Published: May 2008Special Report: North Pole Cold War
Photo: Russian submersible

Those Wily Russians!

How an adventure trip became a minor international incident.

Text by Contributing Editor Paul Kvinta
Photograph by Peter Batson/DEEPSEAPHOTOGRAPHY

It wasn't exactly the Cuban missile crisis, but when a team of Russian divers plunged 13,979 feet beneath the ice in a Mir submersible last August and planted a Russian flag in the seafloor at the North Pole, it's fair to say that folks on all sides got pretty worked up. An ecstatic Russian media trumpeted the fact that no one had ever journeyed to the "real" North Pole before (they stressed that the alleged "North Pole" sits atop an ever shifting slab of floating ice), and President Vladimir Putin lauded the returning divers with the nation's highest honor, the Hero of the Russian Federation medal. Artur Chilingarov, the expedition leader and deputy chairman of the Russian Duma (parliament), insisted the dive proved that "the Arctic belongs to Russia." Disgruntled Canadian officials responded by pledging to beef up their military in the far north. "This isn't the 15th century," fumed Defense Minister Peter MacKay. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, "We're claiming this territory.'" As late as March 2008—seven months after the fact—European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana fretted that the expedition foreshadowed future conflict, as the melting ice cap enables countries to grab for Arctic oil and gas deposits. Wrote Solana: "Strategic interests are illustrated by the recent planting of the Russian flag under the North Pole."

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