The history of environmental protest took a violent turn in the past two days as Greenpeace activists protesting oil drilling in the Russian Arctic were shot at and later arrested by heavily armed commandoes from Russia’s Federal Security Service, which oversees the country’s border patrol.
The “action”—Greenpeace’s vernacular for the in-your-face protests they’ve been staging since the group was created 42 years ago—involved activists attempting to climb onto an oil platform operated by Gazprom, a state-owned energy company.
Typically an action involves some kind of trespassing and unfurling of a banner with a relevant slogan spray painted on it. I’ve witnessed a couple, including the scaling of a cooling tower at a utility in southern Florida a decade ago. Fences were climbed in the dark, ladders were ascended, banners hung. In most parts of the world such protests are illegal, and arrests are not uncommon—but rarely, if ever, are automatic weapons involved.
On Wednesday, September 18, Greenpeace sent activists to the rig via five inflatable boats, which precipitated the commando’s firing 11 “warning shots” from an AK-74 Kalashnikov across the bow of the Greenpeace mother ship, the Holland-based Arctic Sunrise. When the ship refused to stop, more shots were fired. A pair of activists—from Finland and Sweden—did manage to climb onto the oil rig, only to promptly be arrested. A day later they were returned to the mother ship.
But later that day, helicopters arrived and dropped ten soldiers armed with guns and knives onto the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, arresting all 30 aboard for what the office of the Russian Foreign Ministry referred to as "threatening the safety of the ships involved in the development of the Russian sector of the Arctic shelf."
According to the Associated Press, the ship is now reportedly being towed towards Murmansk, some 400 miles away. A Greenpeace spokesman reports that all of its crew was rounded up by gunpoint and was being held in the mess area. There has been no communication with the ship since early Friday morning.
Greenpeace statements claim every right to protest in international waters. But the office of the Russian Foreign Ministry contends that the activists’ actions were a form of “terrorism” and “had the outward signs of extremist activity that can lead to people’s death and other grave consequences.”
Ben Ayliffe, the head of Greenpeace’s Arctic oil campaign, told the BBC that he and the organization were deeply concerned about the fate of the crew. “The safety of our activists remains our top priority and we are working hard to establish what is facing them. They have done nothing to warrant this level of aggression and have been entirely peaceful throughout,” he said.
This is the second Greenpeace protest of the same oil rig. The first was in August 2012 when six activists managed to climb onto the rig for a 15-hour protest. No gunshots rang out that time, but production was delayed.
The concern of Greenpeace and other environmental organizations is that expanded oil drilling in the Arctic will lead to spills in an otherwise pristine part of the world. As Arctic ice lessens year by year due to global warming, areas once off limits to drilling are increasingly becoming more accessible.
The biggest names in the oil industry—ExxonMobil, Eni, Statoil and others—are planning to drill in the same area, but not until the 2020s. The Gazprom rig is the first to sink its bit into the Prirazlomnoye field and is expected to reach peak capacity (120,000 barrels a day) in 2019.
Well, unless Greenpeace has more to say about it.