MOSCOW (Reuters)–The Russian explorers who planted a flag beneath the North Pole made a triumphant homecoming on Tuesday and said they did not care about foreign critics who complained their mission was a crude land grab.
"The Arctic always was Russian, and it will remain Russian," expedition leader Artur Chilingarov told reporters after he landed at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, where wellwishers brandished bottles of champagne and Russian flags.
"We are happy that we placed a Russian flag on the ocean bed, where not a single person has ever been, and I don’t give a damn what some foreign individuals think about that," he said.
A Russian mini-submersible last week planted a rust-proof Russian flag on the Arctic Ocean bed as part of an expedition intended to strengthen Russia’s claims to the North Pole, which under international law belongs to no single state.
Russia was joining a scramble by other states with Arctic coastlines to gain access to the region’s energy resources.
Canada mocked the expedition, with Foreign Minister Peter Mackay saying Russia was behaving like a 15th century explorer. "You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory," he said.
As the plane carrying 54 scientists and polar explorers touched down on the tarmac at Vnukovo airport, a brass band struck up.
Girls dressed in national costume held out bunches of flowers, wilting from the heat, and a crowd of teenagers waved giant Russian flags and bottles of champagne.
The team returned to a heroes’ welcome, after planting a Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole.
Artur Chilingarov, a veteran explorer and member of parliament, emerged triumphantly from the airport to the cheers of more than 100 people. The seasoned, gray-bearded explorer carried a toy polar bear under one arm and thanked everyone for coming and defied criticism of his expedition.
"We’re happy that we reached the bottom of the ocean at the North Pole, where no human being had been for millions or billions of years, and placed the Russian flag there. And I don’t care one bit what any foreign leader has to say about it," Chilingarov said.
Critics have said the flag-planting does not mean Russia can lay claim to the territory.
Last week, Chilingarov and part of his team descended more than four kilometers beneath the North Pole to plant a rust-proof Russian flag on the seabed and carry out scientific experimen’s.
"It was very celebratory, very pleasant. I think it was a worthwhile thing to do. We consider the expedition to have been successful. "But there has been criticism of the mission outside Russia. Canada’s foreign minister, Peter McKay, dismissed it as a stunt and said planting flags to claim territories was a practice more suited to the 15th century.
With the polar ice caps melting, the five countries that surround the North Pole — Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway — are keen to claim the rich oil, gas, and mineral reserves beneath the seabed. Under international law, the North Pole does not belong to a single state.
At the homecoming ceremony, Gennady Kadachygov, an expert from the Institute of Arctic Studies, told RFE/RL the trip had been a success: "I feel terrific. The fact that we planted a [Russian] flag [beneath the North Pole] — it was very celebratory, very pleasant. I think it was a worthwhile thing to do. We consider the expedition to have been successful."
After sub-zero temperatures at the Arctic, the searing heat and noisy crowd proved too much for one explorer, who collapsed on the tarmac and had to be carried away by airport staff. But for members of the pro-Kremlin Young Guard youth group, who had stood for hours in their red, white, and blue T-shirts and baseball caps, it was worth the wait.
"[We’re here] because we are proud of our country. The Young Guard are young members of Unified Russia, the youth of Unified Russia," one activist said.
Unified Russia, a Kremlin-backed party that dominates parliament and the Russian government, have lent their full support to the expedition. President Vladimir Putin has named Chilingarov his presidential envoy to the Arctic.
Across the Russian capital, Muscovites are celebrating the explorers’ return: they have strung up banners reading "Moscow Salutes Its Heroes!" above the streets and many shops are displaying commemorative calendars in their windows.