What Russia’s Treatment of Greenpeace Activists Reveals About its Arctic Policy

Russia doesn’t actually think the protesters are pirates; they’re just trying to protect their oil and gas.

Greenpeace activist in a polar bear suit holds a placard during a protest in Moscow October 5, 2013.(Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

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.

In stark contrast, between 2009 and 2011 Russia pursued a policy of cooperation in the region, suggesting a realization by the Kremlin that if its relations with the other Arctic states improved, then it could focus on the economic benefits the area offers. In April 2009, the Arctic Council (of which Russia is a member) proclaimed an atmosphere of “complete mutual understanding” in Arctic affairs. In September 2010, Russia resolved a 40-year-old dispute with Norway over dividing the Barents Sea (and part of the Arctic Ocean) between the two countries. And, in May 2011 the Arctic Council signed its first legally binding treaty.

While Russia claims that its response to the challenges provided by climate change and the opening up of the Arctic is purely peaceful, its behavior since 2011 suggests otherwise. In July 2012, Russia began construction on a fourth Borei-class submarine, designed to carry its newest and most powerful intercontinental nuclear missile, the Bulava, while patrolling the Arctic Ocean. In February, President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia’s Arctic territories are under threat from unnamed powers. Last month, meanwhile, Russia began construction of a new

military base in the Arctic, in the New Siberian Island archipelago.

Russia didn’t crack down on the Greenpeace protests because Greenpeace was trying to bring attention to the potential environmental impacts of hydrocarbon exploration. Putin is clear that Arctic oil and gas will form the basis of Russia’s future economic prosperity, and thus Russia wants to send the message that anybody who attempts to interfere in its Arctic activities will feel the full legal and political force of the state. Its recent behavior suggests that, however unlikely it may be, it will not rule out using military force either.

The Kremlin decided long ago that it would act pragmatically in the Arctic -- cooperating with the West on issues of mutual interest, and diverging from the West where interests clashed. The West, however, has so far failed to understand that in the Arctic, much like in Syria, Russia acts, first and foremost, in its own interests.

For now, international attention is focused on a courtroom in Murmansk. But later this year, it will be on New York, where Russia is expected to re-submit its 2001 application to the UN to extend its continental shelf to include 1.2 million square kilometers of Arctic seabed. It is the outcome of this event that will have the most far-reaching implications for the future of the Arctic.