Russia triggered a fresh scramble for the oil wealth of the Arctic today after President Dmitri Medvedev called on security chiefs to establish a formal border in the region.

Medvedev laid claim to a vast swath of the Arctic, telling his National Security Council that it had "strategic importance" for Russia. Estimates suggest that the polar region contains billions of tons of oil and gas reserves, which are increasingly accessible as global warming melts the ice cap.

"We must wrap up all the formalities for drawing the external border in the continental shelf. This is our direct responsibility to future generations," Medvedev told the Kremlin meeting.

Nikolai Patrushev, the director of the security council, said that Russia would defend its interests in the Arctic against rival claims from the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark.

Patrushev, former head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, said: "We must define the borders in the north of our country, where the Arctic lies. Our estimate is that it makes up 18 percent of our territory. And we are saying that 20,000 kilometers of the state border runs in this region."

The order to assert the Kremlin's rights came just over a year after a team of Russian explorers became the first to reach the Arctic seabed. They dived 13,980 feet in two mini-submarines and planted a titanium flag on the ocean floor to stake Russia's claim to an area of territory the size of western Europe.

The expedition brought back soil samples as part of Russia's campaign to demonstrate that the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater shelf that runs through the Arctic, is really an extension of its territory. The Kremlin poured $40 million into the project.

Russia lodged a claim in 2001 to 745,645 square miles of the Arctic ocean with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The U.N. asked for more scientific data and Russia is planning to submit a fresh application next year, the 100th anniversary of the first journey to the North Pole, using information from the expedition.

Click here for more on this story from The Times of London.