MOSCOW Russia will not allow itself to be left behind in the race to exploit the resources of the Arctic now being opened up by global warming, the Kremlin's special representative for the region said in an interview.
Scientists say the ice is receding so fast that drilling for oil and gas high in the Arctic will soon become routine and cargo ships could sail between the Atlantic and Pacific along a new shipping lane much shorter than the routes used now.
Those lucrative prospects have unleashed fierce competition between nations with Arctic coastlines -- led by the United States and Russia -- to assert their influence.
"Russia's national interest lies there," said Artur Chilingarov, who was last year appointed presidential envoy for international cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic.
He symbolically staked the Kremlin's claim to a bigger share of the Arctic two years ago by diving to the seabed in a submersible and planting a Russian flag.
"We have worked in the Arctic and we are working there now. There is of course (competition)...But we are not going to stand still," he told Reuters last week.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year said he was worried Russia might act outside international law in pressing its claims in the Arctic, a region estimated to hold enough oil to meet world supply for three years.
Chilingarov said Russia would respect international treaties and wanted to cooperate with other countries, but it had a special claim to parts of the Arctic adjacent to its borders.
"Look at the map. Who is there nearby? All our northern regions are in or come out into the Arctic," he said. "All that is in our northern, Arctic regions. It is our Russia."
International law states that the five states with an Arctic Ocean coastline -- Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States -- have a 320 km (200 mile) economic zone north of their borders. But Russia is claiming a larger slice based on its contention that the seabed under the Arctic is a continuation of the Siberian continental shelf.
Russia's critics say its claim is part of a broader Kremlin push to re-assert itself as a geopolitical power, but Chilingarov said Russia's case was driven by science.
"Based on scientific observations, we will prove our connection to that shelf (and) we will prove it in the framework of international norms and laws."
But Russia is not waiting for that issue to be settled to expand its presence in the Arctic. Anticipating an increase in international traffic through the so-called Northern Sea Route as the ice melts, it is drafting legislation that will consolidate its control over who uses the route.
The draft law allows Russia to block foreign military vessels, bar entry to commercial ships it deems unsafe for navigation, levy fees and, depending on the ice conditions, require ships to use Russian pilots and ice-breakers.
The proposed legislation is not substantially different from Soviet-era restrictions already in force, but it is likely to disappoint other Arctic states who had hoped Russia would open up the route so it could become an international waterway.
Those states see the Russian fees as "discriminatory" said Douglas Brubaker, an expert on Arctic navigation at Norway's Fridtjof Nansen Institute.
Chilingarov rejected that. "We are not squeezing anyone out," he said. "There is a sea-faring rule: sailing in the sea, and especially in ice, is not without risks. That is all .... We are taking on ourselves the responsibility for safe navigation."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)