Activists fear the Kremlin's rush to develop the Arctic could destroy a fragile ecosystem. Russian prosecutors want piracy charges against them for trying to board a drilling rig.
The way the Kremlin sees it, the vast treasures being revealed by the retreating Arctic ice – oil, gas, iron ore, minerals—are Russia's manifest destiny, with Moscow writing a new chapter in the history of the desolate, once-frozen region.
It's a narrative that hasn't had much challenge in Russia. But now, after a daring raid on a drilling platform by Greenpeace, the gunpoint arrest of 30 activists, and threatened charges of piracy and terrorism, environmentalists are hoping for scrutiny of how these Arctic resources are developed.
On Thursday, a court in the Arctic port of Murmansk ruled that seven of the activists – citizens of Russia and at least three other countries – must remain in prison for at least two months while authorities figure out what to charge them with. The State Investigative Committee had earlier accused the protesters of terrorism and piracy, though President Vladimir Putin suggested those charges might get dialed back.
Russian authorities, frequently sensitive to world public opinion, find themselves struggling with the challenge posed by the activists who were arrested for protesting against one of the first big Russian projects in the Arctic. On Sept. 18, activists in inflatable boats tried to scale a giant drilling platform in the Barents Sea owned by the state corporation Gazprom-Neft. Greenpeace claims the platform didn't have proper environmental clearance.
The Russian coast guard then seized the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise in international waters, firing ship-mounted guns, using helicopters to rappel onto the boat's deck in a SWAT-style raid, and towing the boat to Murmansk. The Investigative Committee, which has powers similar to the FBI, announced that the 30 activists, who hail from 18 different countries, would be charged with piracy, which carries a potential sentence of 15 years in prison.
In a statement posted on the Investigative Committee's website Thursday, spokesman Vladimir Markin said that all 30 had been given access to lawyers, translators and consular personnel from their respective embassies. He suggested, without offering details, that some may be granted leniency.
Global warming has begun to expose massive swaths of Russian landscape and ocean territory that previously was nearly impossible to access. Moscow has moved to aggressively to begin drilling for huge subsea oil and gas reserves, and asserted soveriegnty over hundreds of thousands of maritime zones. Last week, the Russian navy announced it had resumed a regular patrols off the Arctic coastline.
In the far northern city of Salekhard, which has become a major hub for the developing Russia's north, President Putin spoke to hundreds of people gathered for a conference on the Arctic, laying out a vision of swift but environmentally-friendly Arctic development
"Russia is carrying out intensive work in the Arctic regions to explore and develop new oil and gas fields and minerals deposits," Mr. Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. "We are building big transport and energy facilities and reviving the Northern Sea Route. "
"A new chapter in the Arctic’s history has opened now, what we could call an era of industrial breakthrough, a time of rapid economic and infrastructure development," he said.
Much of Putin's speech was devoted to environmental issues, including the most unequivocal admission yet from a Russian leader that global warming is a fact.
"It is absolutely clear now that the climate is changing," he said. "The Arctic is a very vulnerable region in terms of maintaining the environmental balance and the need to keep this balance, and so we must be very careful about how we go about our economic activity in the region."
The case against the Greenpeace activists, which has prompted protests from several international governments, indicates that Russian security services are obeying the demands of big corporate interests whose goals are to open up Arctic oil and gas resources as fast as possible and without regard for environmental consequences, says Vladmir Chuprov, head of energy programs for Greenpeace-Russia.
"We hope the Russian people will understand who's right in this story," he says.
"The dependence on oil and gas contradicts the longterm national interests of Russia. Investing so much into Arctic oil and gas exploitation is like pouring kerosene onto the fire," he says.
But Viktor Boyarsky, an Arctic explorer and director of the State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg, says he favors rational, long-term Arctic economic development, such as Putin outlined, and thinks Russian border guards acted correctly in arresting the Greenpeace activists.
"The Arctic does not tolerate heroism. This was just a PR stunt (by Greenpeace), and they have to be punished," he says. "Stiff fines would be just the thing for them. "