Four years ago, Russian researchers made a bold, if unseen, move. From a submarine, deep beneath the icy waters of the North Pole, they planted a Russian flag on the ocean floor.
Russia has the world's longest Arctic border, which stretches more than 10,000 miles. And for Russia, that 2007 research mission was only the beginning of a major drive to claim ownership of vast portions of the Arctic, as well as the oil and gas deposits that are beneath.
At present, Russia has some islands in the Arctic Ocean. But aside from that, the country's northern border effectively ends where the Arctic Ocean begins.
Yet the Russian government is now making the argument that its border should be extended northward. The government says that hidden under the Arctic's icy waters is a mountain range, the Lomonosov Ridge, which goes all the way to the North Pole. They say this shows that Russia continues north below sea level, and the country has scientists in the Arctic Ocean now, collecting evidence for the claim.
On a recent visit, a speedboat raced up the Pechora River in one small part of the vast region. The river cuts through hundreds of miles of empty green and sandy tundra and empties into the Arctic Ocean.
In a small fishing village with a smattering of wooden houses in the Nenets Autonomous Region, Yuri Tyulyubayev, a travel company owner, says many local residents agree with the government.
"People are happy that we have oil because ... we have more work, we have more profit, we have everything," says Tyulyubayev.
In many ways, Tyulyubayev is a poster child in Russia's campaign for Arctic energy. He arranges travel for the oil industry. So his small company stands to profit if foreign energy companies flock here. His native land of north-central Russia is largely unspoiled.
"It's a very, very reindeer region," he says. "We have more than 150,000 reindeer for 40,000 people."
'They Could Break Everything'
And now, a lot of oil and gas companies. There are Russian firms, but also companies from the U.S. and Vietnam, all exploring for oil and gas onshore. And if Russian leaders have their way, exploration will begin in the Arctic Ocean itself as early as this winter. Tyulyubayev says the more money and business that come to this region, the better.
But what about the risks to the environment?
"Of course we worry. But I would not say that this is the first worry in our life," he says. "Economic life is much more important for people."
The Russian Arctic has the scars of history. The northwest, around the port city of Murmansk, was pummeled by Adolf Hitler's forces during World War II. The Arctic was also one of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's favorite places to send his perceived enemies, with gulags that dotted the snowy landscape.
The indigenous people of this region bore much of the brunt. The Saami tribe, for one, has lived centuries in Russia's northwest, near the Norwegian border. Saami people were forcibly collectivized on farms under Stalin. Nadezhda Lyashenko, the Saami woman singing traditional tribal music here, can recount the horror stories. Her grandfather, a reindeer shepherd, was shot in 1937, accused of being a spy after he crossed into Finland chasing a reindeer herd.
After decades of relative peace, Lyashenko says, trouble seems to be returning to her native Arctic lands. She sees Russia and other world powers in a race for oil and gas, ignoring the potential impact to a part of the Earth that's been rarely touched.
"The Arctic is just so fragile," she says. "This time, it's a research boat going out there. It's like the prick of a needle, and the land will heal. But if they go with knives, with spears, they could break everything. And then what?"
Putin's Political Gift
Russia has signaled that it means business. The government seems determined to militarize the Arctic, announcing recently that two army brigades — several thousand troops — will soon be patrolling there.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a speech to the country's ruling United Russia party this summer, vowed to open the Arctic Ocean for offshore development. He announced plans to build a new, year-round port on the Yamal Peninsula in the center of Russia's north coast. Putin said that Russia would consult with other Arctic countries. But, he added, Russia will be "firm and persistent" in protecting its interests.
Konstantin Simonov, who heads the National Energy Security Fund, a Russian think tank that consults with oil and gas companies, says the Arctic is a political gift for Putin. As Soviet power fades into memory, Putin can say this is one part of the world where Russia still calls the shots.
"With the help of Arctic, Putin can show to people that Russia is still a serious power," Simonov says.
The risk, Simonov says, is exaggerated expectations. Many of the offshore oil and gas projects are at least a decade away from bringing economic benefit — assuming they succeed.
Yet Russians who live above the Arctic Circle are growing excited. They look to neighboring Norway, or to Alaska, where citizens share in oil profits. And they believe their time has come. Simonov thinks about one desolate village, Teriberka. It's on the coast near the Norwegian border. People there were told that as soon as a new offshore gas deposit, known as the Shtokman field, is explored, the community will get a natural gas processing plant and plenty of jobs.
"I can understand these people because they have no other alternative but to dream that our plans to develop Arctic will be realistic," Simonov said.
Holding On To Hope
To reach the village of Teriberka requires driving 100 miles across empty tundra. It's a place that's struggling. It has dirt roads and maybe 700 residents who live in old Soviet housing that's crumbling.
According to 33-year-old Andrei Udin, life in Teriberka is depressing. He has tried for years to find real work. Udin likes the tough talk from Putin, the promise to fight for Arctic territory. "What's ours should be ours," Udin says. But after years of delay, he's beginning to wonder if that natural gas processing plant is really coming to Teriberka.
"If I don't have a job, natural gas does nothing for me," Udin says. "I can't exactly use the gas for food." Frustration is growing around this village. People are beginning to say that unless the oil and gas riches will be shared, maybe it's best to leave nature alone.