Russia vs. Greenpeace: It's the Arctic, stupid.

The controversy over Russian charges against Greenpeace activists rages on, but ultimately it's all about Russia's aspiration in the thawing north.

Denis Sinyakov, Greenpeace/AP
This image made available by environmental organization Greenpeace shows five activists attempting to climb the "Prirazlomnaya," an oil platform operated by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom, in Russia's Pechora Sea, a section of the Barents Sea, Sept. 18, 2013.

Russia's harsh treatment of 30 Greenpeace activists who tried to put a protest banner on the Prirazlomnaya deep-sea drilling platform in the Arctic on Sept. 19 has put a spotlight on Russia's designs on the region's newly accessible riches. The activists – charged with piracy, then hooliganism – are still being held without trial. Why the heavy hand?

Q: Why is the Arctic so important to Moscow?

Global warming, which is rapidly shrinking the Arctic icecap, is opening up the region to development. The region is thought to contain 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of its gas reserves, as well as vast fisheries and other resources that will become available for practical exploitation once the ice cover recedes. Climate change has already made possible a new sea route between the Far East and Europe, across the top of Siberia, which can shave as much as two weeks off the traditional voyage.

The loss of ice cover presents an incalculable new economic opportunity, and Russia is rapidly pivoting to the north to secure its interests and establish a strong industrial, scientific, and military presence there.

Q: How much of the Arctic does Russia claim?

Russia claims almost 400,000 square miles of what has been international territory, which would extend Russian control far beyond the standard 200-mile zone of economic interest. In 2007, Russian Arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov descended to the seafloor beneath the North Pole, planted a titanium Russian flag, and declared "the Arctic is Russian."

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Russia's claim can be declared valid if it can prove that the Arctic seabed is an extension of the Russian landmass. Moscow has sent two major expeditions into the deep north in an effort to establish that.

Other northern-tier countries, including Canada, Norway, and Denmark, have filed or plan to file similar claims, which would effectively extend the sovereignty of each country from its coast to the North Pole. But what if other nations wake up to the opportunities and demand a share of what is, at present, international territory? Last May, over Russian objections, six countries – China, India, Singapore, Italy, South Korea, and Japan – gained observer status in the Arctic Council, the former scientific research body that is becoming the focus of international efforts to divvy up the Arctic.

Q: Are the Kremlin's intentions peaceful?

While awaiting a UN judgment on its Arctic claim, Russia negotiated a division of the Barents Sea with Norway in 2010. It insists it is open to the peaceful resolution of all disputes with other northern nations. But the Kremlin has also ordered a huge increase in Russia's northern military footprint, including a special rapid deployment force, new air bases, and a permanent naval presence.

In 2008, then-President Dmitry Medvedev warned that "in a competition for resources, it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used to resolve emerging problems that could destroy the balance of forces near the borders of Russia and her allies."

Q: Why is Greenpeace seen as such a threat to Russia's plans?

The Arctic may be the last frontier for resource exploration, but many experts warn that it is an exceptionally fragile ecological zone that should be developed only with the greatest caution and international supervision. Russia's breakneck drive to establish control and develop the Arctic may not be as environmentally friendly as the Kremlin claims.

According to Greenpeace, the drilling rig that its ship approached, as well as other Russian projects in the Barents Sea, were launched without any environmental review. Other experts warn that the Kremlin's insistence on letting the giant, opaque, and inefficient state-owned corporations Gazprom and Rosneft lead the way in Arctic development virtually guarantees that accidents will occur. Greenpeace's global presence and its aggressive style of protest attract a lot of media attention. The group can also mobilize global support, such as its current campaign to force Russia to free the "Arctic 30."

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