Sleight of Hand

We all know the trick. The magician gets you to look at his hand, the coin disappears only to reappear later somewhere you least expect it.

For days we agonised over the contents of the ‘humanitarian’ convey about to enter the Ukraine. All our eyes were on it, guns or food?  Guns or food?  And then the master craftsman, the genius of deception, moves (or didn’t) his forces into the very south of the Ukraine, opening another front in this ever more volatile war.

Putin is a bit of a genius. One has to admire his ability to deceive, to distract, and now to deploy.  For months he has peppered special forces into the Ukraine, and the west has been pretty silent.  Initially it was a big gamble, Putin calculated that the West, especially America, would be pretty silent.

Why would he think this?  Well, president Bashar-al-assad managed to get away with murder (literally) this time last year.  Despite talks of ‘a line in the sand’, nothing of consequence really happened.  Bashar-al-Assad is still in power, no-one has ever stood trial for the chemical attack outside Damascus last year.

For months now Putin has been behind a steady stream of Russian troops and equipment into the Ukraine.  A friend of mine is originally from one of the areas currently in the middle of the fighting.  His mother still lives there, and provides some very interesting information.

They live about 30 KM from the Russian border, and at about 4 AM many mornings the tanks and equipment begin to pass.  Local people do not know any of the pro-Russian fighters. Recently, a trolleybus was run over by a tank.  Another day she saw a bus swerve into a bush so as to avoid an armoured column.  And the tanks in that column were all freshly painted.

At this stage it’s hard to guess what Putin’s end game is.  But it is certain that he’s not going to back down.  Hard to believe, but for the first time in a long time, a Russian/Soviet leader has uttered the threat of nuclear weapons.

God help us all.

In the meantime the master-illusionist has his home audience dazzled and eating out of his hand.  One of the big newspapers in Russia is Pravda.  Look at it’s homepage and you will see articles such as ‘Ukraine prepares to steal Russian Gas Legally’,USA or United Totalitarian Police States‘, or (cruelly) ‘James Foley Execution Video Hoax?’

And what will the West do to oppose him?  Against a fast-moving army, our politicians spend days talking about sanctions.  More needs to be done, lest more people die as pawns in his game.

<Note: Pravda accessed online 30/08/2014>

Russia vows no Invasion?

Apparently the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov has promised that Russia has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine.


I’d be inclined to take that one with a grain of salt.  You see, Mr. Lavrov may be speaking English, but it’s not as we know it.

When the first signs of troops started spreading around strategic installations in the Crimea they were wearing no insignia.  Moscow went as far as to deny its having any troops in the Crimea (apart from those on Russian bases there).

Those troops were, helpfully, a ‘local militia’ who just happened to be very organised, disciplined and pro-Russian.

Russia then offered all help to the Crimea as the Russian ethnic group there was under attack.  Next came the political maneuverings, create a new parliament while the militia guards it, elect a new president, and vote for a referendum to take place 10 days later.  10 days.

Only after the referendum was passed by the incredible majority of 95.6% (Wiki here), did the Russian parliament ratify the result and move in.  By this time, according to Russian Law, the Crimea was Russian territory.

So, you see, Russia never invaded the Crimea.  It was, by their logic, all voluntary, all above board.

So, when Mr. Lavrov says Russia has no intention of invading, I’d be inclined to take that one with a pinch of salt.

Trouble at the Russian Airport

Wayy back I used to work in Russia in a city called Novosibirsk.  To get into, and out of, Russia, you need to have the correct paperwork. Visas etc.

So, my first time in Russia I didn’t get to travel home for about 10 months.  My visa was up and I had to go home for a while to get a new visa.  Flying at the time was a bit different, this was pre- 9-11, so you could take all kinds of things on-board.  I had a guitar tucked in by the crew quarters, and I was flying Aeroflot.  The service was – nice.  Proper cutlery with the meal, and after the meal an air steward came through with steamed towels to refresh oneself.

And then we landed in Sheremetevo.  If you ever get the chance to visit it – don’t.  Terminal 2 is chaos, and Terminal 1 (local flights) is worse.  There’s minimal sinage in English, there is no queueing system (you just push into the crowd and hope you don’t get your pockets picked). Terminal 1 is a relic of the 50s.  Cramped, and full of bad-tempered officials.  Terminal 2 was probably supposed to be a tribute to the industry of the Soviet Union.  The ceiling consists of thousands of brass cylinders each containing a lightbulb.  The effect is grim, cold and dark.  Of course T2 also contains the bad-tempered officials.  The trip from Terminal 1 to T2 is about 30 minutes by cranky old bus, and then you try to check in.  That’s when the trouble began.

Turned out that I didn’t have the correct exit visa stamped into my passport.  “what can I do?” <non smiley guy shrugs shoulders>.  It turned out that I could go up to the second floor and pick up a phone just to the left of the escalator.  That I did and a grey suited guy came out, looked at the passport and said I could have the visa for US$200.  I probably started sweating at this point.  I had (barely) the cash, luckily I had been working for an American company and they paid well enough.  (by the way US$200 was probably 30 weeks wages for a Russian teacher at the time). But the anonymous man (no ID, no uniform) didn’t inspire confidence.

I didn’t really have too much of a choice, so I coughed up and got my passport. Without any fuss he disappeared and returned with the correct visa.

A year later I was back in my favourite airport <ahem>, and came across two Irish girls very upset.  Turns out that they had been travelling to Belarus, and had left the passport control area.  So they were now on Russian soil without the correct visas, and couldn’t find out what to do.  This time I didn’t have the money for 2 sets of bribes.  I phoned the Irish embassy and one of the officials came out and paid for the girls exit visas.  By the way, this is one reason why it’s good to know where the embassy is in whatever country you’re visiting.

A happy ending for them, but you have to wonder how many people this happens to in just one airport in Russia.

It’s just funny how something that happened 15 years ago can still be so clear in the memory.