Ukraine-Russia war: Orkney’s opposition to Sovcomflot’s NS Champion tanker secures a victory for people power over Vladimir Putin – Alistair Carmichael MP


The news – just minutes ago as I write these words – that the government will ban Russian-owned and operated vessels from using UK ports was perhaps somewhat overdue but enormously welcome.

It will be a relief for my constituents who were ready to protest and to take to their boats to prevent the arrival of Russian state-owned tanker NS Champion in Orkney – and a relief for all right-minded people who oppose Vladimir Putin’s bloodthirsty regime.

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Economic restrictions are an essential part of starving Putin’s war machine – and yet for days maritime trade has been a gaping hole in our sanctions regime.

From the moment it emerged that, just days after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had begun, a Sovcomflot tanker, directly owned by the Russian state, would be arriving in Orkney to take on crude oil, there has been an uproar in the community and beyond.

Coming shortly after another tanker came to Shetland and left without action – despite the promise of the Prime Minister to investigate – people in the isles were rightly furious and wanted to see their government live up to their rhetoric by banning such vessels. It may have been overdue but the levers of government have clicked into gear – or so we hope.

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The Russian tanker NS Champion had been due to dock at Orkney’s Flotta oil terminal this week (Picture: Kees Torn/Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed when I raised the matter with the Foreign Secretary after Mr Shapps’ announcement, her response was rather less definitive than I would have hoped.

Mr Shapps’ letter uses the term “are asked” rather than “are instructed” – which leaves a little concern that the legal regime is not entirely watertight. I suspect the position is more or less certain, despite the wording, but greater clarity would be welcome.

We need a cast-iron confirmation that if the NS Champion were to arrive in Orkney as planned early tomorrow morning, the port authorities at Flotta oil terminal would have a free hand – if not an obligation – to bar its access without fear of financial consequences or legal travails.

Workers at the terminal, horrified at the assault on Ukraine by Putin’s regime, must not be forced to support his economic interests due to a failure to enact the necessary regulations by the government.

Even so, I want to take the minister’s letter at face value. Having pressed the case with the government – ​​perhaps to the point of annoyance – throughout the weekend, I know that officials were aware of the issue and taking steps to act.

There is much more that can and must be done to oppose Putin’s aggression, but if action lives up to the words in the Secretary of State’s letter it will be a significant and positive step.

Above all, the movement generated this weekend is an affirmation of exactly what differentiates our country from that of Putin’s mafia regime.

The protests and concerns of people in the isles and across the country, channeled into direct action and political pressure on all levels, have generated meaningful action from our government.

We could quibble, perhaps, about the time taken to get these measures off the ground, and challenge the exact implementation should gaps or exemptions materialize, but ultimately this has proven that in our democratic system, positive change can happen. This has been “people power” at its finest.

The response from our community in the Northern Isles has been overwhelming. Local vigils were held in support of Ukraine. In just a few days, thousands joined a petition calling for the government to block the Sovcomflot tankers.

Dozens upon dozens of constituents have contacted me, many who had never had cause to write in the past, to voice their support for Ukraine and their disgust that Russian state-owned vessels could operate freely on our doorstep.

It has been a deeply-held, emotional response from across the community; people ready not just to speak about their views but to act.

Many workers involved in the servicing and support of tankers wrote to me of their fury at being obliged by the rules of open ports to work on vessels that, indirectly or not, are part of the flow of funds to Putin’s war machine as he assaults Ukraine .

It is no exaggeration to say that views were close to boiling point, with islanders ready to gather on Flotta and in boats across Scapa Flow to challenge the arrival of the NS Champion. With any luck that will no longer be necessary.

In many ways, the story of the NS Champion and Orkney’s protest against it has been a microcosm of a wider movement. Throughout Europe and across the world, people have been horrified by the attack on Ukraine and demanded action from their governments in response.

Enormous outflows of grassroots support have been seen national governments go faster and further than many could have imagined – placing harder and more comprehensive sanctions on the Putin regime than have ever been seen before.

It is the power of real democracy at work – and it is toxic to autocrats like Vladimir Putin. He felt that he could act with impunity, that liberal democracies were too divided and corrupted to respond in a meaningful way. He has badly miscalculated.

Instead of dividing and retreating, we have come together and pushed back, in big ways and in small ones. We cannot yet say what the end result of Putin’s war of aggression will be – but we can say that, whether it is in the mass protests of Europe’s capitals, or a small stand in the Northern Isles, people are rediscovering the power of their voice to make change.

Alistair Carmichael is Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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