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Will Putin's Aggression Keep 30 Environmental Activists in Prison?

The Greenpeace activists imprisoned in Russia for protesting oil drilling in the Arctic are up against a proud Putin hungry for an energy grab.

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Naturally, Gazprom’s business and government officials are closely intertwined. When Putin came to power in 2000, he appointed Dmitri Medvedev, the current prime minister and former president of Russia, as the chairman of Gazprom’s board of directors. On September 27, a former Federal Security Service officer and son of the secretary to Russia’s Security Council was  made vice president of a Gazprom subsidiary. 

"Oligarch capitalism and the security services are very closely linked.… This appointment is yet more proof of how important Gazprom is to the Kremlin,"  said Irina Borogan, an expert on Russian security services.

Maria Lipman, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a nonpartisan think tank, said Russia is an energy-based economy and will continue its energy pursuits.

Oil and gas sales  make up about half of Russia’s budget revenue.

“Because Russia does not seem to get rid of this lopsided quality of its economy —of its dependence on producing and exporting oil and gas—it will remain a very, very important part of Russia’s economy for years to come,” Lipman said. “So looking for new fields, new deposits, new opportunities, is, of course, extremely important to Russia.”

Russia depends on oil and gas to grease its economic engine, but the U.S. is getting in its way. Brian Bremner of  Bloomberg Businessweek wrote that “America’s surprising return as an energy superpower is complicating life for the Russian petro state.” Russia’s known oil reserves, Bremner writes, are only estimated to last another 20 years, so the country’s focus must turn to untapped resources in the Arctic.

Russia will not allow anyone to interfere with this pursuit, Lipman said, including a coalition of activists from nearly 20 countries. She said that ever since the political landscape changed from two superpowers to a unipolar world, Russia has yearned to reclaim its power.

“Russia’s desire, Putin’s desire, is to reinstate Russia’s stature as much as possible and to reemerge on the world’s scene as a very important player,” Lipman said. “And very important players do not allow outside forces to tell them what to do.”

So Russia is carrying a big stick, and using it. Ames said Russia is “cracking down really hard and tightening up control,” especially since late 2011 when it was caught off guard by the  tens of thousands of people who came out to protest what they believed was another rigged election.  

Keiller MacDuff, media officer at Greenpeace, also believes Russian is putting on a power display. She said, “It's clear to many that this violent and clearly excessive response is to send a message that nothing will prevent Russia from getting access to every last drop of oil—climate change and environmental destruction be damned.”

So what hope do the Arctic 30 have? Lipman said that pressure from other nations is not going to stop Putin from taking action against the Greenpeace activists.

“This is not the first time something is happening in Russia that is seen by other nations as violation of human rights.” Lipman said. “But apparently there is no leverage those countries can use.”

An example, she said, was the Pussy Riot affair in which Russia received immense pressure to drop the hooliganism charges against the feminist punk band that protested against Putin in a Russian cathedral. “I could not imagine more attention,” she said, but it all had “no effect whatsoever.”

Meanwhile, the media in Russia are portraying Greenpeace activists as Western agents trying to undermine Russia’s economic well-being. Ames said the Kremlin is so paranoid about its hold on power that any human rights organizations or groups that take actions that threaten the interests of the state are viewed as a Western front group like the CIA.