Beware the Russian bear

''Oh, those Russians,'' narrates the voice as the 1978 Boney M hit Rasputin finishes.

The bouncy disco song paints a bleak picture of the murdered monk (1916), ''lover of the Russian queen'' (allegedly). It is the dark image many had of Russia then, of the Soviet Union under Stalin and beyond and Russia these days under the effective dictatorship of Vladimir Putin. The name and style of the tyrant changes; a lot else stays the same.

This might well be how Greenpeace and its supporters feel about Russia. The environmental group's ship Arctic Sunrise took to protest in what it claims are international waters. Several activists then scaled an oil platform in the Barents Sea to denounce the drilling plans. Russian border guards responded and lowered themselves on to the ship from a helicopter.

They locked up the crew and the Arctic Sunrise was towed to Murmansk, about 2000km north of Moscow. The crew of 28 activists, including two New Zealanders, plus two freelance journalists, were arrested and are being held in a Russian prison while they face piracy charges which carry jail terms of between 10 and 15 years.

The 30 have been remanded in custody - it is claimed in appalling substandard conditions - for two months while an investigation is carried out. Meanwhile, the Netherlands, under whose flag the ship sailed, has started arbitration on the basis of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. It is asserts the detention of the ship was unlawful and the arrests illegal.

In the West, including New Zealand, there is a fair degree of sympathy for the cause and the plight of the activists. Although many find Greenpeace antics showy and uncompromising, there is an uneasiness about drilling in the Arctic and an added suspicion because it is Russia.

Nevertheless, Russia's reaction is hardly surprising.

Wave a stick in the face of the Russian bear and do not be shocked if it clouts you with its paw, especially given its poor reputation on corruption, democratic rights and free speech. Just ask Russian gays or band Pussy Riot. If Greenpeace is going to play with fire, it is going to be burnt.

It is also natural Russia would want to defend its interests and protect its drilling. After all, New Zealand's Government slipped a late change into the Crown Minerals Amendment Act earlier this year so ''non-interference zones'' could be gazetted around offshore oil drilling or pumping installations. This prevents protest vessels disrupting lawful operations and follows an incident in April 2011 when a protest flotilla led by an East Cape iwi interfered with Brazilian company Petrobras' seismic surveys in the Raukumara Basin. Petrobras had to halt its surveys for nearly two days.

It seems, according to at least one reputable poll, that while the law change upset those on the left, it has majority public backing.

As Energy Minister Simon Bridges said, developers have rights too.

The Greenpeace crew came from a kaleidoscope of nations and pressure will mount on Russia to be lenient. But a spokesman for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade acknowledged there was little it could do now.

''Our officials are not able to intervene in the judicial process of another country and nor can they try to circumvent the process.''

If the situation was reversed, we would not be happy with Russia trying to interfere in our legal system.

Many activists live and breath the righteousness of their cause and say they are prepared to suffer the consequences. Most of us are realistic about the potential initial outcomes of such protests. Take on Russia, for instance, and what has subsequently unfolded is always likely to be the result.

For the sake of humanity and for the sake of the cause, it must be hoped the crew - and particularly the two journalists - can be treated fairly and compassionately. That, however, has often not been the nature of the Russian state. Finally, it must also be hoped that those on board the Arctic Sunrise did in fact realise the likely consequences of entering the bear pit.

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