11 May 2009

The czar and the pirates

Link to Article

MOSCOW - The last time Russia took fighting pirates seriously was more than two centuries ago, when the Empress Catherine the Great, followed by her short-lived successor Czar Paul I, backed the Knights ofMalta, who in turn fought naval engagements with the pirates of Barbary - as the Arab statelets and fortress towns of the North African coast were collectively called. 

Ransoming rich European hostages was a high-margin line of business for the corsairs; European hostages too poor to buy their freedom were put to work as slaves on shore, or as oarsmen for the pirate vessels. Individually, they didn't last long, but that wasn't the point from a naval point of view. The pirate vessels demonstrated much more maneuverability in combat than the 
European navies could muster. When one oarsman died, the pirates simply grabbed another. 

For a while, Russia had a pirate of its own. That was the legendary Maxim Vasilii, who learned his seamanship from the Barbary corsairs; adapted their tactics to steal his own ship, the 
Thermopolae, from a Greek port; managed to circumnavigate the world in the mid-17th century; and was an advisor to Czar Peter the Great on the creation of the first Russian naval fleet. 

Later, and for a very brief time - after Napoleon took Malta for France in 1805 - Czar Paul became the principal host of the Knights of Malta and their commander in 
St Petersburg. At that distance from the Mediterranean, this naturally made not a whit of difference to the pirates. 

It is clear from the Kremlin transcript, made available by President Dmitry Medvedev's press office on May 4, the Russian leader sought to show that when it comes to dealing with pirates, he's as much a can-do man as Captain Vasilii or Czar Paul. It is less clear what he means to do. By the time his subordinates and the Moscow ministries involved with maritime law enforcement have been canvassed, it is even less sure that "can-do" is the right phrase. 

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