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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.

A Russian coast guard officer is seen pointing a gun at a Greenpeace International activist as five activists attempt to climb the 'Prirazlomnaya,' an oil platform operated by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom platform in Russia’s Pechora Sea.
Photo Credit: © Denis Sinyakov / Greenpeace


An international battle is heating up in one of the coldest and most remote parts of the world as nations are racing to tap the Arctic's oil reserves. With dwindling new global reserves, the Arctic play is becoming paramount. And Russia seems intent on staking its claim and exercising its power above all others -- even despite recent international human rights outcries against their detainment of 30 Greenpeace activists. The Arctic 30, as they’ve come to be known, are from 18 different countries, and include 28 activists who were protesting oil drilling in the Arctic, and a freelance photographer and videographer.

On September 18, the activists attempted to hang a banner on the oil rig Prirazlomnaya, owned by Gazprom, a Russian-owned energy company. Russian Federal Security Service officers, who were sent to intercept the activists’ actions, fired warning shots from an AK-47 rifle and detained two of the activists. The next day, the officers returned and stormed Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace’s ship, where the activists were staying.  Descending from helicopters, the officers pointed their guns at those on board, reportedly used violent force on some, and smashed their communication devices to pieces. After the captain of the ship, Peter Willcox, a U.S. citizen, refused to sail the ship under illegal command, Russia towed Arctic Sunrise to Murmansk.

During this time, President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff  likened Greenpeace’s actions to “Somalian-style piracy.” However, Putin himself  said, “Obviously they are not pirates.” Putin added that the activists’ intentions were unclear, and caution must be taken especially after the Kenya mall attack—though this occurred after Arctic Sunrise was seized. He then justified oil drilling as a part of human nature: “From time immemorial, mankind used nature to satisfy its needs, more and more.… First it was mushroom picking and animal hunting, later on it was mineral resources, metals, hydrocarbons.”

When the Arctic 30 arrived in Murmansk, Russia, they were given two months detention before they were charged with piracy, a 15-year prison term. Though the court said two weeks ago that the piracy charges would be dropped and lessened to hooliganism charges, which have a maximum seven-year prison term, Greenpeace states that the piracy charges  have not officially been dropped, so the activists are currently charged with both. 

“They are going to do everything they can to scare the hell out of them,” said Mark Ames, the founding editor of the eXilea Moscow-based English language biweekly. “They are going to be brutal to make sure something like this isn’t done again.”

Greenpeace has waged numerous  actions in the Arctic before, so why the militant crackdown now? It seems there are several reasons, mostly involving might and money. For starters, the Ecologist reports that:

Greenpeace chose a particularly bad moment to initiate this protest. From 3 to 12 September a division of ten warships from the Northern Fleet were passing through the Arctic, led by the nuclear guided-missile cruiser Peter the Great. This was part of the Defence Ministry programme to return Russian troops to the Arctic.

The 'Russian Arctic' has officially been declared a matter of national security. Thus, from the Russian government's standpoint, the Greenpeace activists had violated Russia's sovereignty, crossed the business interests of the security services, and, on top of that, done so at a time when the Arctic was full of atomic icebreakers.

What may be worse than reckoning with the Russian military may be pissing off the country’s oil giant.

Gazprom is a big deal says Ames. It is the largest Russian company, making up 10 percent of Russia’s GDP. It owns several media outlets. In his “ Putin’s Gazprom Problem” for  Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Mehdi wrote, “The company—which even has its own anthem—is considered a bellwether of Russian power.”