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Russian explorers dived deep below the North Pole in a submersible on Thursday and planted a national flag on the seabed to stake a symbolic claim to the energy riches of the Arctic.

Meanwhile, on the surface, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay dismissed the Russian's flag-planting tactics "just a show."

A mechanical arm dropped a specially made rust-proof titanium flag onto the Arctic seabed at a depth of 4,261 metres under the surface, Itar-Tass news agency quoted expedition officials as saying.

The expedition leader, Artur Chilingarov, who was aboard one MIR 1 three-person sub, told colleagues on a research ship on the surface that his craft had reached the seabed.

"The landing was smooth, the yellowish ground is around us, no sea dwellers are seen," he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

As part of the expedition aimed at claiming vast swaths of the Arctic Ocean seabed, the Rossiya atomic icebreaker burrowed a path to the Pole through a sheet of multiyear ice, clearing the way for the Akademik Fedorov research ship. But the Russian effort, which will also gather geologic samples and look into the possibility of the Arctic shelf containing nine billion tonnes of oil and gas deposits, is seen by Canadian experts as not much more than a symbolic gesture.

Mr. MacKay, speaking to reporters at the Conservative caucus summer retreat in Charlottetown, PEI, said the move was no threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

Look, this isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory,'" MacKay said.

"Our claims over our Arctic are very well established."

NDP MP Dennis Bevington (Western Arctic) criticized the Harper government on the issue Thursday, saying the Russian mission "demonstrates a troubling reality for Northern communities and all Canadians concerning Arctic sovereignty."

"It shows just how far behind Harper and the Conservatives are when it comes to asserting our legitimate claim to Arctic sovereignty," Mr. Bevington said in a release. "This clearly demonstrates what the issues are and the actions that we should be taking. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay has been missing in action when it comes to blatant land grab photo-ops like this one."

Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, said the planting of the titanium Russian flag in the waters at the Pole has no legal significance but it does make a point.

"The planting of the flag is purely political symbolism and most of that is directed at a Russian audience but it does send a reminder to places like Ottawa of the very impressive Arctic capabilities that the Russians have," he said in an interview.

However, he does give credit to the Harper government for placing more emphasis on Arctic sovereignty, most notably the announcement last month of plans to spend $3.1-billion on six to eight patrol vessels capable of operating in ice up to a metre thick and on construction of a deep-water port in the North to service them.

The Russian moves put extra importance on the Prime Minister's planned visit to the Arctic next week. "That trip to the Arctic will not hurt," Prof. Byers said.

But the real urgency is for Canada to undertake seismic mapping of the ocean floor, which is essential to Canada's scientific assertion of sovereignty over the far reaches of the Arctic. The government is planning to use Canada's aging icebreaker, the Louis S. St-Laurent, to undertake some of the work but Prof. Byers said it's essential to charter a heavy icebreaker from the Finns or even the Russians to get the work done in time.

Canada must make its claim to the continental shelf by the end of 2013 under terms of its ratification of the UN Law of the Sea. Russia is making its own claim by the end of this year to the same UN agency.

But there are only five extreme-depth submarines in the world that can reach the depths of the Arctic Ocean: the French, the Americans and the Japanese each have one, while the Russians have two.

The fact that Canada, of which 40 per cent is the Arctic, does not have the capability of getting to the sea floor at the Pole is significant, according to Joe MacInnes, a Canadian diver who led the first team of scientists to dive under the ice at the North Pole.

"I've always taken the position that it's one thing to claim sovereignty. It's another thing to be able to go to the place that you claim. The Russians at least have got a sub that takes them to the bottom, that's the place that they're claiming."

Sergey Petrov, chargé d'affaires at the Russian embassy in Ottawa, said the expedition is an extension of the historic interest Russia has taken in the Arctic, dating as far back as the 1930s. The placement of the Russian flag is only part of the reason they'll descend to the sea floor.

"I'm sure that every nation that would do such a heroic [expedition]would put something precious at the place, and the national flag is something that's respected and is considered the most precious symbol."

With report from Associated Press and Reuters