Greenpeace activists' plight fails to crack Russia's hard nut

Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov Photo:

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, is a graduate of the old Soviet school of hard knocks.

He has the eyes of a man alert to the presence of muggers and his expression flashes a warning: Reach for my wallet, or in this case a reasonably straight answer to a reasonably straight question, and it is you who is more likely to finish face down, eating the pavement.

He is not someone you’d want to confront down the diplomatic equivalent of a dark alley.

Fortunately our meeting is in the altogether more civilized Place du Grand Sablon, a press conference in Brussels. I am aiming to ask him about the detention of 28 Greenpeace activists, and two journalists, in a Murmansk jail since an ill-fated and, the Russians would insist, ill-advised and illegal protest in the Bering Sea.

Frank Hewetson waits in the dock during his bail hearing Credit: Greenpeace

They tried to board a Gazprom rig that forms the vanguard of a Russian-Arctic oil rush; a billion-rouble bonanza in the making. But a pristine environment under threat, according to Greenpeace.

Frank Hewetson, one of six Britons among the detainees, was in court today and as has become the norm, he had his request for bail denied. The charge is piracy and if convicted he and the rest could face 15 years in jail.

As the brother of Phil Ball, another British prisoner, told us last week: That’s a long time for an act of conscience.

Russian coast guards wearing balaklavas intervene in a Greenpeace protest near an oil rig in the Arctic Credit: Greenpeace

Now, Mr Lavrov is well used to withstanding all the moral outrage the West can summon. Think Syria and the years of unflinching support for President Assad.

Still, I wanted to ask him if he, like President Putin, thinks the piracy charge is overblown. Whether he worries that the publicity is damaging the reputation of Russia, and whether he would like the issue resolved by the time Russia hosts the Olympics this winter.

The answers are: Probably no, and emphatically yes. But I am guessing. All Mr Lavrov would say was that the Russian law would have to run its course. Everyone else should stay out of it. My attempts to pursue him after the news conference were met by a chilly refusal to engage. Journalistically, I was indeed left to chew the pavement.

Still, all this might confirm what one observer of the affair told me. The Russian foreign ministry is becoming very irritated at having to deal with constant questions about a group now dubbed `The Arctic 30’. The activists hale from 18 different countries, so that adds up to a lot of questioners.

Greenpeace believes international pressure – much of it exerted more effectively behind the scenes than publicly at press conferences – will eventually secure the release of their people. But they can’t be sure. And as we found today, Mr Lavrov is too wily a campaigner to give much away.