coming to a Pole near you next month: 1000 sqmt Russian flag, 80+ smaller, still colossal ones

An event was held yesterday at Russia’s Civic Chamber (Общественная палата) to talk about an expedition to the North Pole planned for April, ahead of this year’s Victory Day celebrations. The expedition will convey a delegation expected to include officials and politicians through Murmansk and Franz Josef Land all the way up to, depending on the source, the Russian Geographical Society’s Barneo drifting ice base, or an ad-hoc base called ‘Station-Express 2015’ (Станция Экспресс 2015).

The expedition’s pièce de résistance will be the unfurling of a massive Russian flag with a surface area in excess of 1000 m2, together with the flags of the 85 federal subjects of Russia, from Yakutia to Crimea, and flags of various towns and other entities such as “socially responsible companies“. The regional flags were originally meant to measure a modest 12 m2, but yesterday’s event upgraded their dimensions to 250 m2. This won’t be the massive flag’s first public appearance: it has been previously displayed at patriotic events, such as one last June in a Moscow stadium. I imagine all these flags will be laid on the ice and photographed from the air, since holding them above the ground, let alone raising them up poles, would seem rather tricky.

The people behind the project do know a thing or two about flagpoles anyway, since they are also involved in another project that envisages erecting Russia’s tallest. At 175 m, that flagpole might well become not just Russia’s, but the world’s tallest, retrospectively annulling the irony in a mordant 2011 Izvestia article that reflected on flagpole contests as a pastime “addicted to which are countries not among the world’s richest”. (At the time the tallest were in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and North Korea.)

The project is organised by an “international ecological movement” called “Living Planet” (Живая планета) whose most visible figures are Oleg Oleynik Олег Олейник and well-known biologist and television presenter Nikolai Drozdov Николай Дроздов. Other than displaying enormous flags, this international ecologist movement’s main activities appear to be conducting ecological audits for goods such as mineral water, and awarding the “Global Eco Brand” prize to companies and organisations. Their patriotic activities have enjoyed various forms of support from state and Orthodox church officials. The ministry of emergency situations will be lending an Antonov An-74 for the trip, and among other closely involved organisations we obviously have the Civic Chamber, a high-level government oversight body with a core membership of presidential appointees, who organised yesterday’s event, and of which Mr Drozdov is a member, and the Geographical Society, whose president is Sergey Shoigu, currently the minister for defence and previously for emergency situations.

The organisers have produced an effusively patriotic video about the Arctic flag project, where it is made clear that, just like the flag once planted on the North Pole seabed “will stand [t]here for centuries, supporting the fact that it is Russian territory”, the Arctic flag ceremony next month will “show that we have the largest Russian flag, in order to mark our territory”.

Denmark has a long way to go if they intend to substantiate their own North Pole claim with an appropriately arresting flag display. The largest Danish flag ever seems to have spanned a meagre 150 m2 (the largest for sale at the moment stops at just 138), less than what places as Unarctic as Dagestan are sending to the Pole next month. Not to mention the inauspicious historical precedent: during the Scanian War (1675-1679), Christian V of Denmark, after retaking the Kärnan/Kernen fortress, had an enormous Dannebrog raised on top if it so that everyone understood that this time Scania would remain in Danish hands forever. The Swedes eventually took the flag and to this day they keep it in the Armémuseum in Stockholm.

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beware of the littoral-minded: China can’t be ‘just a passive onlooker’ of North Pole claims

So far there hasn’t been much of a Chinese media reaction to Denmark’s claim over a large swath of the Arctic, North Pole and all, as their territorial waters, something that has been called “the Kingdom’s greatest expansion since the Kalmar Union“. An article from last week, i.e. before the Danish official claim at the UN, in the ‘military affairs’ section of Sina does talk more generally about several countries “wrestling for control of the Arctic”, something China can’t afford to “just observe“.

Guo Peiqing 郭培清, a professor at the Ocean University of China (海大) in Qingdao and a well-known authority on Arctic issues, is quoted as emphasising the importance of the Arctic, both for its natural resources and as a shipping shortcut, from the point of view of the large resource needs imposed by China’s “peaceful rise” and long-term development. China can’t just passively watch while other countries scramble for the Arctic, the article adds, and must plan ahead and act to protect its legitimate interests in the region.

None of these views is new, and specifically people like professor Guo have consistently warned about the Arctic littoral states trying to keep the Arctic all for themselves.

As for specific coverage of the Danish claim, all Chinese media have had to offer thus far is short news sources to either the Financial Times or ‘Russian media’, such as this quickie making the rounds on Renminwang and elsewhere, which mirrors rather closely a TASS story and says right from the title that Denmark is claiming ’20 times their continental landmass’. Whatever the merits od the Danish claim, that number is a bit disingenuous since the roughly 900k km2 the Danes are asking for amount to less than half the area of Greenland, or, if you will, a meagre 25% of China’s own claim in warmer latitudes, also known as the nine-dash line or the Cow’s Tongue.

The TASS story those Chinese news items are drawing from appears to be a short English-language article that doesn’t quite shine for the editing standards you’d expect when discussing a high-stakes geopolitical intrigue: the article manages to refer to Denmark’s claim as “the Dutch application”. Now the Netherlands’ northernmost point does entitle them to be addressed as a ‘near-Arctic state’ (近北极国家)by Chinese standards, or they might for that matter even pull a Senkaku and ask for, say, Jan Mayen based on the exploits of the Noordsche Compagnie, but to my knowledge so far they’re staying put and leaving the Arctic alone. To be fair to the TASS editors, датский ‘Danish’ does sound a bit like ‘Dutch’, although according to Vasmer the words seem to be unrelated.

But the Russians have actually provided a more official reaction to the Danish ambitions, through natural resources minister Sergey Donskoy who said that the UN’s commission the Danes are claiming the North Pole at has actually no authority to give it to them. Mr Donskoy’s surname means ‘of the (river) Don Дон‘, just a soft sign away from Don’ Донь which was an old Russian name for Denmark.