Sunday, August 07, 2005

A great example of true international co-operation

It is heartening to know that there is some good news from Russia. Yesterday, while the sub was still entangled and there was fear for the lives of its seven-strong crew, we were also treated in the Financial Times [subscription required] to a story and picture of masked special force commandos (OMON) raiding dachas not far from Moscow, breaking down doors, windows and anything else that came their way and beating up owners in an effort to “enforce the law”.

It seems that the dachas, built more than ten years ago, were declared to be “too near the water” in 1996 and had to be vacated and demolished. The legal battle has gone on since then, with a high court due to pronounce at the end of the month on the owners’ appeal against a local court’s ruling. Meanwhile, the inspectorate of natural resources decided to take action – after all, what on earth does a legal decision matter – and sent in the commandos and paratroopers. Well, I guess, it is easier to beat up ordinary folk on holiday than grappling with Chechnya.

The dachniki do not believe the story of natural resources. They think that the reason for the law and its action is that a former banker and present friend of Putin’s siloviki, Sergei Veremeyenko, has expressed an interest in acquiring the land and building a golf course and a yacht club.

Such matters will go on and multiply in Russia. But today the news is that the trapped sub has been released and the entire crew rescued.

It is heartening to know that President Putin and his various minions learnt some lessons from the Kursk catastrophe of 2000, when international help was asked for too late and the entire crew perished while the Russians tried inadequate rescue methods.

This time, there was an immediate request for help and an immediate response. The British and the Americans organized a joint operation that involved American and British planes, British rescue equipment and crews from both navies. The Japanese navy also steamed to the rescue.

An American naval doctor examined the crew as soon as they came out of the sub.

A mini-tsunami effort was how an American friend has described it to me and, indeed, it was with one significant difference: Britain played a large part. It seems that in the aftermath of the tsunami, supplies and equipment were quickly assembled in Britain but the MoD was told by the Treasury that no extra money would be available for transportation.

The MoD, therefore, could not afford to send in a rescue mission, having bankrupted itself with the sort of projects my colleague has been unearthing in his series of postings.

In the meantime, in Russia reactions have been various. This has not been a traumatic experience like the Kursk catastrophe. Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, who had gone to Kamchatka to take charge of the operations (though what he, with a background in the security services could have done is rather mysterious) made an admirably generous statement:
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our sailors... and all those who extended us the hand of friendship. In the first place, of course, this means the English people and Great Britain's navy, and also the United States navy and Japan's navy.”
Just to show that old habits die hard, the inevitable former Russian Black Sea fleet commander, Admiral Eduard Baltin, took the opportunity to criticize the fact that foreign navies were allowed in to an area that was full of Russian military secrets.

This was dismissed by the commander of the Pacific fleet, Admiral Viktor Fyodorov, who pointed out in a surprising departure from normal Russian military theory that the main goal was to save the crew.
“Moreover, such joint operations bring naval sailors closer together, in this case Russian, U.S., British and Japanese sailors.”
There have been some political threats of a possible fall-out for the government but it seems unlikely that Putin, who survived the Kursk saga, despite the national trauma, should be harmed by a story that had a happy ending.

It is, of course, true that questions have to be raised about the Russian navy and its ability to deal with problems. In another departure from normality, Gennadiy Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, made quite a sensible statement:
“It is completely incomprehensible why the British have the necessary technology, but we don't. If we can't make effective rescue equipment ourselves, we need to buy it abroad.”
And now, I expect all our readers are asking the obvious question: what of the EU and its humanitarian rapid reaction forces? Whatever happened to them? Well, of course, they don’t exist and are not likely to be functional before 2020, though we are told it will be 2010 with an ever decreasing air of certainty.

Possibly just as well. Can anyone imagine how many committee meetings, position papers, informal and formal studies would have been required before a rescue operation could be mounted? Still, how soon before we hear mutterings from Brussels that this is the sort of occasion that shows how important it is to have a single European defence identity?

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