- Feb 16, 2009
He has sunk to the bottom of the world's deepest lake, skied down volcanoes and fished in Siberian rivers. Now, Russia's action-man prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has gone one better – coming face to snout with a giant (if slumbering) polar bear during a trip to Russia's remote Arctic north.
In the Kremlin's latest attempt to lay claim to the Arctic, Putin travelled to Franz Josef Land, a collection of far-flung Russian islands in the extreme north-east of the Barents Sea.
Speaking next to the bear, Putin said Russia had "profound strategic interests" in the region. He said the Arctic was key to Russia's defence and security, with the Kremlin's northern fleet stationed there and its bombers patrolling above the ice. "We have economic interests and mine mineral resources here," he said.
According to today's Kommersant newspaper, Russian scientists captured the bear ahead of Putin's visitand kept it captive for 10 days. After hugging the male animal round the neck, Putin fitted it with an electronic collar. Asked by a female journalist about the bear's massive paws, he said: "They're heavy. He's the real master of the Arctic."
Kommersant said scientistshunted the bear by helicopter, sedating it with a tranquiliser dart. They fed it fish and expired sausages. At one point a female bear came to visit. The bear was re-sedated an hour before Putin flew into Nagurskoye, Russia's most northerly outpost on the western Alexandra Land.
Surveying a landscape of snow and abandoned debris, Putin admitted the Arctic was in need of a "general clean-up". Soviet troops stationed on the archipelago during the cold war left behind tens of thousands of leaking oil and chemical barrels, he said, in what amounted to an environmental disaster.
"The region turned into a garbage dump after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and the reduction of military activities," the premier said. "From 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes of fuel and lubricants are being stored under inappropriate conditions, and the pollution exceeds maximum permissible levels by six times."
Putin travelled to Franz Josef Land earlier this month with a pool of handpicked Russian journalists. News of the trip was only revealed today, in what appears to be part of a carefully planned PR campaign.
The Arctic holds 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered gas reserves. It is also home to a dwindling population of polar bears, which have seen their numbers fall due to rapidly melting ice and climate change.
Until quite recently the Arctic seemed to belong to no one. But in the last five years, with Russia's northern sea route now open, Moscow has vigorously argued that it owns a large chunk of the Arctic – a claim that has caused consternation among the four other Arctic powers, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the US.
In August 2007 Russian explorers plunged to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in a mini-submarine and planted a rust-proof Russian flag on the seabed. Critics, including Canada's foreign minister, were scathing, dismissing the gesture as an inappropriate imperial stunt.
In fact, the expedition was key to Russia's bold claim that its continental shelf merges with the Lomonosov ridge, a submerged mountain range directly under the Arctic. Under UN rules, if Moscow can prove this then it is entitled to economic rights over a far larger slice of Arctic territory than previously thought, beyond a current 350-mile limit from a country's coast.
Earlier this week Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, settled a longstanding territorial dispute with Norway, with both sides agreeing their border in the Barents Sea.