The Politics of Exploration – Vladimir Putin Edition

Vladimir Putin dived to the bottom of the Black Sea to explore an ancient shipwreck off Crimea on Tuesday, in a stunt aimed at cementing his image as adventurer and control of the annexed territory. (The Telegraph)

While media outlets portrayed Russian PM Vladimir Putin’s recent shipwreck expedition in annexed Crimean waters a stunt worthy of James Bond (or to many, a classic Bond villain) too few focused on the underlying political context as underwater archaeological and scientific  exploration becomes increasingly political.

Putin submersible

Ostensibly to celebrate the the Russian Geographical Society’s 170th anniversary, (and to “promote tourism” in the conflict-torn region) Putin dove above a Uboat Worx “bubble”-style bathysphere submersible to explore a 19th century frigate and the scattered remains of 9th and 10th century trading vessels. Joining the two-man crew within the underwater craft, he descended to a depth of over 200 feet into the Black Sea.

Putin submarine

It’s important to note that neither of the underwater destinations were picked coincidentally. Lost in collision in 1869, the wreckage of the 51-gun Russian frigate “Oleg” now serves as a part of a larger effort to establish and bolster Russian’s historical and ethnic claim to the disputed region. Similarly, the Byzantine Empire has shaped much of contemporary Russia’s cultural and religious identity, in no small way explaining why the medieval shipwrecks have been so prominently featured in the Russian (and subsequently worldwide) media.

Frigate Oleg

With the ruble, Russian economy and worldwide energy prices in steep decline, it’s no surprise Putin has staked his legacy on the expansion of Russian power. This latest stunt is certainly within existing precedent, including a 2007 Russian submersible expedition to the ocean bottom of the North Pole and the recent Canadian expedition to the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror  (the two ships lost during Captain Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 arctic expedition.) With new arctic shipping routes and fossil fuel/mineral resources becoming available due to a warming planet, arctic-adjacent countries will no doubt continue to flaunt scientific and historical claims to these increasingly strategic territories.


So what will be the next country to undertake archaeological or scientific initiatives to bolster territorial claims? My money is on China. Despite contending with their own stock market woes, China recently completed a state-sponsored 120-day scientific expedition with deep-sea submersible “Jiaolong” in the Indian Ocean. This comes on the heels of China’s tension-heightening program of artificially expanding strategic islands in the South China Sea, in one case building a 10,000 foot military runway on Fiery Cross Reef of the Spratly Islands.

Chinese Airstrip Fiery Cross ReefI believe China will soon seek ancient Chinese shipwrecks in these disputed zones to further bolster their historic claim to the area. Long-term, I anticipate expeditions to find ancient traders as well as the ships of Zheng He’s early 15th century fleets, voyages that supposedly reached as far as the Horn of Africa, Arabia, India and much of the South Pacific.


So what’s the big takeaway? Just this – politics aside, it’s a very exciting time to be an explorer.

Taylor Zajonc | Author, Historian & Shipwreck Expert


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