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Raise that Jolly Roger!

          Arrr! Matey! At long last I have a reason to write about Pirates! Not only that, but I can blather on about Russia, too– it’s a match made, well, on a gangplank, really. The unpredictability of both parties is such that whatever I write is bound to be proven ludicrously off the mark in moments. Well, I’ve been wrong before, so here goes: the stage is set with Russian warships steaming full speed ahead across the briny deeps, en-route to the Gulf of Aden, where the Yanks are caught in standoff with pirates who have hijacked a Ukrainian ship. I can just see (through my magic telescope, held to the eye which hasn’t got a patch on it, and after I’ve seen what I need to, I collapse the telescope resolutely, and order someone around), anyway I see a man standing on the deck of one of the ships singing “I am the very model of a modern major general…” in Pirates of Penzance style. But here come the Russians! Will they shout “Avast ye Scurvy Knaves!” or whatever that is in Russian when they arrive on the scene? The suspense is killing me.

          As you know, Somalia has been ungoverned since 1991. For a while there warlords managed to provide a modicum of security, and then the Union of Islamic Courts stepped in and provided an additional modicum. After that, a group calling itself a government (or, actually, they called themselves a ‘provisional’ government, but we all know what happens when provisional governments get their hot little hands on power…), together with the Ethiopian Army kicked the Islamists, warlords and their riff-raff out, moved in and the modicums of order dissolved into none. Mogadishu, once the most dangerous place on Earth, then became even more dangerous. Since the Islamists, warlords and riff-raff lost the income they had while in power from providing protection to businesses, they turned their attention to the high seas, where they could commandeer ships and haul in millions; not in booty, but in ransoms.

          It’s not like there’s no precedent for it; back in the 18th century (oh, no, not another history lesson? What happened to the musical?) Arabs from on the Barbary Coast regularly seized American and European ships and held them for tribute, payment or plunder.  Tripoli’s ambassador to Britain at the time explained to the Yanks that they saw it as their right and duty as faithful Muslims to plunder (“plunder.” Just ponder that nifty little verb for a moment. How often, really, does one get to use it? I mean outside the milieu of screenwriting for porn? I’m having a lot of fun here, just so you know.) and enslave the unfaithful.  For a while tributes were paid for safe passage, until the French took Algiers in 1830 and put a stop to it all.  Where are the French when you need them nowadays?

          Today, the pirate-infested waters lie off the horn of Africa, plaguing ships headed for the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and the pirates in question, as I said, tend toward the Somalian persuasion, though they are sometimes joined by Yemenis from across the Gulf along with a smattering of other nationals who have nothing better to do. This time they took the Ukrainian ship Faina, which was carrying 33 Russian tanks, along with anti-aircraft guns, grenade launchers and ammunition, destined for Southern Sudan (oh, you can be sure there’s another story there..). Relatives of the Ukrainian crew report that they were told that the ship was headed for Syria, carrying cars. Presumably this is because the Kenyan-owned cargo was secret, and possibly illegal.

          Obviously, no one knows for sure, but this year it’s estimated that some $100m has been paid in ransom to pirates, while we do know for sure that the United Nations Development Program has a budget of $14m for Somalia. While 14 million sounds small compared to 100 million, the Somalis still want their food aid to get through, preferably without the need of escorts by warships, and the surveillance, fly-overs and other protection provided so far by the US along with a coalition based in Bahrain of (presumably willing, but who can say in this day and age?) some 16 other countries. So, they asked Russia. Somalian Ambassador to Russia Mohammed Handule promised Russia they’d recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia if the Russians could subdue the pirates somehow. They’ve been invited to pursue them on land and at sea. It’ll be a hoot to see what happens when the Russkies get there, since the US warships are currently boxing the pirated ship in, sort of babysitting it while negotiations dither on. Russia has a different approach to dealing with standoffs – remember Beslan? [By the way, Beslan, where the standoff at the school wound up killing just about everyone is located where? ….. North Ossetia. That’s where.] Of course, having Somalia, the most failed of all the failed states ever, recognize Abkhazia and S. Ossetia would be nice for the Russians, but there is also the fact that the Faina is Ukrainian, and the cargo is all Russian-made to consider. The implications are myriad.

          Meanwhile, the negotiations proceed. The pirates originally asked for $35m, and when the warships arrived, they knocked it down to $20m. Then they found out what the cargo was, and realized that in order to off-load it and sell the tanks, anyway, they’d have to dock somewhere, which is, as it turns out, rather awkward if you happen to be a pirate. So the last I heard is that they’re down to $5m. The pirates don’t seem to be at all intimidated by being boxed in by US warships, but my guess is that when trigger-happy Igor arrives, all that will change. Don’t forget that the cargo, whatever its worth, has the capacity to blow every last one of ‘em out of the water. Stay tuned.

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