Russia 2, Greenpeace 1.
One of my simple pleasures in life is to spend an occasional evening watching a good sporting event with friends. We all come clinking along with whatever booze we prefer and a few emergency nibbles. It’s usually an evening of decent sport, a little too much to drink and giving each other a hard time about how well our respective teams are doing of late, or not, in my particular team’s case. It’s still early days in the soccer season, so all the games have been cagey with none of the top teams looking especially sharp.
In an effort to see something more lively, we’d decided on a Champions League game between Switzerland’s Basel and Schalke of Germany. That’s an international competition for the top football clubs in Europe. It’s always a good idea to eye up the opposition and as it happens, Schalke have a very nifty striker that Arsenal are rumoured to be lusting after big time and since one of my friends is an Arsenal fan – someone has to be I suppose - it was also a chance to see him in action.
The evening was well into the usual enjoyable routine when the game was stopped by Greenpeace activists lowering a massive banner off the roof and down into the stadium. It was telling Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled oil company, not to drill in the arctic but it was also telling them to free some Greenpeace activists arrested for climbing a Russian oil platform the previous week. The exasperated comments about it in the room I’ve no doubt reflected what the thousands of people in the stadium were saying, none of which were sympathetic to Greenpeace or the particular cause. Like Hamlet, we spoke of country matters.
One person in the room remarked that the irritating prats wouldn’t spend more than a few hours in jail and I agreed but I was thinking the stunt had just ensured the other activists were going to spend months, if not years, in jail.
Within five minutes or so, the game restarted, with Schalke eventually winning one nil via a scorching goal from the Arsenal prospect. Start saving your pennies Arsene.
Thinking about the incident afterwards, it illustrated beautifully two points I’ve made several times on this blog. The first is that the environmental movement persists in viewing its opposition as cardboard cut-out stereotypes. It’s a simplistic and childish view of the real world which is exaggerated by its increasing tendency to be ever more inward looking. The second one is that as they’re essentially fanatics, they’ll always push it too far; they simply can’t help themselves.
I’m sure that spiffing idea of abseiling down into a packed stadium before the world’s cameras sounded brilliant over café lattes with like-minded saviours of the planet but did anyone ever stop to really think beyond their egos as to what would be the net effect of it? By that I don’t just mean pissing off a whole football stadium of avid footie fans and the others watching around the world, but how the Russians might react.
Let’s do that bit of thinking for them but first some necessary background you might need.
A decade ago, Russia emerged from the economic chaos brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union. What got them out was exporting energy, in the form of gas, to the rest of Europe. It was the one single thing they had which everyone else wanted, and that’s precisely why Vladimir Putin’s first move on gaining power was wresting control of it back by any means from the assorted robber barons and oligarchs who’d pillaged it from the ruins of the old USSR.
Even though the nuclear attack subs and boomers rusted at the bottom of their moorings in Murmansk, Russia still had its gas and it became what they termed the energy weapon. Be nice to the Rodina or we’ll turn off your gas, a threat they’ve carried out at least twice.
The Russians, amongst others, are currently claiming much of the undeveloped oil and gas reserves under the arctic as theirs, with the whole issue due to come before the UN next year. No doubt some share out arrangement between the various parties will be brokered but in the meantime Russia is flexing its muscles by building a permanent military base there and a nuclear fleet is patrolling the local waters for the first time in years.
Russia has never been interested in environmentalism and indeed probably spends more Roubles on improving their caviar production than on things like renewable energy. If their competitors want to voluntarily decarbonise themselves back to the middle ages, why should they be bothered.
Enter Greenpeace aboard the good ship Arctic Sunrise - in retrospect it should have been called Arctic Surprise – sailing into the Pechora Sea to scale the Russian Prirazlomnaya oil drilling platform. It was going to be the usual boarding exploit and they’d even brought along their own media to capture the event.
Greenpeace activists had previously scaled the same oil rig about a year back, hung some banners on it, chained themselves to it, and after a few days in clink, had been allowed to go home triumphant to reap the propaganda rewards. This time around their boat was impounded at gunpoint by FSB men dropping down by ropes from a helicopter and everyone on board was taken into custody for an estimated two month wait while a hearing was being arranged, but the thinking was they’d probably be let go fairly soon.
That was the first signal from the Russians to Greenpeace – stay out of our business. The Kremlin were making known a change of policy towards the environmental movement in their waters and more importantly their territorial claims about the arctic. It was a classic Soviet-era piece of communication, unstated but right in your face. Rumours of more serious piracy charges were dismissed by Putin in an interview as a bit excessive. He assumed they were bright enough to take the hint. The king had just spoken so sighs of relief all around.
However, the football stunt came along. A very public attack on Russia’s territorial ambitions, the energy weapon and their relatively light treatment of the activists. More seriously, the Russians really do like their football, hence all the money they pump into it. Rightly or wrongly, it was perceived as a signal back, so suddenly all the activists were charged with piracy. You didn’t listen to the first signal, well, have a much more definite one and this signal comes with a maximum fifteen year prison sentence attached.
Unlike Greenpeace, the Russians actually operate on the basis of a realistic appraisal of their enemy; in this case the environmental movement. They know environmental politics are no longer of interest to western governments nor their people, so they’re quite happy to imprison as many ecowarriors as it takes to ram the message home. Nobody is going to go to war over them. Greenpeace, like the whole environmental movement, is on the wane as a significant political force.
I suppose I’d better outline the exit strategies for the blunderers, since the Russians are now awaiting their signal. The ball is now in Greenpeace’s half of the pitch and the next move is therefore up to them. It comes down to two choices really. Go for the big eco-martyrs imprisoned by the cruel Russians campaign, and since nobody is going to do anything about it beyond a few diplomatic tut-tuts, that’ll just piss the bear off even more and give your activists years to learn Russian in prison, where they’re already whingeing bitterly that nobody in there speaks English. There’s probably not even any internet access.
The other option is to do a bit of public grovelling, an apology and a promise not to do it ever again, but that’s only if you want them back this side of Christmas. A word of caution though. If you can bring yourself to pull off a successful grovel to the Russians, you’ll probably get your people back in instalments, which will end abruptly the first time you start doing a released ecowarriors propaganda splash.
I wonder what the signal’s going to be. Are Greenpeace ready to sacrifice their own foot soldiers for a futile PR gesture?
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