracting mineral resources. As the ice pack melts, tanker shipment of oil becomes more feasible.
Shelving The Issue
The competition for resources will be more acute because of the unresolved status of the Arctic shelf.
In 1926, the Soviet government claimed the whole Arctic sector adjoined to the Russian polar coast. This is a gigantic triangle that begins at the former western border of the USSR, stretches to the middle of Bering Strait, and has its apex at the North Pole. However, no country has recognized this delineation. Under international law, the Arctic region is no man's land.
Russia ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1997. Under the convention, coastal states have the right to 12 nautical miles of territorial water from their coasts and exclusive economic rights to a 200-mile economic zone. But the delineations are complicated by undersea shelves. If the shelf is longer than 200 miles, the coastal state still has the rights for the mineral resources.
By ratifying the UN convention, Russia did not uphold the Soviet Union's Arctic claims. But now the Kremlin is trying a new tack.
The Kremlin is attempting to show that the Eurasian continental shelf extends beyond the 200-mile zone. That can be done by showing that the shelf is a continuation of the Eurasian continent. And that is precisely the goal of the present Russian North Pole expedition, who are trying to prove that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge is a geological extension of Siberia.
In 2002, a UN committee that administers UNCLOS did not uphold the Russian claim filed in December 2001 on the extension of the continental shelf, saying it proved insufficient and more research was needed. UN scientists said that, according to Russia's argument, the Lomonosov Ridge could also be seen as an extension of Greenland or Canada. (In fact, Danish and Canadian scientists are both working on proving their own claims that the ridge is an extension of their continental shelves.)
Increased Arctic Presence
Since that time, however, Russia has steadily increased its civil and military presence in the Arctic. In 2004, the Federal Security Service (FSB) announced the creation of a new Arctic Directorate, and new border-guard stations at Zemlya Frantsa-Iosefa (Franz Josef Land) and Severnaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean.
The same year, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev made a spectacular landing on the ice at the North Pole and erected the Russian flag. (In January 2007, Patrushev flew to the South Pole to erect the Russian flag.)
Moscow has also increased funding of polar research and announced the construction of 20 new meteorological and monitoring stations in the region. Russian petrochemical giants Gazprom and LUKoil have also announced plans to build a big fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers.
Armed with newly regained political and economic clout -- and some new scientific data -- the Kremlin is preparing to file a new claim at the United Nations.
Western countries are concerned about Russia's plans for the Arctic. On May 16, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) urged the Senate to ratify UNCLOS. If the United States did not ratify the convention, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Russia would press its claims without the United States at the negotiating table.
Canada, which has the second-longest Arctic coastline, is equally concerned about Russian claims. An article in the Canadian "National Post" daily quoted defense analyst Brian MacDonald as warning that Russia's presence in the polar region underscores Canada's lacking presence.
"It demonstrates that Russians have capacity to move in the Arctic, and we don't. Unless we do something soon, such as deploy ships in the region, we are going to weaken our own claims to sovereignty," MacDonald said.
As energy politics continues to be the fulcrum of geopolitics, Russia's Arctic stand makes a new clash with the West over polar resources seem inevitable.
Moscow And Washington: Toe To Toe
U.S. President George W. Bush (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit in Germany on June 7 (AFP)
MOUNTING TENSIONS. Relations between Russia and the United States have grown increasingly tense in recent months as issues like missile-defense, Kosovo's status, and Russia's domestic policies have provoked sharp, public differences. On June 5, U.S. President George W. Bush said democratic reforms in Russia have been "derailed"....(more)
MORE: A special archive of RFE/RL's coverage of U.S.-Russian relations.