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


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.”

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.

Lipman said that one national polling group framed their question about the Arctic 30 like this:

What’s your assessment of the current Greenpeace action? Is it: An attempt by environmentalists to save the Arctic? A conspiracy of foreign special services and government, who under the cover of Greenpeace, are trying to deprive Russia of valuable natural resources and territories? … [or] a public relations tactic —a way for Greenpeace to attract attention to itself and to find sponsors.

She said 42 percent of Russians believe it was a conspiracy of foreign special services. The Ecologist reported that 60 percent of Russians approved of their government’s action. Linking to one of these polls, Gazprom's Arctic division wrote on its Twitter feed: "We hope the investigative committee puts a stop once and for all to Greenpeace's piracy in Russian waters … Good luck to them!"

But help for the Arctic 30 may not be coming soon from the international community, either. Nations across the globe may also be lacking in outrage because they have interests in energy production and drilling in the Arctic.

“In general, governments and oil companies really hate the environmental movement and would like to do something like this,” Ames said.

But things are even trickier. Elena Racheva in the Ecologist also points to the financial interests at play in this case: 

Another important factor is Gazprom and Rosneft's offshore oil production partnership with US ExxonMobil, Italy's Eni and Norwegian Statoil, which means that all these companies have a vested financial interest in increased offshore production. … Italy's Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino, called a meeting of EU ambassadors in Moscow, but Italy is also not hurrying to make loud noises about releasing its citizens. Nor is the US. Finnish citizen Sini Saarela can't count on much help either because Gazprom owns 25% of the Finnish state gas monopoly Gasum Oy, and Lukoil owns 33% of Finnish filling stations. So a dispute is in no one's interest.

Greenpeace's MacDuff said, “As we saw from Shell's farcical bungles in the American Arctic last year, the race to be the first to tap Arctic oil holds significant wealth and glory.”

Numerous presidents, prime ministers and government officials from around the world have spoken out, including UK Prime Minister David Cameron, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.

MacDuff said she remains hopeful when it comes to the international community.

“More and more governments are speaking out, taking a stand or petitioning the Russian government to back down from their repressive and highly punitive response to peaceful protest,” she said. “The U.S. State Department has been helpful so far and we’re confident it is doing what it can to secure the prompt release of the activists, including providing the U.S. citizens among the Arctic 30 with consular assistance from the very start of the affair."

Only the Netherlands, however, has taken legal action. On November 6, the country initiated an arbitration case against Russia in front of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, an independent judicial body. This may be because of the fact that when overtaken, Arctic Sunrise was sailing under a Dutch flag. The Dutch claimed that because they did not consent to Russian authorities boarding the ship, Russia’s actions breached the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. They demanded the Arctic 30 be released. The Tribunal’s presiding judge tentatively set a date of Nov. 22 to reach a decision.

Russia, however, did not even show up to the hearing, and stated that it will not accept the arbitration process. This is the first time in nearly 25 years that a nation did not appear at a tribunal hearing. An op-ed from Moscow journalist Masha Gessen in the New York Times said of her country, “There is no court in the world whose authority they recognize.”  

Joris Thijssen, campaign director at Greenpeace Netherlands, said: “The decision of the Russian Federation not to attend the hearing is a departure from its previous respectful engagement with the Tribunal. Russia is not formally obliged to participate in the hearing. However, it is under an obligation to comply with any ruling, which the Tribunal may make.”

Time, however, reports that when signing the UN Convention, Russia gave itself a backdoor not to be held to the Tribunal’s rulings. Even so, Lipman said that “The international law has the power of ruling, but there is no mechanism to enforce it.”

In the meantime, the Arctic 30 remain in a rundown jail in Murmansk. “It must be an unbelievably terrifying experience for them,” said Ames, who has seen pictures of the inside of the prison.

In its latest developments, Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council will appeal the Head of the Federal Investigative Committee to offer themselves as guarantors for the Arctic 30 to be released on bail. In a press release, Greenpeace stated, “This is an extremely significant gesture by the Presidential Human Rights Council, as they are putting themselves forward personally to guarantee that the Arctic 30 will comply with bail conditions.”

Ames believes that the activists will eventually be released. He said, “I do think eventually the pressure will work, but I think they are going to go pretty far to send the message that this is not going to be tolerated.”

MacDuff said that while Russia is the world’s largest oil producer—responsible for 13 percent of global output—it has been deemed “by far the worst oil polluter in the word.”

It is estimated that at least 1 percent of Russia’s annual oil production, or 5 million tons, is spilled every year. This is equivalent to one Deepwater Horizon-scale leak every two months. A Pew Environment Group report found that oil companies' plans to clean up spills in the Arctic were "thoroughly inadequate." Greenpeace has stated that the "Arctic's extreme weather and freezing temperatures, its remote location and the presence of moving sea ice severely increase the risks of oil drilling, complicate logistics and present unparalleled difficulties for any cleanup operation."

MacDuff said tens of thousands of people have rallied outside embassies in more than 40 countries, and nearly two million people have sent protest letters to their respective Russian ambassadors. And while the situation for Greenpeace is currently still very real, she said, the incident won’t stop the organization, adding that throughout history, the state has responded with violence toward people desiring to stand up to it. This doesn't stop movements, she said, but instead shines a light on their importance.

“We have fought some very difficult challenges before. And we will continue to fight governments, polluters and people who put profit before people.… So will we carry out more peaceful protests to shine the light on the real obscenity of drilling for oil in a melting Arctic in order to burn more oil in order to melt the Arctic? Absolutely.”

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