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Why Are the Russians Taking Greenpeace's "Pirates" So Seriously?

A pirate is typically one of two things: either a sailor with bad dental hygiene whose likeness is occasionally used to market rum, or a Somali with an RPG and a predilection for robbing the crews of international cargo ships. They are not normally...
October 4, 2013, 3:25pm

A Russian coast-guard officer approaches a Greenpeace member as five activists attempt to climb the Prirazlomnaya, an oil platform operated by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom in Russia’s Pechora Sea. Photo courtesy of Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace

A pirate is typically one of two things: either a sailor with bad dental hygiene whose likeness is occasionally used to market rum, or a Somali with an RPG and a predilection for robbing the crews of international cargo ships. They are not normally vegan environmental activists who spend a large amount of time tearing up over the plight of polar bears. However, if Russian prosecutors are to be believed, Greenpeace activists are the new global face of piracy.


Earlier this month, 30 unarmed demonstrators from the environmental organization attempted to climb Russia’s sole offshore drilling rig in the Arctic Ocean. All 30 have now been charged with piracy by Russian authorities, and now face trials that could see them jailed for up to 15 years.

A mobile phone photo of Russian security services seizing Greenpeace's ship at gunpoint

On September 18, Greenpeace dinghies entered the three-mile exclusion zone around Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya offshore rig, situated in the Pechora Sea, around 40 miles off the Russian Arctic coast and right between the mainland and the giant island/nuclear testing ground, Novaya Zemlya. Their aim? To approach the rig on a boat (backed up by some smaller dinghies) and unfurl a big banner highlighting the risk that Arctic drilling poses to the environment.

This was hardly a caper worthy of a Jerry Bruckheimer adaptation, but the Russian reaction was—according to one Greenpeace representative who spoke to VICE shortly after the arrests—"reminiscent of a Bond film." A Russian border-patrol vessel, the Ladoga, fired warning cannon bursts as a helicopter hovered above the Greenpeace mother ship from which the dinghies had been launched, the Arctic Sunrise. That allowed 15 armed commandos to rappel down and seize control, holding the crew of activists at gunpoint. Those trying to board the vessel were plastered with water cannons and held up at gunpoint by Gazprom's security goons.

Greenpeace activists attempt to climb the Prirazlomnaya oil rig.Photo courtesy of Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace

The Arctic Sunrise was outside the rig’s exclusion zone, in what Greenpeace insists were international waters. Russian authorities argue it was in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.


Immediately prior to their arrest, the activists were told by the coast guard that they were suspected of terrorism. In their defense, Greenpeace state they had given prior warning to the coast guard about the peaceful nature of their protest and, according to our conversations with Greenpeace staff in the UK, had "no inkling or indication that the ship was about to be stormed by a load of gun-toting FSB agents." The terrorism accusation was later altered to piracy.

On first impression, the piracy charges seemed more a case of overexuberance on the part of (potentially very bored) regional officials in the port of Murmansk than any government conspiracy. It was initially difficult to see how the charges would stick, particularly after President Vladimir Putin announced that, while Greenpeace had broken unspecified international laws, “It is absolutely evident that they… are not pirates." Greenpeace had pulled the same stunt in 2012. If you don’t remember the event, it’s probably because back then nobody in the Russian government felt it was worth pressing charges and bringing themselves a bunch of negative PR. So what has made them suddenly so sensitive and why has this one rig become quite so important?

A Russian Investigation Committee inspects the Greenpeace International ship, Arctic Sunrise. Photo courtesy of Igor Podgorny/Greenpeace

First, we have to ask why you would even want to drill in the Arctic in the first place. As you might have heard, the climate is a bit chilly, making it difficult to maintain a rig and keep your shivering crew happy. It has none of the preexisting infrastructure and helicopter rides to the relative civilization of Aberdeen that can be found in the inland shale deposits or offshore fields of the North Sea, making it ultra expensive to operate in the area. Transport to market is also difficult (ironically, global warming is making this easier, as melting Arctic ice sheets clear the way for shipping).


Safety is an issue and Greenpeace has a point about the risk to the environment. In early 2013, Shell put a moratorium on Arctic drilling after its Kulluk rig ran aground in stormy weather. Waters in the Pechora Sea have also done minor damage to the Prirazlomnaya rig in the past. Tests undertaken in the year 2000 indicated that cleaning up oil spills from Arctic ice flows will be much more difficult than dealing with spills in more temperate zones.

Maybe the environment gets an uncaring shrug from the authorities in part because it is already far from pristine. Despite the national park in the north of the Novaya Zemlya, the southern end of the archipelago, in which Prirazlomnaya is based, was the site of the world’s largest nuclear weapons test, the 50 megaton "Tsar Bomba" in 1961. The area is still being monitored for radiation and there are reports of seals dying from blood cancer.

The area around Prirazlomnaya is some distance from a winter wonderland. But Greenpeace has argued that any oil spill could affect up to 4,800 miles of coastline. While Putin may think of an oil spill as a good opportunity to be photographed shampooing a polar bear, a disaster on this scale would certainly damage the regime's credibility. So why take the risk?

Greenpeace activists attempting to climb the Prirazlomnaya oil rig. Photo courtesy of Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace

It’s the economy, stupid. Conventional Russian inland oil and gas fields have been extensively exploited since at least the 1970s. Yields are no longer what they were and Russian government's tax takings are expected to drop as a result.


A 2013 report from professional services firm Ernst and Young argued that the Arctic "could account for as much as 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered but recoverable oil and natural gas resources," adding that "Russian Arctic opportunities may in fact be the big prize." Until recently, Arctic hydrocarbons were seen as Russia’s main hope of maintaining its position among the world’s biggest oil and gas exporters.

However, the discovery of shale gas deposits in the Siberian Bazhenov formation could change this. A Financial Times report indicated the formation could be five times the size of the American Bakken formation in North Dakota, which is driving shale production in the US. It's in the middle of a prime oil region and the infrastructure for extracting and transporting crude is already in place—making it cheaper and easier to develop than the Arctic.

With this in mind, the isolated Prirazlomnaya, coming in at a cost of more than $3 billion, is beginning to look dangerously like a white elephant. A year ago, drawing attention to the rig—as Greenpeace has done—was unlikely to cause problems for anyone who was anyone in the Russian energy sector. However, with costs now rising and production at the rig experiencing prolonged delays, some very large heads might be expected to roll in the near future. This may explain why the powers that be have become somewhat more sensitive to people drawing attention to it on a global scale.


Then there’s the fact that Russian politics have arguably become more paranoid in the year since Greenpeace first climbed the rig. The government has lost mayoral elections in the regions, had to deal with heavy opposition in Moscow’s city elections in September, and is still worrying about a bout of protests in 2012, leading to a situation which—as one Russian broadcaster noted sarcastically shortly after the arrests—the authorities now take the view that, "Civil rights activists are spies, academics are spies, Golos [an election observation group] are spies or foreign agents, whichever’s easiest… and above all of these, we have Greenpeace."

A mobile phone photo of Russian security services abseiling from a helicopter onto the deck of the Arctic Sunrise.

So, what’s going to happen to the eco-warriors? Greenpeace isn't as well known in Russia as the rest of Europe and can’t rely on local public opinion to pressurize the authorities into action. In fact, sections of the liberal press are even arguing that some sort of punishment—the same kind handed out for hooliganism—should be meted out to the activists.

There is a chance that the charges will be changed to ones that don't require a custodial sentence. And this is the only real hope for the activists, as there's a high probability they will be found guilty of whatever charges are raised. Acquittals in Russia are rarer now than under Stalin.


It’s not clear where this will all lead, but the running will be made by the Russian government. Greenpeace has the capacity to cause serious embarrassment to Gazprom, the owner of the Prirazlomnaya rig, and its interests in Europe. This may cause Gazprom to back down from supporting charges. The ongoing hullabaloo around Pussy Riot, more than a year after arrests were made, will also give Russian decision-makers food for thought and may make them more amenable to releasing the Greenpeace activists before another set of photogenic martyrs is created. But all this remains to be seen.

Additional reporting by Jak Hutchcraft

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