Is crackdown on Greenpeace part of Russia’s new Cold War in the Arctic?

SALEKHARD, RUSSIA — Icy blasts of water greeted Greenpeace protesters climbing Russia’s lone offshore oil platform in the Arctic.

Russia’s Coast Guard fired warning shots. Then security forces rappelled from a helicopter down to the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise.

Today, 28 Greenpeace activists and 2 journalists from the ship are serving two-month terms in detention in Murmansk, where their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, is impounded. The activists come from 19 different countries, a diversity that is guaranteeing worldwide publicity.

Greenpeace Russia lawyer Anton Beneslavski said that last year, there were no legal penalties after Greenpeace boarded the same platform and unfurled a protest banner.

“Last year the activists boarded an oil rig and a ship, and this year they’ve only boarded an oil rig,” he said at a packed press conference in Moscow.  “Last year the border security never once reacted to what was happening, and this year they are accusing them of piracy.”

But Russia increasingly is flexing its military muscles in what some call a new Cold War in the Arctic.

In September, Russia’s only nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser led a flotilla to the Novosibirsk Islands, where Russian soldiers reopened a military base that was closed 20 years ago, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As Arctic ice melts more and more, the base will be used to check on ships passing through Russia’s Northern Sea Route. Last summer, China’s first icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, made the Arctic passage. This summer, the first Chinese freighter passed over the top of Russia.

In May, at a meeting in Sweden, the Arctic Council admitted China as an observer.

That meeting also drew Greenpeace protesters.  They carried banners reading “No Arctic Oil” and “No Arctic Mining.”

Recently, at Salekhard, this oil and gas production city on the Arctic Circle, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at an Arctic Forum. He rejected Greenpeace’s protest tactics.

“They are obviously not pirates, but formally, they did attempt to board the platform,” he said. “What is clear is that they violated international law and came dangerously close to the platform.”

After Putin spoke, Vera Orlova, spokeswoman of the Russia Geographical Society, told foreign reporters their permits to visit the Russian Arctic had expired.

She said that it was an absolutely normal procedure for reporters to receive permits to visit Salekhard for only the two days of the conference.

No other nation restricts visits to its Arctic cities. But President Putin’s Russia is taking the road of more and more government controls.

(Salekhard, population 45,000, is the world’s only city that straddles the Arctic Circle. This roadside monument marks this line that crossses the tundra. Photo: V. Undritz for VOA)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.