Russian explorers dived 4,200 meters (14,000 feet) below the North Pole in two mini-submarines Thursday, planting a titanium Russian flag on the seabed in a symbolic claim to a vast slice of apparently hydrocarbon-rich Arctic territory, which the country says is the continuation of its continental shelf.
"I'm not sure whether they've ... put a metal flag, a rubber flag, or a bed sheet on the ocean floor," Tom Casey, deputy State Department spokesman, told reporters. "Either way, it doesn't have any legal standing or effect on this claim... It's an issue that's going to be decided based on those technical merits, not on any kind of particular markers laid down."
Casey said the United States was skeptical about Russia's claim to 1.2 million square kilometers (about 460,000 square miles) of territory - the underwater Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges that cross the Pole - but admitted the country was in its right to pursue the claim.
"...the Russian Government is pursuing a claim under their right to do so as members of the Law of the Sea Convention. This is something that unfortunately, the United States is not in a position to do because we have yet to ratify that convention and it's one of the reasons why we are interested and supportive of having that treaty be ratified by the U.S. Senate." Casey said.
He said it was a technical issue and the U.S. had not had an opportunity to look at technical data provided by Russia to back its claim, which was "another reason why we'd like to be engaged" in those kinds of bodies.
Russia made a claim to the territory in 2001. The following year, a UN panel demanded more scientific evidence pending a decision.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking from the Philippines Thursday, said: "The goal of this expedition is not to stake Russia's claim, but to prove that our shelf spreads to the North Pole." The minister said he hoped the expedition would "allow us to acquire additional scientific proof" of this claim.
Apart from being a publicity stunt, the more than eight-hour Arctic mission was designed to take soil, water and fauna samples on the ocean floor.
As climate change melts the polar ice, vast reserves of oil and gas believed to be under the seafloor are likely to become accessible in future decades.
The U.S. Coast Guard in Seattle said Thursday the Healy icebreaker would leave port August 6 for a research mission in the Arctic.