Russia Watch: Greenpeace pirates? Russia loses another international PR war

After Pussy Riot and “Gay propaganda,” the Kremlin now marches resolutely towards another international public relations defeat — this time with Greenpeace.

To the Kremlin, Greenpeace activists are not trespassers, they are pirates.

Piracy charges have been filed against everyone who was on the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, on Sept. 18. On that day two activists attempted to board Gazprom’s lone offshore drilling rig in the Arctic. They wanted to raise a banner reading: “For a Clean Arctic.” In Russia, piracy convictions carry prison terms of up to 15 years.

One year ago, protests erupted across Europe and the United States, after three young women received two year jail terms for carrying out a 90-second “Pussy Riot” protest in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral. (One was later freed on probation). Then, a few months ago, protests again erupted again over Russia’s new law banning any gay “propaganda” that might reach the eyes and ears of Russians under 18 years of age.

Now, we start the season of the Greenpeace saga.

The Kremlin did not grasp a key media element: the cunning Greenpeacers crewed their boat with 18 different nationalities. The Arctic Sunrise was a floating United Nations.

Kremlin strategists come from the school of state-controlled journalism. Consequently, they missed a basic element of Journalism 101 in the West: look for the local angle.

Now held in Russian jails and charged with piracy are crewmembers from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States.

Don’t be surprised if there is regular coverage – and stinging anti-Kremlin editorials — in such far flung newspapers like Folha de Sao Paulo, The Toronto Globe and Mail, and The Australian. You may not be familiar with these newspapers, but rest assured that they are very well known by the Foreign Ministries of Brazil, Canada and Australia.

On Saturday, Greenpeace’s international machinery swung into action. The group said that it held 100 “Free the Arctic 30” protests around the world. They say the one in front of the Russian embassy in London drew 800 people.

So far, the Kremlin’s attitude is: Who cares?

The day after the protests, Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, the state oil company, told reporters, referring to Greenpeace protesters: “See who is paying them, who is their sponsor.”

Greenpeace responded by saying their sponsors are their 2.9 million members and contributors worldwide.

Sechin’s comments reflect an interesting cynicism about environmentalists. RT, the Kremlin-controlled television channel has aired numerous reports highly critical of fracking, a shale gas extraction technology developed in the U.S. that is spreading to Europe, threatening Gazprom’s export gas markets.

But in today’s highly integrated world, the Kremlin’s dismissive views of world public opinion seem quaintly out of date.

Kremlin realpolitik geo-strategists say that good will and “friendship” do not count in relations between countries. That is just as well, because the Kremlin has successfully raised its “ill will” with its neighbors.

Since 2007, the Pew Research Center has annually surveyed people in 38 countries to determine their attitudes toward other countries. The median of respondents expressing positive attitudes towards Russia has gradually fallen, hitting 38 percent this year. (By comparison, the median of favorable attitudes towards the US was 63 percent).

In the European Union, Russia’s largest trading partner, negative views of Russia were held by half or more people in France, Italy, Poland and Spain. Germany led the pack. Sixty percent of Germans polled in March and April of this year said they had negative views of Russia. (By comparison 43 percent of Americans had negative views of Russia).

Once again, the Kremlin may ask: So what?

How about $15 billion in fines, for starters?

European hostility toward Russia has helped spur a European Union anti-monopoly suit against Gazprom for price fixing in its gas sales to Europe. Brussels is preparing to lodge charges by the end of this year.

Fines could go as high as $15 billion, or 10 percent of Gazprom’s revenues.

Filing piracy charges against 30 Greenpeace activists – half of them from EU member countries – is not smart strategy as the Kremlin prepares to stand before European judges to defend Gazprom’s dominance of European gas markets.

Lost in the piracy controversy is Greenpeace’s key assertion: that a major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean will be virtually impossible to clean up.


(Photo: Greenpeace)



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.