Russia’s Arctic face-off

No Russian tolerance for Greenpeace activists.

It was only a matter of time before Russia made an example of Greenpeace, the worldwide network of environmental activists.

Last year, the group got away with a daring protest on an Arctic oil platform owned by the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom during which activists scaled the rig to promote environmental safety in the frozen, hazardous northern waters.

This time, they weren’t so lucky.

Russian prosecutors on Thursday finished charging all 28 activists who attempted a similar protest last month on the same platform. They face up to 15 years in prison for piracy, along with a Russian freelance photographer with no formal ties to Greenpeace who had been on assignment covering the protest.

The protesters’ international makeup — Americans, Canadians, Danes, Russians and 13 more nationalities — didn’t appear to phase the authorities. The activists' ship, the Arctic Sunrise, is Dutch-flagged, and the Netherlands said on Friday that it is taking legal action to free the activists.

“It’s a clear signal that we’ll be very tough in defending our interests in the Arctic,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military and political analyst in Moscow, of Russia's intentions.

Russia is stepping up its claim to the Arctic Ocean and the abundant reserves of oil and gas there as its well-exploited Siberian wells are beginning to dwindle. The Arctic represents a lucrative alternative for a country whose budget still heavily relies on natural resource revenues.

But Moscow faces a diplomatic battle over claims to those waters, with other Arctic countries such as the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway also looking to plant their proverbial flags in the region.

Russia did just that — with a real flag — during a high-profile expedition in 2007, when a submarine descended more than 13,000 feet under the North Pole and dropped a titanium Russian tricolor.

That drew criticism from the other countries, which argued Moscow was claiming more than its fair share of the ocean.

However, despite the disputed claims — which have yet to be formally registered through the United Nations — Russia is forging ahead with its Arctic exploration. Compared to its rivals, it’s ahead of the curve.

State oil giant Rosneft has inked deals with foreign energy firms Exxon, Eni and Statoil to develop around a dozen offshore blocks in the region.

Just this week, Gazprom told Reuters that it plans to begin oil production on the Prirazlomnoye platform — the same rig approached by the Greenpeace protesters — by the end of the year.

Speaking to members of the ruling United Russia Party on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his country’s commitment to defending what he pitched as Russia’s sovereign territory in the north.

“The Arctic is an unalienable part of the Russian Federation that has been under our sovereignty for a few centuries,” the Associated Press quoted Putin as saying. “And it will be so for the time to come.”

Those comments came just a week after he attended an international conference titled “The Arctic — Territory of Dialogue,” in Siberia’s Polar city of Salekhard.

Unfortunately for the Greenpeace protesters, however, their action arrived just days after the Russian military had dispatched a fleet of vessels nearby in another symbolic adventure: this time, to raise the flag over a Soviet-era military base the Kremlin hopes to revamp.

As the activists attempted to scale the platform, border guards from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) stormed the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, detained all 30 passengers, and had the vessel towed to a port in the far northern city of Murmansk, where they remain in police custody.

Observers say the charges against the activists represent Moscow’s increasingly vocal message that its new natural resource hub is not to be tampered with.

“If anyone had any illusions that the Arctic is a ‘territory of dialogue,’ the events in a Murmansk court unequivocally dispelled them,” Andrei Babitsky, editor of Russian Esquire, wrote Friday in an opinion column in the respected Vedomosti daily.

Although the Russian message was clear, it doesn’t change the fact that the Kremlin’s Arctic dreams are far from realized. Experts caution that Russia’s natural resource development there — even with the help of foreign energy giants — will be a costly, long-term endeavor.

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Analysts estimate it will take at least another decade before the venture set out by Rosneft’s agreement with its foreign partners even begins production.

John Lough, an expert on Russian energy policy at the Chatham House think-tank in London, says the stakes for Moscow’s collaborators are high, especially because of the shale gas “revolution” that’s shifting the balance in global energy markets.

“At some point, investors have to decide whether they really want to go for this or not,” he says. “Time will tell whether these projects can be made commercial.”