When you fight wildfires, you probably think nature’s rage is what you must fear. Not in Russia, not for activists.

Last week, environmental activists were attacked while tackling wildfires in Russia’s southern Krasnodar region. Activists from two independent environmental groups, Greenpeace and Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), arrived in Krasnodar region on September 5 to help local residents and firefighters battling all-too-common forest fires.

Michael Kreindlin, a Greenpeace member, after being beaten by attackers in Krasnodar region, Russia, September 8, 2016.

© 2016 Maria Vasilieva, Greenpeace

Three days later a group of men, who said they were Cossacks, encircled the activists’ camp, harassing them and calling them “traitors.” Cossacks, who identify themselves as a separate ethnic group in Russia, are known to maintain militia groups, especially in the south of Russia, to help police maintain public order.

The activists called the police. But when police officials arrived, instead of dispersing the intruders, they interrogated the activists, photographed them and their identification documents, delaying them from their firefighting work. Meanwhile, the forest fires had spread close to land protected under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty to safeguard the wetlands.

Later that night, masked men armed with baseball bats, knives, and firearms attacked the group of 18 activists. They damaged cars, slashed tents, made death threats against Grigory Kuksin, the head of the group, and injured two other Greenpeace activists. Police launched an investigation into the attack.

Within days, the local branch of the federal “Rossia-1” TV channel broadcast a primetime smear story on the environmental activists. The anchor described them as “Russian representatives of an American organization” trying to cause unrest in the region, and even suggested that they were deliberately starting forest fires. The anchor also said that last year, EWNC – which had exposed the negative environmental impact of the Olympic construction in Sochi – secretly met high-ranking US and EU officials.

The next day, the activists tried to hold a news conference in Krasnodar about the attacks on them. But on their way to the venue, police stopped their cars explaining they had orders “not to let [activists] go anywhere.” Police took four of the activists, including the leader Kuksin, to Krasnodar police station and released them without charge four hours later. Later that day, Russia’s Ministry of Justice designated EWNC a “foreign agent” organization.

A witch-hunt against independent groups in Russia has been underway for some time now, but appears to be escalating in advance of country-wide elections to be held this coming weekend. And events in Krasnodar show the increasing lengths Russian authorities will go to in order to silence those who challenge them.