Who rules the waves? In my part of Scotland it is far from clear | IanJack
Jhe war in Ukraine has once again occupied the Firth of Clyde. We had neighbors – he died, she moved away – who remembered the sight of their house when it was filled with ships during the Second World War: when big liners like the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth arrived, as my neighbors used to say, “as regular as clockwork”, filled with troops and supplies en route to the landing beaches from North American ports.
There is nothing as important as that now. What happens most often is the monotonous arrival or departure of a tanker. Two or three tugs from Greenock will round the promontory and take up position in the channel; a large tanker will move slowly into view from the lower estuary; the tugs will be installed at the front, at the rear and at the height of the tanker; together the small convoy will cross Rothesay Bay towards the NATO pier in Loch Striven. There, tanks immersed in the green hillside store oil. Merchant ships flying flags of convenience bring the oil; navy tankers in various shades of warship gray take her, presumably to NATO fleets training in the North Atlantic.
At the end of last month, a particularly large ship came and went from the pier. I identified it from an online shipping movement site. It was the USNS Patuxent, 31,200 deadweight tons, an American “replenishment tanker” that could, like a giant sow, refuel two warships, one lying on each side, at the rate of 3, 6 million liters of diesel per hour. I sent a photo to a friend, and she wondered what would happen if she posted it on Instagram: what would be the view of the authorities, given the war in Ukraine? And I replied that the authorities – the Ministry of Defence, MI5 or whoever – would be completely relaxed. A week or two earlier, the Royal Navy itself posted video of one of its vast new carriers in the narrow waters of Loch Long, where it had gone to restock its arsenal from the Glen Douglas ammunition depot. . The idea, presumably, was to publicize British armed might.
Other wars, notably the Cold War, have produced different behaviors. In the 1940s, when miniature submarines and bouncing bombs were tested in Loch Striven, security guards visited the few people who lived on its shores to make sure their curtains were drawn. From the 1950s through the 1980s, aerial photographs that included the Clyde’s military infrastructure were marked “secret” or “restricted” and kept away from the public. Even 10 years ago, a car thought to be trailing suspiciously on the roads near the Gare Loch nuclear submarine base (or its nuclear warhead installation facility in Loch Long ) could be followed for a while, if only to give observers some practice in watching. It probably still happens. Even now, ship tracking sites will record the movement of everything from a shrimp dredge to a supertanker, but not a Trident submarine.
In general, much more powerful and less obvious forms of surveillance have replaced the old restrictions and detective techniques. Meanwhile, the enemy, the potential target of the weaponry that secrecy exists to protect, has become harder to define and describe. Is it just Vladimir Putin and the clique around him? Is it the Russian state? Is it the majority of people who live there? Does this include the music of Tchaikovsky or the Russian tennis players shunned by Wimbledon? Should the government’s new distaste for the oligarchs extend to all, as ruthless plunderers of the Soviet people’s property, or are some oligarchs better than others?
I am shocked by my own ignorance. The week the Patuxent arrived in Loch Striven, local newspaper Argyll ran a story about an oligarch’s superyacht that ran aground in the Norwegian port of Narvik because dockers refused to refuel it. According to the newspaper, the yacht, the Ragnar, is believed to be owned by Russian businessman Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, “a former KGB comrade of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin”, although he is still absent from the European and British lists of sanctioned oligarchs. , as well as the US’s much longer list of potentially sanctionable individuals.
His home in Monaco is somewhere outside the central circulation area of the Dunoon Observer and the Argyllshire Standard. What explains the newspaper’s interest in him is his son Evgeny’s purchase in 2017 of a country property 10 miles from Dunoon. The estate, Knockdow, covers 250 acres of the Cowal Peninsula and includes two lakes, two 2,000 foot hills, a pond, pasture, forest and an 18th century mansion, Knockdow House, which has 12 bedrooms, six bathrooms main reception areas and as its centerpiece a “glorious domed cupola” (Country Life) supported by Ionic columns. For two centuries it was one of the homes of the local gentry, the Lamonts, who, like many prosperous families in the west of Scotland, derived at least part of their fortune from the sugar cane plantations exploited by slaves in the Caribbean. Evgeny, whose job is hard to find but whose interests are yachting and re-enacting historic battles, reportedly paid £4million for it. His father is thought to be worth at least a hundred times that amount, after a short post-KGB career as the general manager of Norilsk Nickel. You could say that the riches of the land, harvested cheaply and sometimes brutally from abroad, have kept the place alive from the start.
I can see the estate from our window, although the house itself is hidden behind a slope. It’s just three miles across the water at the start of Loch Striven, but getting there by any means of transport other than a small boat means a ferry crossing and a 40-mile journey: the Clyde Estuary has a complicated geography. For this reason, I’ve only been there once and never bothered to find out. Maybe it was the moon – that’s what I mean by ignorance. Last month, looking at a map of the estate, I saw that it circled the NATO pier and its oil tanks on three landward sides. In other words, the big gray ships come and go from a small square of MoD land that sits inside 250 acres purchased by Evgeny Strzhalkovsky from funds that may well have been provided by his father.
Until recently, this could have served as an advertisement for globalization – old enemies living together, outbreaks of peace. Today, it looks like the outcome of a puzzling historical episode. Welcome, oligarchs! No questions will be asked.