On a sunny day in late April 2003 at a site about 150 km from the North Pole, Artur Chilingarov, famed polar explorer and member of the Russian parliament, straightened his arm into the air, fired his pistol, and declared: "This is our Arctic, this is the Russian Arctic, and the Russian flag should be here."
Huddled together for warmth, a dozen Russian explorers had just raised their national colors, ceremoniously opening the first Russian polar research station in the Arctic since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Known as North Pole-32, it was the thirty-second drift monitoring station Russians had set up on the Arctic ice since 1937. As the ice flowed and moved, the scientists stayed at the outpost until March 2004, when the ice destabilized, shooting up huge ridges, destroying the camp, and requiring a rescue evacuation. Before disaster struck, they conducted wide-ranging scientific research on weather, ice, temperature, Arctic biology, and navigation.
Though the world largely ignored Chilingarov's words and actions at North Pole-32, he would again publicize Russia's claims to the Arctic in 2007. This time, everyone took notice.
Miles below the site of his previous declaration, a MIR submersible carried Chilingarov and two others to the Arctic seabed, the first time humans had done so at the North Pole.
There, 14,000 feet (2.5 miles) below the ice, the submersible collected rock samples and planted a titanium Russian flag.
The international response was immediate:
Canadian Foreign Minister Peter McKay exploded. "This is posturing. This is the true north strong and free, and they're fooling themselves if they think dropping a flag on the ocean floor is going to change anything. There is no question over Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. We've made that very clear. We've established—a long time ago—that these are Canadian waters and this is Canadian property. You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century."
John B. Bellinger III, legal adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, remarked: "We knew they were going to the North Pole, but we didn't know they were going to plant the flag. It was a provocative action, and took us aback."
The western press echoed the outrage: a "stunt fueled by a return to czarist impulses;" a "Kremlin-sponsored act of bravado aimed at boosting national pride."
Russian President Vladimir Putin sounded a note of conciliation: "Don't worry. Everything will be all right. I was surprised by a somewhat nervous reaction from our Canadian colleagues. Americans, at one time, planted a flag on the moon. So what? Why didn't you worry so much? The moon did not pass into the United States' ownership."
Chilingarov, by contrast, wasn't above fanning the flames of nationalism in public. "It's only natural that our dive had great patriotic impact, and of course we planted the flag, as Americans would do in a similar case. I don't understand why there is all this noise in the international community. If anyone wants to plant a flag down there, they're welcome to. There's plenty of room."
In Moscow, he told a group of well-wishers, "I don't give a damn what all these foreign politicians … are saying about this. If someone doesn't like this, let them go down themselves and try to put something there. Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian."
Putin's successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, put to rest any lingering doubts over Russia's aspirations in the Arctic in a 2009 speech to Russia's Security Council: "This is our responsibility, and simply our direct duty, to our descendants. We must surely, and for the long-term future, secure Russia's interests in the Arctic."
The New Race for the Arctic Waters
While McKay and others might see Chilingarov's flag as anachronistic, they cannot ignore the competition now underway for control of the Arctic.