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Russians in the Mediterranean Sea and Her Majesty’s Ambassador at the North Pole

Introducing a column by James Hansen, former diplomat in the US Foreign Service, and later newspaper correspondent from Italy. Here, he reports about Moscow's soon to come true imperial dreams in the Mediterranean Sea, and the appointment of a British ambassador to the North Pole. (Leggi in italiano)

The Russian Mediterranean — The perennial Russian effort to obtain a direct outlet to a “warm sea”—that is, ice-free in winter—is one of the best known cliches of geopolitics and the source of two centuries of armed grumbling with the other ex-Empire, that of Britain. Whether a Czar, a First Secretary of the Communist Party or Vladimir Putin governs the country, the imperative is always the same.

That imperial dream is now one step closer. Russia and Cyprus (the Greek half) have reached an agreement that calls for the establishment on the island of military bases to supply and maintain Russian war ships operating in the Mediterranean. It was a bargain: Russia will delay for five year the repayment of a €2.5 billion debt that the Greek Cypriot Government can’t cover at the moment in any case.

A state-sponsored Russian news organization, Sputnik News, has perhaps given the clearest interpretation of all this by titling “Russia signs military agreement with EU member state”—because Cyprus is in fact a full member of the European Union.  The official Voice of Russia took a more warlike tone: “Russia pushes back against Nato in the Mediterranean.”

Brussels instead preferred to listen to the tamer version offered by the Cypriot Foreign Minister, Ioannis Kasoulides, who admitted that, well, yes, the agreement did call for supplying parts and the maintenance of weapons systems—but that, rather than speak of “bases”, it would better to term these “centers of a humanitarian nature, intended to shelter eventual Russian refugees in the event of war.”

The military effects are limited.  The Navy is by far the weakest of the Russian armed forces. The move will though irritate the British, who have two bases of their own on the island within a handful of miles. Nor will the Turks be amused—and half of Cyprus is Turkish. Historical enemies of Russia, they will not be pleased to find new and potentially hostile military installations just 40 miles off their southern coast.

The agreement will though allow the world’s most embarrassing aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to operate more comfortably in the calm waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. The ship—launched in 1985 and the only Russian carrier—has been deployed only four times in the last thirty years because of its unfortunate tendency to, well, break down. It never leaves port without the company to two tugs able to haul it home if the need arises. There are also interesting problems with the water distribution aboard—to the point where the ship’s 1,900 crew members must share just 25 restrooms – “heads” in sailor talk.

 

Ambassador to the Eternal Ice — Diplomats who disappoint their superiors have always risked seeing their careers “put in the freezer” or assignment to particularly unpleasant destinations. Now they may have the possibility of undergoing both punishments simultaneously. Britain’s House of Lords has invited the country’s Foreign Office to create the new role of Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the North Pole.

The Arctic has no government to which an embassy can be accredited and it is not clear where the new mission will be based. Britain’s diplomats however are not the only ones keeping an eye on the polar ice cap, which it is widely believed may offer interesting possibilities for economic exploitation. France, Japan, Poland and Singapore have all already named their own ambassadors to the Eternal Ice.

 

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