Greenpeace activists, including the American captain, face charges of piracy in Murmansk. Advocates and officials are divided about the implications for Russia and the Arctic.

Greenpeace activists demonstrate in front of the Russian consulate general in Hong Kong Friday to protest the detention of its activists by Russia's authorities. Photo: AP

The pretrial detention of the Greenpeace activists who protested oil extraction on the icebreaker “Arctic Sunrise” near an oilrig in the Pechora Sea has brought a dramatic urgency to the debate on environmental standoffs, adding human rights to the discussion. Observers are divided in assessing implications of the incident. While some view the protest as an act of environmental radicalism, others argue it is the inevitable result of failed policies and interrupted dialogue.  

The detention of activists — and a Russian photographer onboard the icebreaker, Denis Sinyakov coincided with the Third International Arctic Forum ironically titled "The Arctic - Territory of Dialogue."  

The protest put Russia in an embarrassing situation as officials tried to address these issues and conduct the conference, while at the same time arresting activists who disagree with drilling operations in the Pechora Sea. Special forces of the Federal Security Service's Border Service stormed the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise vessel on Sept. 19, after some activists tried unsuccessfully to board the platform.

The detention of the activists on the Arctic Sunrise ship brought led to outrage in Russia and abroad. After the arrest of Sinyakov, a group of Russian media organized its own protest, which included, Echo of Moscow radio station, and Editors organized a flash mob on the Internet and refused to publish any photos on Sept. 27 to protest his arrest in Murmansk. A growing number of photographers have joined a petition against his arrest.

Likewise, Greenpeace activists took to the streets and held a rally in front of the Russian consulate general in Hong Kong on Friday to call attention to the imprisonment of the environmental group.

The Murmansk Court, which ordered the arrest of 22 out of 30 participants in the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise action, is expected to hear the case of eight Greenpeace activists from the Arctic Sunrise icebreaker on Sept. 29.

The Greenpeace stance: Publicity for dialogue?

The Greenpeace protest is effective as a news peg and PR campaign, but from the point of view of international law, “it is obvious that somebody should be punished for such actions”, said Pavel Gudev, a senior researcher at Center for North American Studies, Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences.  

“This punishment shouldn’t necessarily be severe, there is no reason to impose high fees, but there should be a kind of accountability of those who participated in this protest,” he said. “But punishment should be obviously minimal.”

Likewise, Dmitry Tulupov, an analyst on the Arctic and international relations for Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) regarded the Greenpeace stance as a publicity campaign.    

“It’s a good as a publicity campaign and looks pretty impressive, yet these actions are doomed to reach zero result,” he said.

When asked about the possibility of dialogue, Gudev said that the main problem stems from certain national legislation on oil rigs security.

“A security zone is usually established at any rig,” he explained. “The rig is like a military ship and if somebody approaches this ship, it might fire for security purposes. The same tactic can be used in the case of the Greenpeace attack on the oil rig. There are certain norms of the Russian legislation that don’t allow approaching such rigs. It means that neither vessels nor boats can approach it. In accordance with the observance of national legislation norms, the punishment should be imposed at any rate.”

Tulupov agrees: “To tell the truth, arguments in favor of detention of the Greenpiece activists are quite well grounded. The oil rig is an object of serious hazard and everybody knows it. That’s why the actions of frontier guards are justified….the sea oil and gas projects are seen as probable objects for a terror attack,” he said.

The Greenpeace activists aboard the Arctic Sunrise icebreaker. Photo: AP

In Russia, the action of Special Forces can be justified although the oil rig is located beyond the territorial waters of Russia under the 1982 Marine Convention, Tulupov clarified.

Alexei Knizhnikov, environmental policy coordinator at World Wild Fund (WWF) Russia, views  the detention from another angle.

“Russia has an image of a tough country violating basic human rights principles and freedoms although it made an attempt to improve the human rights record,” he said. “And such a move toward Greenpeace, including preventive firing and detention, is highly unnecessary and very tough,” he said when asked if Russia’s stance affects the country’s image abroad. He said this incident may aggravate the way the international community already views human rights in Russia.

“What the activists wanted to do is to attract attention to the problem and they succeeded in it. Greenpeace tries to resolve the problem when other methods don’t work. The dialogue failed because the [Gazprom] company and Greenpeace made the decision,” he said. 

“I don’t think that this incident will affect Russia’s diplomatic relations with other Arctic countries like Norway, Denmark or the Netherlands that support the Greenpeace activists now,” he said. “It might be a pretext to denounce Russia's actions and nothing else,” Tulupov countered.      

The Arctic Forum: Policy vs. radical environmentalism

Pavel Gudev sees Greenpeace’s protest as an example of radical environmentalism. 

“It’s an attempt to attract a lot of attention,” he added. "I think all activists of Greenpeace were mindful about the consequences of their attack, that violates Russian and international legislative acts as well as international agreements.”

Gudev said that events like the international Arctic forum can be a good tool to address the Arctic standoff and to outline the Arctic agenda for Russia’s political establishment.

“The major goal of this forum is an attempt to show how Russia deals with the Arctic, and collaborate with its foreign colleagues,” he said. “It’s important just to say that we have this forum and we conduct it annually and permanently to show that we are aware [of the Arctic challenge].”

Tulupov echoed Gedev’s view. Such forums don’t result in legally mandatory agreements, yet they are very important for establishing dialogue among the Arctic countries.

Gazprom: How it failed to establish dialogue

According to Alexei Knizhnikov of  WWF Russia, environmentalists did their best to establish dialogue with the representatives of Russia’s energy sector and Gazprom, particularly, to assess all risks that the Priralomnaya oil rigs pose for the Arctic and ecology in general.

He argued that it is common for such projects [like the Prirazlomnaya oil rig] to evaluate probable risks and implications for the environment. Under current legislation, coordination of all interests groups – environmentalist, business and authorities — is required.

“Before implementing an energy project, it is necessary to assess its impact on the environment,” he said. “And this procedure means that all sides interested in it should be involved to make sure that all risks are taken into account. And this is a requirement not only of national legislation, but also international legislation.”

He mentioned the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico as an example of reckless decisions that may seriously affect the environment and have long-lasting consequences for both energy companies and ecology.

“We all remember that standoff facing British oil company BP,” he said, warning against establishing more oil rigs in the Arctic. “We don’t believe there are currently technologies that  work effectively and safely in the Arctic icing conditions and extract oil in necessary volume.”

The Greenpeace activists aboard the Arctic Sunrise icebreaker. Photo: AP

WWF and Greenpeace asked scientists to conduct independent research to come up with potential scenarios of oil leaks in the Arctic. Russian energy company Gazpromneft was initially interested in this investigation, according to Knizhnikov.

“We conducted serious research for them, we published it, presented to the [Gazprom] company and to the authorities and organized a special discussion,” he said. “The participants of this discussion saw our findings as well grounded and didn’t present any objections. This year Gazprom’s Board of Directors decided to postpone [the Prirazlomnaya oil rig] project until the autumn, 2013.The company stopped the dialogue unexpectedly and worked out a new plan of the oil rig facility. They didn’t present this plan to us and didn’t even discuss it,” he said. 

Gazprom officials participated in the dialogue with Greenpeace, but failed to maintain it, he added.

“The company could have answered these questions at the negotiation table,” he said. “However, it stopped communicating. That’s why Greenpeace decided to use more radical, but peaceful, methods and found it reasonable to conduct the protest to spread more awareness among officials, business and people. [The protest] just indicates that the problem remains unresolved.”