In far north Russia in a city called Murmansk, 30 people have been detained and two journalists have been charged with “piracy” for their role in Greenpeace’s protest against Artic oil drilling at the Prirazlomnaya oil platform. This event seems like yet another skirmish in the “new Cold War,” much heralded in the aftermath of Russia’s planting of its flag on the Arctic seabed in August 2007.
But Russia’s stance on the Greenpeace protestors is not primarily about the Greenpeace protest: It’s about the future of the Arctic. Will international actors seek to restrict Russia’s activities in a region that, for a variety of geographical and historical reasons, it sees as its own? For most of the 1990s Russia’s interests in the region were ill-defined, but since 2000 it has adopted a more active stance on the Arctic; a region in which around one-fifth of Russian territory lies and upon whose resources Russia’s global economic competitiveness will, in the future, largely depend. In 2003, Russia resumed the Soviet-era practice of sending manned drifting ice stations to the North Pole. The year after Russia planted a flag in the Arctic seabed in 2007, it adopted a formal Arctic policy document. These developments were accompanied, on occasions, by self-serving nationalist and aggressive rhetoric.