Vlad ‘Morgan’ Putin can now list piracy on the high seas in his rapidly swelling CV.
However, unlike most of his predecessors in this time-honoured trade, the Botox Boy wasn’t after a pecuniary gain.
There’s no need for buccaneering exploits: he can get all the loot he needs by stealing nationally and laundering globally.
So, what’s he up to? First, the facts.
On Sunday, Russian ships shot up, rammed, boarded and seized three Ukrainian vessels sailing through the Kerch Strait from the Sea of Azov into the Black Sea.
Unlike Russia’s 2014 land grab against the Ukraine, this time Vlad’s spokesmen didn’t claim the assault was perpetrated by colliers, tractor drivers or soldiers on an R&R furlough.
There was no coy pretence that the attacking ships were trawlers fishing for mackerel. The piracy was committed by ships flying the ensigns of the Russian navy, which scores high on my scale of honesty but abysmally low on every other scale.
I realise how tactless it is to use the words ‘Russia’ and ‘international law’ in the same sentence (unless it also contains the words ‘breaks yet again’), but the inner integrity of the piece demands it.
Thus free navigation through the Kerch Strait was stipulated by the 2003 treaty signed by Vlad and the then Ukrainian president Kuchma.
According to that treaty, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait are the joint territorial waters of Russia and the Ukraine, with both naval and merchant vessels of the two countries enjoying free navigation rights.
All disputes are to be settled peacefully through consultations and negotiations. Critically, the treaty doesn’t include a unilateral cancellation clause.
Yet even before Sunday, the Russians had been harassing Ukrainian ships sailing between the major Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk. (A brief look at the map will show that the Kerch Strait is the only route available.)
Hence the Sunday seizure was indeed an act of piracy and a blatant provocation of conflict. So far President Poroshenko has responded by introducing martial law in the 10 provinces on Russia’s border and appealing to the UN for help.
But the question remains: What’s Vlad up to?
My answer to that is a resounding “I don’t know”. One possibility is that he’s playing the old trick much favoured by evil rulers: using a foreign adventure to divert the people’s attention from the country’s economic plight.
There are signs in the polls that the rapidly declining living standards, which weren’t stratospheric to begin with, have somewhat doused the Russians’ affection for Vlad. His raising the pension age beyond the average life expectancy has had an especially sobering effect.
Generally speaking, the Russians possess a historically cultivated instinct to respond to official inquiries in the way they feel the inquirer will like. And most people can’t distinguish a pollster from a government official.
That’s why Putin’s approval ratings mustn’t be taken literally – and that’s even those few that aren’t demonstrably falsified.
Yet undernourishment has a way of making people go for broke, and Putin’s rating has dropped down to some 45 per cent, from a high in the mid-80s.
It’s not so much the absolute number as the underlying tendency that must be narrowing Vlad’s eyes even more than they’re already narrowed by Botox.
Clearly the Russians need a little jolt to make them see what’s good for them – and Vlad knows how to administer such stimuli.
After all, when he first found himself in the Kremlin his approval rating wasn’t just lower than low: it was nonexistent. No one knew him not only from Adam but indeed from Eve.
Vlad’s KGB training taught him to treat such PR problems head on. A few blocks of flats mysteriously blew up together with their residents (for the solution to the mystery, I recommend the book Blowing Up Russia, whose co-author Alexander Litvinenko suffered an extreme form of literary criticism), and the Chechens were blamed.
A short, bloody war followed, Vlad rode in as the national saviour, and he was on his way to becoming a global statesman. He thus has form in using military forays to whip up popular enthusiasm.
Yet the Sunday piracy may also have a more sinister meaning. It might have been the prelude to a full-scale invasion of the Ukraine, with potentially catastrophic consequences going way beyond the two countries involved.
Vlad may feel that the time has come to test the West’s resolve with a sabre slash, rather than a pinprick. In a fine tradition going back to that Gleiwitz radio station, Vlad’s Goebbelses have already accused Poroshenko of launching a bellicose provocation (declaring martial law in preparation for a possible Russian onslaught).
And Vlad himself had the gall to complain to his old friend Angie Merkel that he was “deeply concerned” with Poroshenko’s response to that little frolic. How dare those uppity Ukies even think about defending themselves?
The likeliest scenario is that Vlad is simply testing the waters, as it were. He wants to have another look at the West’s response before risking a headlong plunge.
To their credit, both Mrs May and her Defence Secretary pulled no punches in their condemnation of Russia’s new entry into the annals of international crime.
However, with all due respect to them, it’s the US response that really matters, which behoves the self-appointed leader of the free world.
If Russia is inching towards war step by step, each subsequent step must be discouraged immediately and in no uncertain terms because otherwise at some point it’ll be too late.
The fitting response would have been for the US-led NATO to state its commitment to defending the Ukraine against Russian aggression – and to punish the act of piracy by introducing, effective immediately, much tougher sanctions and possibly even threatening to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT system.
Details may vary, but the principle shouldn’t: if the history of aggressive evil regimes has taught us anything, that juggernaut must be stopped before it gathers full speed.
However, as if to vindicate Hegel’s pronouncement that the only thing people learn from history is that they learn nothing, the US response was tepid at best.
Nikki Haley, American ambassador to the United Nations, did say that Russian piracy was an “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory” and “yet another reckless Russian escalation”. She also referred to “concerns at the highest level of the American government”.
However, the very highest level of the American government, in the person of Donald Trump, could offer nothing better than a damp squib.
“We do not like what’s happening either way,” he told reporters. “We don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully it will get straightened out.”
What does ‘either way mean’? That he isn’t sure who was to blame for the incident? That he sides with Putin’s Goebbelses in accepting it just might have been the Ukraine’s fault?
I especially like the second sentence, and I don’t just mean the illiterate use of ‘hopefully’. More baffling is the use of the passive voice.
How will it get straightened out? All by itself? Through Vlad’s good offices?
Such matters can only ever be straightened out actively, by a show of force and resolve, and Mr Trump has offered none so far.
I’m not going to delve into the peculiar relationship between Trump and Putin – let Special Counsel Mueller sort that out. Suffice it to say that Mr Trump is considerably more decisive when rebuking his allies than he is with the man who may yet plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust.
Since the president is notoriously computer-literate, perhaps he should Google the historical analogues to the situation at hand. By way of key words, I’d suggest ‘appeasement’, ‘Munich’, ‘to die for Danzig’ and ‘Gleiwitz’.
Meanwhile Vlad should order a nice black eye-patch for himself. One must always dress the part.