Has the Russian state sent Greenpeace a warning?

If it weren’t so serious you might think it comic.

In the still, chill arctic night, six masked men tiptoe into the grounds of an office building in Murmansk. A few moments later, CCTV cameras capture them making off with their prize.

It’s a mock cage, made of paper and pipe cleaners, and it was to form the visual centrepiece of a Greenpeace demonstration against the detention of thirty activists held by Russian authorities now for thirty days.

"They look professional,’’ Ben Stewart of Greenpeace tells me. "But I don’t think it is helpful for us to speculate as to who they are.’’

But in the week that has seen a Dutch diplomat assaulted by assailants unknown in his own home in Moscow, Greenpeace clearly worries that the hidden hand of the Russia state has sent them a warning.

It’s the latest, slightly sinister twist, in a plot that began when Greenpeace activists tried to board a Gazprom rig test drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

Four of the masked intruders captured on CCTV. Credit: Greenpeace

They were arrested at gun point and now face charges of piracy that carry 15 years jail terms.

Alex Harris, one of six British detainees was in court today. Like the rest, her request for bail was turned down. In a letter to her parents she says each day in jail is like dying slowing.

"I’m worried what’s going to happen,’’ she writes. "Surely my future isn’t rotting in a prison in Murmansk.’’

Greenpeace isn’t alone in coming off worse in a struggle with Russia. This summer Moscow has stood by President Assad and frustrated American plans to strike and further infuriated the US by offering sanctuary to the intelligence analyst, Edward Snowden.

"Of course they take pleasure in needling the west,’’ says John Lough, a leading Russia analyst at Chatham House.

"When they can score points over Obama, as they clearly did with Syria, President Putin enjoys his day in the sun.’’

It all helps feed the strong man image and that in turn diverts attention from the dissent and slowing economy at home.

John Lough is a Russia expert at Chatham House

Still, President Putin has this winter’s Olympics to showcase Russia’s resurgence.

And just as he won’t let environmentalists challenge oil exploration in the arctic, he won’t want a row over Greenpeace to spoil the party.