Greenpeace Picked a Bad Time to Mess With Russia

Arrests came during Russia’s show-off Arctic military cruise

Greenpeace Picked a Bad Time to Mess With Russia Greenpeace Picked a Bad Time to Mess With Russia

Uncategorized October 9, 2013 0

Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise in Libya. Salvatore Barbera/Flickr photo Greenpeace Picked a Bad Time to Mess With Russia Arrests came during Russia’s show-off Arctic... Greenpeace Picked a Bad Time to Mess With Russia
Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise in Libya. Salvatore Barbera/Flickr photo

Greenpeace Picked a Bad Time to Mess With Russia

Arrests came during Russia’s show-off Arctic military cruise

by MATTHEW GAULT

On Sept. 19, 28 activists with the environmental group Greenpeace — along with two journalists covering their activities — were charged with piracy for attempting to board an offshore oil rig in Novaya Zemlya, a chain of islands in the Arctic Ocean off Russia’s northwestern coast.The activists’ Netherlands-flagged vessel, Arctic Sunrise, was also captured when Russian commandos roped onto its deck from a helicopter. The Dutch government has attempted to talk Russia out of the charges, to no avail. “It’s completely obvious they aren’t pirates,” Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin said, but they’re still being charged as such.

Greenpeace, for its part, compared the commando raid to the 1985 sinking of the group’s vessel Rainbow Warrior by French DGSE agents.

“This is now the most serious threat to Greenpeace’s peaceful environmental activism since agents of the French secret service bombed the Rainbow Warrior and killed our colleague Fernando Pereira because we stood against French nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific,” Kumi Naido, Greenpeace International’s executive director said in a statement.

But given Russia’s history with protesters, and despite international outcry, it doesn’t look too good for the crew of the Arctic Sunrise. It’s also not a coincidence the arrests come just as the Russian navy has embarked on a beefed-up cruise of the region, a symbol — demonstrated in the activists’ arrest — that Moscow is more than willing to use blunt force to protect its claims to the Arctic’s abundant energy resources.

Russian battlecruiser Peter the Great. Grigory Sysoev/Flickr photo

This is about Russian power

The Prirazlomnaya oil platform is owned by Russia’s partially state-owned natural gas Gazprom corporation, and it’s a very big deal to Russia. Aside from just being a new source of fossil fuels for a hungry nation, the oil platform represents a real and tangible asset in a territory that’s grown increasingly in dispute.

Russia made its intentions with the region clear in 2007 when a state expedition planted a titanium flag underneath the North Pole. Since then, other countries with ties to the Arctic — such as the U.S., Canada and Norway — have scrambled to catch up. The Arctic Ocean is rich with oil and natural gas, is relatively untouched and global warming has opened up new shipping routes. It’s no wonder that every country is trying to get a piece.

Greenpeace would love to stop Arctic drilling. It’s on their agenda, and this isn’t the first time they’ve protested drilling in the region. It’s not the first time they’ve protested drilling on that specific oil platform. During an August 2012 mission, Greenpeace activists were able to tie themselves to Prirazlomnaya’s platform and take photos with little trouble from Russian authorities. (No charges were filed.) They might be forgiven for thinking they’d get away with it again. But they didn’t.

So what changed?

On Sept. 14, Russia launched a group of 10 warships, including the showcase Kirov-class battlecruiser Peter the Great, plus icebreakers to patrol the Arctic region. Along with this, Moscow announced plans to restore a Soviet-era military base in the New Siberian Islands and modernize it. All of this is preliminary claim-staking to help bolster the Kremlin’s case in 2014, when the United Nations will review claims for various parts of the region from Denmark, Russia and Canada.

There’s also something of a problem with the comparisons from Greenpeace between the arrests and the sinking of Rainbow Warrior and the arrests of its activists last month. The Rainbow Warrior was a public relations disaster for the France and led to the resignation of its defense minister and the arrest and conviction of the agents involved. For Russia? Not so much. Within Russia, where there is a close relationship between the energy industry and the federal security services, the arrests are even popular.

“Members of Russia’s underground art scene, by contrast, are more likely to take the activists’ side,” wrote Moscow correspondent Anna Nemtsova in Foreign Policy. “They often criticize the country’s oil and gas companies for embodying a destructive national culture of addiction to the energy industry.”

There’s the rub. Greenpeace is facing off against an authoritarian nation with a history of callous treatment of activists and protesters — in the midst of that nation showing the world what it’s willing to do to protect its claims in the region.

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