Santa has Company

Last week, a Russian team planted a titanium capsule with a Russian flag under the ice caps of the North Pole. This mission was touted as scientific, but its primary purposes seem to be political and propagandistic. The ostensible goal is to establish a Russian claim to the Artic region. According to a 1982 provision of the Law of the Sea, a nation can make a claim to artic territory if it can prove that the territory is connected to its own continental shelf. While the legal issues surrounding such claims are nebulous, two larger lessons can be drawn about modern Russia.

First, Russia is increasingly styling itself as an energy state. Russia has little interest in ice and frigid waters. It does, however, have an interest in a potentially vast energy supply: up to 25 percent of the world's remaining untapped oil and gas sources may lie under the Artic Ocean. Though the mission may do little to advance Russia's claim to the Artic, it does show that Russia is actively (or at least more actively than other states) pursuing these new energy supplies. Gas and oil are coming to dominate the Russian economy and also guide Russian foreign policy. Russia is usually categorized as a post-Soviet state and as such it is generally compared to and grouped with countries of the former USSR. Perhaps this theoretical perspective needs revision--a comparison with oil-rich states in the Middle East could be fruitful as well.

Second, Russia is pursuing an increasingly nationalistic and aggressive foreign policy. The "Artica-2007" mission was largely a political stunt--it was backed by president Putin and led by Artur Chilingarov, a deputy speaker in Russia's parliament and famous artic explorer. The rhetoric surrounding the event is worth analyzing. Chilingarov remarked, "The Arctic always was Russian, and it will remain Russian...and I don't give a damn what some foreign individuals think about that." He will need his thick skin: the mission has drawn ridicule from most western nations. The deliberate act of flag-planting as claim to territory befits a 16th century conquistador, not a modern state engaged in a complex web of international law and regulations. But Russian authorities are no doubt well aware of this--they decided, however, to rekindle the fires of Russia's imperial past. This incident should not be dismissed as an instance of mere bravado or as a cry for attention. It seems to fit well into a recent pattern of contrarian and confrontational foreign policy.

Russia has refused to back down and extradite a suspect in Alexander Litvinenko's death, thus escalating tensions with Britain. Russia has used hostile language in its opposition to plans for US missile defense systems in Europe. With its claim to the Artic, Russia has irked Canada, which also maintains a keen interest in the region. All of these actions are justified as some sort of self-defense against a world order that is trying to control Russia and deny its rightful status as a great power. Russian political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov brushed aside criticism of the mission as "nothing but the latest attempt to put Russia in its place.'' The submarine mission can thus be understood as an instance of Russia asserting itself. The troubling question is whether Russia's future acts of self aggrandizement will be as harmless as a tiny titanium flag locked miles below the polar ice cap.