A Brace of British Brownshirts

A few years ago, when I was roaming the wilds of the planet with various oil companies, I was sat with my sister, who is a journalist, pitching ideas for a story at her. I could have directed her towards umpteen utterly scandalous situations, but each time she said:

“But what’s the British angle? For a British publication, there has to be a British interest in it somewhere.”

Flicking open The Guardian yesterday, it seems establishing a British angle is a lot easier than I thought. Consider this article by Natalia Antonova (yes, she of “survivor” fame):

From Britain to Ukraine, the far right is thriving on shared emotion

And what better person to delve into the British national psyche than “a Ukrainian journalist and playwright based in New York”?

While reports of Britons being recruited by Ukrainian neo-Nazis to fight in a war against Russia appear to be somewhat exaggerated – two men hardly constitutes some sort of far-right stampede to the eastern edge of Europe – this is a good time to remember that hate is on the upswing, and to think of it as a localised phenomenon is to miss the bigger picture.

Two unnamed men hardly constitutes anything, but is more than enough to justify running the author’s garbled opinions in The Guardian. British angle, indeed.

Members of the Ukrainian and the Russian far right are willing to riddle each other with very many bullet holes over such issues as the legacy of the second world war, and who the real heroes were. Ask them about abortion, however, or feminism, or migration, or antisemitism, or LGBT rights, or human rights in general, or, for that matter, government transparency and accountability, and suddenly these mortal enemies will seem more like good buddies who had a little tiff over history and national identity but will happily join forces to oppress whoever gets in their way, should the current conflict come to an end.

Warring militias on Russia’s borders don’t share the same social justice goals as a journalist in Brooklyn? Who knew? And note the casual assumption that anyone who opposes abortion is far right, and that a lack of government transparency and accountability is a hallmark of the same group. Because the left are paragons of virtue when it comes to those two things, aren’t they?

As the editors of the anarchist publication Nihilist.li have argued, “the differences between the Kremlin and Ukrainian fascists are tactical – not strategic … Both Russian and Ukrainian far-right groups have the same values and the same political ideal – crony capitalism.”

Good job those two British chaps allegedly went to Ukraine, isn’t it? Otherwise we’d be wondering why she doesn’t harangue some Ukrainians about this.

Ukraine’s problems with the far right are Britain’s problems, are Bulgaria’s problems, are Austria’s problems, and even, ultimately, Russia’s problems.

Eh? Why is it Britain’s concern that there might be far right Ukrainians? In the 2017 UK General Election, not a single far right party stood in any meaningful sense, let alone won. Even if we accept the left’s description of UKIP as being far right, they got wiped out. Is Antonova even aware of the makeup of Britain’s political parties?

In looking for solutions, we should consider the predicament the US now finds itself in – with a blatantly racist president who will reward any far-right group for as long as it sings his praises.

Presumably for reasons of space – or relevance – Antonova doesn’t cite a single one of these far right groups, nor how Trump rewarded them. But she calls him racist, so there’s that.

Reporters from elite publications are regularly parachuted into towns and districts that represent Trump’s “base” in order to file bewildered, slightly apocalyptic reports on how there are millions of Americans out there who do not care that the man they elected thinks there are “both sides” to a conflict involving murderous far-right violence.

Note that the problem here lies not with not bubble-dwelling “reporters from elite publications”, but the ordinary person who doesn’t subscribe to cartoon depictions of the US president.

Even as we continue to combat fake news, it has become glaringly obvious that facts alone won’t reach these racists and cheerleaders for racism – because support for Trump comes from a place that’s wholly different to the place where we compile and analyse facts.

She actually had the temerity to include this paragraph in an article whose entire premise rests on two unnamed “far right” Brits allegedly being recruited by Ukrainian neo-nazis.

Far-right advances across nations embolden the far right in other nations. This trend is likely to continue – and this is why a couple of Britons travelling to Ukraine to fight alongside neo-Nazis is something to take notice of.

Possibly at the editor’s insistence, we’re back to these two Brits again. Remember how often we were told not to worry about tens of thousands of citizens from European countries going to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS? That’s because the real issue is British neo-Nazis flocking to Ukraine in such numbers they couldn’t even form a relay team.

The causes of our current predicament can be debated – certainly a great number of economic and social factors are at play – but what matters is the simple realisation that what binds members of far-right groups can be exploited for good. Shared humanity, the idea of belonging to a common cause – these are the tools we have at our disposal if we wish to adequately address the rising tide of hate.

Somebody actually paid for this guff. True they only paid £90, but still.

To bring this back to Lakoff, what matters right now is not so much what far-right hate groups think, but what their members feel and believe.

Uh-huh. Now perhaps I’m being unfair. There’s no reason why a Ukrainian feminist living in Brooklyn should not be able to understand and write articles about British social issues in a national newspaper, so with that in mind I roamed around looking for what other insights she’s provided on the subject. And then I came across this:



White-Knights and Prostitutes

*This post has been updated*

A month or so back some people I follow on Twitter who are Russian-focused recommended someone’s writing, so I followed her. Thus far I’ve not seen much to justify the recommendation (her latest piece is a lame satire of Trump, as if there’s a shortage of that sort of thing) but following such people can nevertheless throw up some interesting discussion points. Last night the lady in question, a Ukrainian-American, took to Twitter to complain about how men stereotype her. Here’s how I responded to one of her tweets:

Bear in mind she started the topic with “Let’s talk about stereotypes of Slavic women”, and that she purports to be a professional writer and journalist; in my naivety I thought maybe she actually wanted a discussion. It turned out she didn’t, but I see no reason why I shouldn’t have one here.

Russian women do get stereotyped and it can be unpleasant for a normal woman when its assumed she’s a whore. But, as I point out in my tweet, there’s a reason for this. My Turkish friend, for example, takes a very dim view of Russian women because in her home country they are synonymous with the thousands of prostitutes who turned up to ply their trade, many of whom were at the very low end of the business having unprotected sex with truck drivers which spread disease and broke up families. It might be a view that’s unfair to Russian women, but my friend hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting ordinary Russians and so she’s going on what she knows. And there is no denying that there are a lot of Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish prostitutes working in European cities – more than Turkish, Egyptian, and Portuguese, for instance.

If I walk into a bar in Thailand, or even down the street, the locals assume I’m interested in a prostitute. If I found myself in Pat’s Bar in Lagos after the rugby had finished, most people in there would think I was after a prostitute. If I went into the York International Hotel in Dubai in 2004, most people would assume I was there for the hookers. Similarly, when Brits turn up in certain Mediterranean holiday resorts, the locals expect trouble. If the England soccer team are playing away, the local police flip the safety catch off the water cannon before they’ve even cleared immigration. Any discussion on stereotypes and assumptions made about you based on your nationality must take into account the origins of those stereotypes. So in the case of this lady above, she ought to at least acknowledge that, for many people – especially the Arabs and South Asians she mentions specifically – the only Russian or Ukrainian women they’ve ever encountered have been prostitutes, and that many of her compatriots are prostitutes.

Ah, but this is Twitter and I should have known better. Within minutes of posting the white-knights appeared.


Alas, this is pretty standard on Twitter: a vaguely attractive woman posts something and you get a handful of men falling over themselves to agree with her. If you say something remotely contradictory, they all pile in. This is why I am so fond of this pic (origin unknown):

Naturally, the original poster didn’t respond, but was content to like the responses to me. But that’s by the by. What i found ironic is the assumption that these tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian women who worked as prostitutes had no choice (note the usual lefty debating trick of deliberately conflating “most”, “many”, and “all”).

There’s a habit of western men when they first meet a bunch of developing-world prostitutes to assume they’re all bright young things down on their luck whom life has dealt a miserable hand and they’re in need of saving by someone just like them. Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with a bunch of third-world prostitutes will know they’re ruthless bitches who have lied so many times they barely remember their real name. When it comes to Russian prostitutes, they became adept at telling gullible men they were well-educated and wanted to work in a normal job but had no choice but to become prostitutes in Dubai and Bangkok because of the economic hardships at home. I used to hear this back in 2003-4, then I worked out these women were not well-educated, they came from broken homes with seriously fucked-up childhoods, and simply made the choice to make some good money quickly. Again this is fair enough, but one should never forget that for every woman who chose to become  a prostitute, there are plenty who faced the same hardships but chose differently.

Now there might have been some women from Russia and Ukraine forced into prostitution, by which I mean they’re in chains and controlled by gangsters, but I I’m not convinced more than a negligible number work abroad in such conditions. Certainly this was the case when I lived in Dubai, because the girls would have talked about it. They were bound to their sponsors once they got there (as are many legitimate workers) but nobody forced them to come, or hoodwinked them. Long-time readers may remember I actually witnessed one girl being recruited for the job when I made that trip to Nizhnekamsk in 2004 in the company of another girl who knew the process rather well and, without batting an eyelid, told me everything about how it works. And as has been discussed in the comments at Tim Worstall’s on several occasions, trafficking Eastern European women for the purposes of prostitution makes absolutely no sense whatsoever: all major cities are awash with young women working voluntarily and prepared to do pretty much anything for a couple of hundred quid. Where’s the economic sense in kidnapping a woman, chaining her to a bed, and risking a lengthy jail term for people-trafficking in such a market?

What the white-knights are doing is assuming these poor Russians and Ukrainians had no choice but to become prostitutes, thereby implying any Russian or Ukrainian will turn to prostitution should the right economic conditions arise. Given these remarks appear in a thread in support of a Ukrainian woman complaining men often presume she’s a hooker, it’s rather ironic. Even more ironic is she approves of these remarks. It’s a funny place, Twitter.


The whole thing turned into a big pile-on yesterday afternoon. One person in particular took objection to being called a white-knight:

A man on the internet leaping to the defence of a woman who is “a personal friend” after incorrectly believing someone insulted her, followed by an attempt to look tough, is pretty much the textbook definition of a white-knight. Does this guy not realise he’s so deep in the friend zone that he could tweet his little fingers off all day long and still not get anywhere? His threats didn’t stop there, however:

I’m trembling so much my knees are knocking.

Some others were simply dim, chief among them this woman:

She’d give Cathy Newman a run for her money. Then white-knight pops up again:

According to Twitter, the reputation Russian and Ukrainian women have in the Middle East and elsewhere stems from women who were trafficked there, forced into prostitution against their will. If you follow the thread, we learn none of them have actually met any of these women – but from their offices in the US and Canada they have read reports and studied papers which show they have been trafficked and few are there voluntarily. How so many are free to take boyfriends and get married remains a mystery. Perhaps their pimps are the romantic sort?

Finally, given this started out with various women complaining men treat them like prostitutes, allow me to pass on some advice to my female readership. If you find men are routinely presuming you to be a prostitute, I recommend you:

1. Look at the places you are hanging out in.

2. Look at the men you are hanging out with.

3. Look at your own behaviour.

I know many women, and many Russian and Ukrainian women; very few have told me they get mistaken for a prostitute. If it’s a problem for women, it doesn’t appear to be universal.


A Change in Government

I expect there are a few examples like this:

In 2008, eight years into his addiction, doctors told him he had one year left to live and Georgy realized he needed help. He began a drug substitution therapy called OAT to safely wean himself off drugs.

At that point, Crimea, where Georgy lived, was still part of Ukraine and substitution therapy (OAT) was legal. But when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the peninsula’s new leadership announced the therapy would be banned.

By May that year, more than 800 drug users who had been receiving OAT, including Georgy, found themselves cut off from treatment. Now local and international rights groups say the ban is fueling a resurgent HIV epidemic with fatal consequences.

Amid the many legal and ethical problems with Russia annexing Crimea in the manner it did, it’s hard to claim it was actively opposed by the majority population. However, I suspected they thought there would be only upsides – understandable, given the shambolic state of Ukraine – but over time various drawbacks would present themselves. Some were obvious: being cut-off from the rest of Russia and dependent on Ukraine for electricity and water were two, as well as the collapse in foreign tourism. This ban on OAT treatment is another, and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before a Crimean mother is weeping over the death of son drafted into the Russian army. Whatever the situation becomes in Crimea, I suspect decent reporting on the subject will be scarce and we’ll be squeezed between propaganda on both sides supplemented with the occasional rumour.


A Weekend in Kiev

My trip to Kiev was nice, but very short.  Snow had fallen in Kiev the morning of my departure, leading to flights out of Boryspil airport being delayed.  Perhaps the Ukrainians were taken by surprise by this sudden onset of wintry conditions having expected balmy summer days until next May, but it reminded me of the time when I was delayed 5 hours in Sheremetovo airport on my way back to Sakhalin from Istanbul because snow had arrived in Moscow.

Anyhow, I lost two hours of my Friday evening and it was dark when I arrived.  I had a choice of taking a bus from the airport to my hotel in the city centre for about 2 Euros which would take about an hour, or a taxi for 20 Euros which would take half that.  This was the first inkling I got that Ukraine was on that rapidly-shrinking list of countries that are still very inexpensive.  I plumbed for the taxi.

As is now the case in Moscow, almost all the cars I saw on the road were foreign-brands, and only a handful Russian.  The roads and signage and other paraphernalia were well maintained, telling me Kiev has emerged from the decrepit post-Soviet era along with the Baltic capitals I visited 4 years ago.  I have no idea if this is the case in Belorussia, but it would be interesting to find out.  I saw plenty of signs of foreign investment, the French ones catching my eye: Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas, Auchun.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and I spent the day walking around the main sights of the city centre, which consisted mostly of nice looking Orthodox churches.

It was cold.  The actual temperature was only -5C or so, but that’s as cold as I’ve experienced outside a ski resort in a long time, and any residual toughness from my time in Russia disappeared years ago in the heat of Thailand and Nigeria.  I had the right clothes on, but I was not tempted to stay outside too long hence I didn’t see all that much of the city.

I was surprised by how small Kiev was.  I didn’t see the suburbs, but the city centre didn’t seem that big and I was amazed – on a late Saturday morning – by how few people or cars were about.  There didn’t seem to be any traffic even on the city’s main boulevards, which isn’t the case in most capital cities.  For some reason I’d gotten the idea it was a giant megalopolis approaching the size of Moscow, but it was actually far smaller.

Below is a picture of Maidan Square, the location for both the Orange Revolution in 2004/5 and the Euromaidan protests in 2013.

The place was deserted.  One thing that struck me when standing in that spot was that Ukrainians ought to schedule their protests a little better: both took place at roughly the same time of year I was, and I didn’t envy them camped out in the snow.

I was speaking Russian, not knowing a word of Ukrainian, and I from what I could tell there was a lot of Russian spoken.  I’m not sure if I could have told the difference, but on the few occasions I asked I was told it was Russian.  Which is to be expected, of course.  There were signs of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia though, some more subtle than others.  I noticed among a hundred brands of vodka on sale in a supermarket there was no Russki Standardt, nor was there Baltika in the beer section.  And the kiosks in the subways were selling rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s portrait on each sheet.

The food was good: I had two bowls of borsch, which is pretty much compulsory when visiting Ukraine, but couldn’t detect any difference from those I ate in Russia.  Although bowls of borsch are like snowflakes, no two are alike.  If you ever want to start an argument among Russians (and presumably Ukrainians) just for fun, ask two of them to tell you how borsch should be made properly (this also works with salad Olivier).  And the food was cheap: after years of Paris prices, it seemed it was almost free in Kiev.

I took a few photos, some of which are not bad, but they’re nothing special.  It was too cold to walk slowly, hunting around for unusual things in the back streets, and operating an SLR camera with gloves on isn’t easy.  I snapped the main sights I came across, and that was about it.

For those that are interested, the full collection of my photos of Kiev are here.

All in all it was a nice trip, and Kiev is worth a visit.  Only it would be a lot more sensible to visit in summer rather than winter, which is what I said when I came back from the Baltic States in late December.  Although there was something nice about the snow coming down and stirring memories of Russia, a place I’ve not been to in 4 years now.  My only regret is I didn’t go to see the Mother Motherland statue, which I completely forgot was there, but I’d probably have frozen to death if I’d tried.  Next time, perhaps.


The Rizla between Russians and Ukrainians

Anyone would think the Soviet Union never went away:

The director of Moscow’s Library of Ukrainian Literature has gone on trial charged with inciting ethnic hatred against Russians.

Natalia Sharina is accused of disseminating banned literature classed as extremist.

First the prosecutor cited a long list of Ukrainian publications that are either prohibited or which she said experts had deemed “degrading” to Russians.

Russia bans books?  I confess, I didn’t know that.  I could well imagine that publishing something the government doesn’t like would mean you’d be investigated for tax irregularities or some heavies would duff you up a bit in entrance lobby of your building, but I didn’t know that Russia formally banned books.

And what are publications deemed degrading to Russians?  There are whole internet memes devoted to degrading Russians, albeit Russians who live in provincial villages and have no political clout whatsoever.  If the regime is hiring experts to ferret out literature which might be degrading to Russians then it’s not very sure of itself.

It is well known that civil wars are fought with more bitterness and brutality than those between different peoples, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine looks to me far more like the former.  To an outsider who has some clue about Russians and Ukrainians, I am somewhat baffled as to what differences they’re fighting over.

Without even trying I can name six people I knew in Sakhalin whose surname ended with the Ukrainian -enko.  If I rummaged through my memory banks I could come up with another six.  Ukraine and Russia were so intertwined in the Soviet era and before that people would move from one to the other interchangeably.  The cultures were so similar that one could move to the other and nobody would know you were an outsider.  Nikita Khrushchev passed himself off as a Ukrainian for years, even though he was Russian.  By contrast, Stalin and Beria remained stubbornly Georgian and Mikoyan Armenian.  I would bet that if you were to ask a Russian whether they had a Ukrainian grandparent, relative, or a relative living in Ukraine most of them would say yes.  Okay, maybe not most, but a lot.  The cultural and physical border between the two was all but non-existent for years.

What about the language?  Ukrainian is indeed different from Russian.

However, in September I met a Ukrainian lady from Zaporizhia who was visiting Paris.  I asked her what her native language was, i.e. what language she spoke with her parents.  She told me it was Russian.  I then assumed that she was an ethnic Russian.  No, she said, I’m Ukrainian.  Both parents are Ukrainian, three out of four grandparents are Ukrainian, and the fourth Polish.  She can speak Ukrainian perfectly, but speaks Russian at home to her Ukrainian parents.  Go figure.

Apparently, for some, the differences are stark enough that Ukrainian librarians are facing jail for publishing banned books which say mean things about Russians.  Me, I think it’s all bullshit.

(Actually, I know what they’re fighting over.  But the ethnic and cultural differences are being exaggerated in ridiculous fashion.)


Power cuts in Crimea

I’m surprised this didn’t happen earlier:

Three-quarters of Crimea’s population remain without power after four electricity pylons were blown up.

Gas-powered generators have been providing power to major cities. A state of emergency has been declared.

The pylons brought electricity from Ukraine. Engineers were reportedly denied access to the site by Ukrainian activists.

Crimea was annexed by Russia last year, but the Ukrainian authorities have continued to supply power to the area.

It spoke volumes of Ukrainian incompetence, real fears of an all-out invasion by Russia, or a combination of the two that Russia was able to take the Crimean peninsula so easily.  The Crimea is not accessible from Russia by road, and is dependent on Ukraine for both its electricity and water supplies.  Had Russia gone up against a different adversary, one would have expected to see both cut mere hours after the Russian takeover, and at the very least in the middle of the referendum which saw the population supposedly vote to become part of Russia.  I can only suppose that the Ukrainian authorities refrained from doing so because they feared it would be seized by Russia as an act of war and provide them with a handy excuse to mount a full-on invasion, helping themselves to more territory.

But it did occur to me at the time that the Ukrainians would simply not bother to maintain the infrastructure serving the Crimea.  They have no obligation to, I would have thought: presumably “independence” does not leave one dependent on the former power for vital services like water and electricity?  At some point, they’re going to have to get this stuff provided by Russia, but I suspect they’re going to be waiting a while.  There is little sign that the overpriced bridge they had planned will be realised any time soon, but they’ve put in place a temporary one which should at least alleviate some of the issues they’ve had with the ferries in the past.  So although I expected the water and electricity supplies to deteriorate, it hadn’t occurred to me that some pissed-off Ukrainians might decide to blow up some power lines and leave the Crimea in darkness.  This is clearly not state-sanctioned, and so there isn’t much Russia can do about it other than piss and moan.  But the Ukrainian activists seem to have stumbled upon a way of upsetting the Crimeans and the Russians, and it surprises me now that this didn’t happen a year ago.  I expect we’ll see more disruption to the electricity and water supplies in the future, especially if Russia starts cutting the gas off again.


An Interesting Choice of Leaders

Alex K. has posted a graphic account of the treatment of a woman suspected of being pro-Ukrainian in the city of Donetsk recently.

I made a comment under the post which I’ve decided to turn into a post of my own, because I am genuinely baffled here.  From what I have seen thus far, and the account above can only serve to reinforce this view, the separatists in east Ukraine are a bunch of violent, armed thugs accountable to nobody (anybody remember MH17?) who have taken it upon themselves to dish out arbitrary punishments to anyone suspected of being against them, operating with impunity and the full support of the Russian government.  And these people claim to represent the ethnic Russians who wish to secede from Kiev’s rule.

Is this seriously what Ukraine’s Russians want, these guys in charge?  I can understand why the thugs want it, but where are the middle classes, the educated Russians, in all this?  Do they honestly believe these roaming gangs of bandits, looking like extras from Mad Max 2, have their best interests in mind?  Or are they as horrified by what is going on as everyone else, but too scared to speak out?

I know a lot will turn a blind eye to the separatists’ methods because they will genuinely see the Ukrainian government as bringing war to their neighbourhoods, but I find it hard to believe that all ethnic Russians will apportion the blame in this manner.  And there is not enough of an ethnic, religious, historical, or cultural divide to generate the hatred that would cause thousands of educated, otherwise decent people to support marauding bands of armed thugs shooting their erstwhile friends and neighbours.

I find the whole thing bewildering.  Personally I think the idea of Scottish independence as presented is laughable (but good luck to them, if that’s what they want), but at least they have leaders who appear to be politicians.  What the east Ukrainians are doing is the equivalent of the Scottish independence movement being led by armed gangs of Glasgow football hooligans on a giant rampage.  Was Kievan rule really so bad that the Ukraine’s Russians see this as an improvement?

The closest parallel I can think of is the Catholics/Republicans in Northern Ireland.  Their independence movement was to a large extent led by murderous thugs (albeit better presented than Ukraine’s equivalents), and their lower ranks enjoyed beating the shit out of anyone they suspected of disloyalty along with running protection rackets and other criminal enterprises.  Yet despite their thuggish violence they still enjoyed the support of much of the ordinary Catholic population.

So perhaps it is the same with Ukraine’s Russians, and they are hopeful that these men will secure them a place in the Russian Federation after which Moscow will take over and the local headcases and Ossetian mercenaries will quietly pack up and go home.  But I’m interested to know where are the educated, semi-respectable (at least on camera) leaders of the separatist movement, the Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness?  Waiting in the wings in Russia?  Who knows?

But for now, I guess they’re happy with a bunch of shitfaced hooligans who 6 months ago were drinking beer in the local park at 10am.


The Russian Effect on Crimea

Thanks to Michael Jennings for forwarding me this story:

A man died and a woman ended up in a hospital in separate incidents in the line for the ferry between the Krasnodar region and the recently annexed Crimea over the weekend, local news website Kerch.FM reported.

The woman sustained a head injury Saturday after being attacked by other passengers for allegedly attempting to jump the line for the ferry back to the Krasnodar region, the website reported. In recent days, people have spent up to 40 hours in the line for the ferry service. Another man died from a heart attack after spending hours waiting to board a ferry to Crimea.

After border control was imposed between Crimea and Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula last March, most Russian tourists and visitors to the popular summer tourist destination have started taking the ferry there instead of driving through conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. There is no border control for the ferry service.

Thousands of car passengers have been waiting in line for days to board ferries traveling in both directions. According to the website of the local transportation authority, the ferries transported 3,897 cars Saturday, of which 1,689 were traveling in the direction of Crimea.

In any normal country, the ferry operators would have anticipated the increased demand and brought in additional vessels, or switched to vessels of a higher capacity.  But in Russia, either the operators don’t give a shit or any attempt to procure additional vessels would get bogged down in a quagmire of bureaucracy and graft.

Following the annexation of Crimea, which is not connected by land to Russia, President Vladimir Putin pledged to build a bridge to link the peninsula with the rest of the country. In June the state-run road construction and maintenance company Avtodor estimated the cost of the 19-kilometer bridge at up to 376.5 billion rubles ($10.4 billion) and said it would take at least four years to build.

At 19km this bridge is roughly the same length as the Incheon Bridge in Korea.  According to the irrefutable Wikipedia, this cost about $2.7bn – double the projected cost – when it was completed in 2009.  At $10bn this bridge to the Crimea is already looking way overpriced, and given it looks as though they’re going to pass on a competitive bidding process in favour of handing the job straight to a mate in a state-run company, we can expect this figure to double or triple.  In fact, it looks to me like a continuation of the Sochi Olympic scam, which saw billions of dollars transferred from the state coffers into the pockets of favoured individuals via opaque construction contracts.  Those regions of Russia which are seeing earmarked funds diverted to Crimea might not be too impressed.

Two million visitors had traveled to Crimea this year as of Aug. 11, according to the region’s Tourism and Resorts Ministry. The government agency predicted the figure would reach 3 million by year-end. Last year 5.9 million tourists visited Crimea, according to the same agency.

I wonder how many of those 2m visitors were genuine tourists, and not merely servicemen, security personnel, and government bureaucrats arriving to take over the running of the place?  And of those genuine tourists, I wonder how many of them went there having been strong-armed into going by their employer:

As we talk, I gradually sense this young couple may be here not entirely through their own choice.

Word on the beach is that there is a new type of Russian tourist in Crimea. Since the crisis erupted in Ukraine, up to four million Russians who work for the state have been effectively banned from leaving the country – it’s rumoured that the government views holidays abroad as a security risk in their case. Since Sergei is an Interior Ministry official, I ask if he can still go holiday wherever he likes.

“If you are talking about money then yes,” he says. “But… we have certain restrictions connected to my job. So you see if we have to come here, we’re very happy with that too.” When I ask if he is forbidden to travel he says nothing and finally says that it’s “not recommended”.

But would you be punished for a holiday abroad, I persist? Another long pause. “I haven’t tried it,” he laughs.

Deadly queues for ferries, a wildly overpriced bridge, and a gaggle of tourists there under duress.  This annexation has gotten off to a flying start.


Crimea’s Water

Assuming the BBC hasn’t made a hash of it by making its usual basic factual errors, this is a fairly interesting article:

Russian officials say a water shortage in Crimea is threatening to become acute as Ukraine has reduced the supply via a key canal.

The North Crimea Canal delivers water to Crimea from the River Dnieper, in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. The canal accounts for 80% of Crimea’s water.

_74442504_crimea_water_supply_624map2One or two of my regular readers had mentioned Crimea’s water supply as being critical earlier, and I’m surprised it’s not being talked about more.  I’m also surprised that Ukraine hasn’t cut the supply off altogether, or at least threatened to:

The canal authorities in Ukraine say Crimea has accumulated a huge debt for water supplied last year. The dispute is aggravated by the breakdown in relations between Kiev and Moscow.

Perhaps the government in Kiev are using this as leverage to prevent the Russians cutting off the gas supplies, as they are threatening to do?  Turn off the gas, and the Crimea goes thirsty.  In this regard, Ukraine has the seasons on its side:

Crimea’s harvest of grapes, rice, maize and soya will be ruined if it does not get more water soon, officials say.

The current water shortage is threatening 120,000 hectares (296,000 acres) of Crimea’s crops, which rely on irrigation, Russian Agriculture Minister Nikolai Fedorov said.

A ruined harvest across that area would mean losses of up to 5bn roubles (£83m; $140m), he told the Gazeta.ru news website.

Although I have an inkling that the long-term prospects of Crimea’s farmers are not going to be that rosy anyway: their main local market will soon be harder to reach:

Russia says the Crimea-Ukraine border is now officially a state border.

The Russian government plans to establish permanent checkpoints there, as well as new rules for entering or leaving Crimea, Ria Novosti news agency reports.

With all the inefficiency, bureaucracy, and corruption that accompanies a Russian-controlled border anywhere, this cannot be good for those who previously would have driven their produce straight to Kiev overnight.  It has now become a lot harder to reach a major population centre, of which there are none in the Crimea itself.

Of course, I think there are valid reasons why Ukraine didn’t retaliate by switching off the water to the Crimea.  It might well have been used by Putin as an excuse for a full-scale invasion, or to switch the gas off.  But more a more likely explanation is that the government in Kiev is incapable of making bold decisions and/or doesn’t want to be seen by the west to be deliberately inflicting hardship on a civilian population, some of which still consider themselves Ukrainian.  Or if they’re really smart, they’ll realise that a gradual lack of funding and effort in maintaining and operating the canal system to the Crimea will put the squeeze on the Russians anyway:

A BBC reporter in Crimea recently said the water supply was one of the chief concerns of local people, ahead of the controversial March referendum on joining Russia.

To deal with the shortage, new wells could be dug or water could be brought in from Russia, but such options are expensive, officials warn.

Indeed.  As I said before, I think the annexation of Crimea could turn out to be a very expensive welfare project for Russia, with little tangible benefit.

But there’s a more important point to be made here.  I’ve always thought that Putin was a master at playing a strong hand very badly; his country could have been much richer and interacted more favourably with the rest of the world had he left his ego, and those of the electorate, at the door.  But on this occasion it’s actually the opposite: he’s played a weak hand very well, albeit against an opposition who is hapless (Obama) and compromised (Germany).  The problem is that he doesn’t realise his hand was weak, he probably thinks – along with most Russians – that he has pulled off a military coup which puts him up there with Napolean and Spartacus in the ranks of military geniuses.  Now how many military geniuses of yore would have annexed a peninsula whose water supply lies in the hands of the enemy?  Exactly.  I’d not be surprised if Putin and his army had no idea where Crimea’s water supply came from until the annexation was complete and the Crimean “leader” was banging at the Kremlin door asking for a few billion roubles worth of infrastructure.

But it’s the non-response from the west that is most dangerous, because it will have convinced Putin that his hand is much stronger than it is, that he actually is some kind of Machiavellian genius, and that the west will continue to grumble but otherwise do nothing.  In such circumstances the potential for a miscaculation is enormous, and should this whole situation escalate it will likely be because Putin crosses a line in eastern Ukraine that nobody told him was there.  Putin’s not a complete idiot, he just thinks he’s smarter than he is, but leaving him to judge for himself exactly how far he can go before the west is compelled to intervene is a very dangerous game indeed.  Both sides could end up dragged into a nasty confrontation over an incident which would never have taken place had the Russians known what the stakes were.  At the moment, the Russians don’t know the stakes, and we’re leaving them to guess.  This is stupidly and unnecessarily dangerous.

As a final thought, I’ll say on here what I said in the comments of another blog.  Incredible though it is to believe, the current crop of western politicians have – via Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and others – managed to make George W. Bush look like one of the finest statesmen of his generation.  This alone is quite some achievement.


Kerch Strait Bridge

Well there I was assuming that there was a bridge between Russia and the Crimea all this time, when I discover that there is nothing of the sort!  Although one has been planned for some time, apparently a slow ferry is all that connects Crimea to the country that just annexed it.  Some thoughts:

1) How the hell did Ukraine manage to let Russia put troops into Crimea when there is no bridge?  Such piss-poor defending makes them almost deserve to lose a province or two.

2) If for whatever reason there is no free-flow of people and goods between Ukraine and Russian-controlled Crimea, how pissed off is the population going to be relying on crappy old ferries to get off their peninsular peninsula?

3) How long do you think we’ll be waiting for the bridge to be built?  Yes, I know Putin promised he would accelerate its construction the day the Crimean accession was signed, but in Russia large state projects have a habit of being delivered late, poorly, and way over budget.

Once the dust has settled it’ll be interesting to see what life is like for those Russians stranded in Crimea.  I wonder if Putin would recognise any future referendum to see them leave?