It is hard to be sure what changed in Russia to cause the Arctic 30 to be given their freedom. These matters are not resolved by legal process; they are determined by higher authority.
I think the decision was probably made over a week ago, in other words shortly before the prisoners were transferred from Murmansk to St Petersburg, that this episode had run its course and that a continuation of the saga was no longer in the interests of the reputation of Russia and her relations with other potentially friendly countries. There can be no certainty of this but the fact that Kieron Bryan and others moved from Murmansk directly into refurbished and freshly painted cells in St Petersburg supports the proposition that the change of location was part of a wider decision based on the need for Russia to improve its reputation and image following the outcry over the initial arrests and conduct of the Russian special forces. The granting of bail and freedom to all is the natural consequence of these events and the nicely decorated cells with en suite lavatory, rather than bucket in the corner, will go a little way to counter the Council of Europe’s recent finding that the conditions of Russian remand centres amount to ‘torture’.
Why do this now? Well have no doubt that Putin has vested his reputation and personal pride in the Winter Olympics and he wants to have clear water between the end of the Greenpeace episode and the run up to the Opening Ceremony in the New Year. So get the affair off the front pages now: let everyone come out of Christmas with the Arctic Sunrise a dim and distant memory.
There are some unsurprising lessons for now and the future. Don’t violate Russian territorial boundaries. Don’t mess with Russia’s national economic interests (oil and gas). Don’t mess with Russian special forces. And only cross these boundaries if you are prepared to spend some time in a Russian jail.
One of the many rumours circling in St Petersburg last week, is that Putin has been nominated for the Nobel peace Prize for his intervention on the crisis over chemical warfare in Syria and that he made it known, in particular during a State Visit with the King of the Netherlands that he would let the Arctic 30 go free if their heads of state would vote for him to be awarded the prize. But these rumours may be just that.
But Putin comes well out of this – he has been tough and he has been merciful. He has controlled the situation from the centre. Now he can look forward to a successful, image boosting Winter Olympics, flanked in the stands by Heads of State from around the world.
And all of this achieved from first to last, bail hearings included, not by process of law but by the application of state power.