Posts Tagged ‘War’

Ukraine: For Sale or Hire, Military Aircraft and Pilots

Ukraine: For Sale or Hire, Military Aircraft and Pilots

February 25, 2011  |  Comments Off

Three stories involving the Ukrainian military have caught my attention recently.

Less than a dozen of the diplomatic dispatches leaked by Wikileaks have mentioned Ukraine, but on the whole they make disturbing reading. The one bemusing note reveals that Muammar Gaddafi’s chief nurse is a young Ukrainian woman, described as, “A voluptuous blonde.”

The more serious claims are that Ukraine has been shipping weapons to Sudan which is on the US list of state sponsors of terror. Apparently, US diplomats showed their Ukrainian counterparts a copy of a contract that indicated the weapons were destined for Sudan. The Ukrainians responded that the shipments were sent to Kenya, questioned the authenticity of the contract and the paucity of evidence. When asked by the Ukrainians if the Americans had any better evidence, the American diplomats showed detailed satellite images of T-72 tanks being unloaded in Kenya, being put onto trains and transported across the border into Sudan. According to the dispatch issued by Wikileaks, “This led to a commotion on the Ukrainian side.”

Secondly, the newswires are buzzing with reports that Ukrainian pilots are flying the MiG flight jets that bombed demonstrators in Libya, and they are also piloting the Antonov aircraft which ferry military supplies around the country. The reports are denied by Ukrainian diplomats, but Today newspaper (www.segodnya.ua) claimed that the pilots – some of whom hold senior positions in the Libyan military – receive $2000-$8000 per month. Such claims are echoes of those heard before. In the 2008 spat between Russia and Georgia it was claimed that Ukrainian gunners shot down Russian aircraft on behalf of Georgia. And a decade ago, in 2001, it was claimed that Ukrainian helicopter gunship pilots attacked Albanian rebels for the Macedonian government.

Finally, what caught my eye is that a lucky few can buy their own ex-Ukrainian air force MiG aircraft and strafe their local community at will. Reading the “For Sale” ads, you might come across a MiG-29 described as “Low mileage, one careful pilot, some pock-marks on bodywork, priced to sell at $6 million, must be speed junky with head for heights.” The MiG-29 is not for the weak-hearted and can achieve speeds of twice the speed of sound and can climb at 45,000 feet per minute. Earlier in the year, John Sessions, a private US citizen did just that: he took delivery after paying cash for the aircraft, and beating several national governments to the deal.*

None of this really comes as a surprise when you’re aware of the absorbing history of Ukrainian involvement in aircraft innovation and the story of intrepid Ukrainian pilots.

Less than four years after the Wright brothers made the world’s first flight in 1903, Ukrainians were developing state of the art aircraft. They are credited with hundreds of innovations, including being fathers of the strategy of aerial combat, being the first to control aircraft spin, being instrumental in parachute design and starting airmail services. And, all importantly, for putting a toilet on board an aircraft as early as 1914. Remember, at that time, even cars were few and far between.

You probably know Ukraine as the home of Sikorsky helicopters – he built the world’s first all metal aircraft – or Antonov aircraft – they built the world’s largest aircraft – but there is much more to the story than that. For more information, you can read an excerpt from the chapter “Whirlybirds and Witches” at http://amongtheukrainians.co.uk/whirlybirds-and-witches/ and, of course, you can get the full story in Among the Ukrainians.

* http://heraldnet.com/article/20110206/NEWS01/702069910/1059/COMM0618

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

May 25, 2010  |  Comments Off

Now that the tear gas has dispersed, the rotting eggs and urine have been cleaned from the Ukrainian Duma (yes, Russian TV showed footage purportedly from the Ukrainian Duma of a man urinating) I want to review the agreement to allow the Russians to continue to use the Sevastopol base. The 11-year engagement ended with marriage but not all the guests agreed the bride had chosen wisely.

Much has been written about the deal in the Ukrainian and Russian press, in particular. Was it a “sell-out” or an expediency that with hindsight will mark President Yanukovych as a shrewd politician?

Protagonists of the “sell-out” view, argue that the agreement is a violation of the Constitution and, no matter what its merits—if there any—it is plain wrong. It defers any possibility of Ukraine joining NATO until 2042. And even if this outcome was always Yanukovych’s intention, why did he do it so quickly after his election? Surely a President known for his pro-Russian viewpoint would have sought to normalise the relationship with Russia and, over time, punitive levies on goods such as gas would have been dropped as a matter of course. Probably without having to give up the family silver; after all, there are precious few pieces left.

Furthermore, critics argue, the Russians can pick on the most minor Ukrainian infringement—a missed payment would not surprise most observers—to renege on the deal, whereas ousting the Russian incumbents in Crimea will be nigh on impossible.

Or, perhaps, they speculate, Yanukovych sees himself as a good son of his upbringing righting Nikita Khrushchev’s “wrong.” In 1955, Khrushchev ceded Crimea from Russia to Ukraine as a “gift” for which he was later denied a state funeral, and suffered the indignity of not being buried in the Kremlin wall.

Those who err towards the view that it might prove to be a shrewd move invariably want to see an improving relationship between Russia and Ukraine. The Russians would never have left the Sevastopol base freely in 2017, they argue, so conflict has been avoided. They point out that a reason behind the Russia-Georgian war in late 2008 may have been to gain access to Sukhumi, the Black Sea capital of the disputed territory of Abkhazia in Georgia. Though Sukhumi is a far less ideal port than Sevastopol, it is clear that a resurgent Russia will have limited credibility without a Black Sea port to call its own. And they were determined to control at least one port. So, conflict on Ukrainian soil has been averted and lives have been spared.

Furthermore, the “shrewdies” argue, there’s the immediate economic benefit of the deal. Currently the Ukrainian Government subsidizes the cost of gas to her people and that adds to the budget deficit. The bold agreement—whereby the contractual gas price is reduced by 30% and Gazprom stops paying export duties to the Russian government, thereby putting the burden on the Russian budget—helps fill a substantial hole in Ukraine’s budget. It also looks good to people, like the IMF, who need to be humoured if they are to be encouraged to plough even more money into Ukraine.

So, there are supporters of both points of view. And whilst many people will see the issue as a difference of opinion between the pro-Russian Ukrainians of eastern and southern Ukraine versus the rest, I would caution against such a simplistic view. I’m left thinking, has anyone bothered to ask the Crimean Tartars what they think? And taking the idea further, whose was the bride of Sevastopol to give away?

Touring Crimea

Touring Crimea

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter: 

Touring Crimea is first and foremost a celebration of a region.  Its rich and tumultuous history spans millennia, from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their heroic quest for the Golden Fleece to the controversial decision to allow the Russian Black Sea Fleet to maintain a navel base in Sevastopol. Using the resort town of Simeiz as a base, I offer a packed itinerary that takes in both the coast and the interior. Travelling westwards I visit the ancient city of Chersonesos, and then on to Sevastopol, the site of so much devastation during the Crimean War and during World War II.  Inland, I visit the palace of Bakhchiserai and the “Fountain of Tears,” immortalised by Pushkin’s poem, and then head skywards to rugged mountains and sacred caves. Trekking eastwards places of interest jostle shoulder to shoulder: Livadia, Yalta, Nikita Botanical Gardens, the Massandra winery, and further a field the champagne cellars of Novy Svet and the breathtaking scenery of Karadag.

Excerpt:

Wine making in Crimea is thousands of years old, as proved by the wine remnants that have been found in Greek amphora from Chersonesos. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Cossacks of Tsimlanskoe (nowadays, the label name of one of Ukraine’s cheap sweet sparkling champagne wines) had mastered the manufacture of sparkling wines as evidenced by Pushkin’s reference in Eugene Onegin. Though this significantly predates the efforts of the French monk Dom Perignon, the first documented sparkling wine production in Ukraine was recorded in Sudak in 1799. Soon after, all along the Crimean coast, rich merchants and aristocracy were producing sparkling wines.

The Crimean War temporarily halted progress by destroying vines, wineries, and precious research notes, but after the war Golitsyn took up the challenge of improving wine quality. He experimented with hundreds of grape varieties before selecting the Pinot Franc, Pinot Gris, Aligote, and Chardonnay grapes for his champagne, which are more climate tolerant than those preferred by French vintners.

Golitsyn constructed wine cellars that extend deep into the Koba-Kaya mountain in Novy Svet, one of Crimea’s most idyllic towns, The winery still produces eleven types of champagne and is open to the public, though even on a summer’s day you’d be advised to carry a sweater with you if you wish to linger in the cellars where the temperature is a constant 11° Celsius.

Whirlybirds and Witches

Whirlybirds and Witches

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

The science of flight and Ukraine have had a love affair for more than a century. Many will already be familiar with the names of Sikorsky and Antonov, whose agile helicopters and big birds, respectively, have served us equally in peace time and war.

Fewer will be familiar with other ingredients that I weave into the story of Whirlybirds and Witches. They include the remarkable people who conquered aircraft spin, designers who were decades ahead of their time, and pilots you would not want to encounter in a dog fight.  Only a few, perhaps, are aware of the remarkable role played by Ukrainian women in this story of flight. In war time, women pilots harried the occupying German troops invoking constant restlessness and in peacetime they broke numerous flight records. They clearly provoked something in Stalin; he is rumoured to have been the lover of one woman pilot, and he was the pallbearer to another.

Excerpt:

Undaunted by the experience, Valentina followed her father’s footsteps and went on to become the country’s first woman instructor, teaching hundreds of men to fly at Tula Institute.

Valentina’s co-pilot, Polina Osipenko, shared a similar ambition but had a very different upbringing. Osipenko was head of a chicken farm near Kyiv when she fell in love with a military pilot working at the Kacha Flight School. She enrolled at the school and started out by working in the canteen making breakfast for the pilots, but before long had inveigled her way into the pilot training programme. She excelled at training and was transferred to Kharkiv where she married Alexander Osipenko, who later became a famous general and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Over the next three years, in flying with fellow navigator and pilot, Russian-born Maria Raskova, Grizodubova and Osipenko set several new women’s distance world records and were awarded The Order of Lenin. (Nowadays, it seems somewhat quaint to be awarded a medal for making a four-hour flight, but then it had all sorts of implications for military supremacy.) The three women enjoyed working together, and with Stalin’s support — it is thought that Raskova may have been his mistress — they embarked on a flight across the Soviet Union.

Zoos, Science, and Evolution

Zoos, Science, and Evolution

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

In a country where people had little exposure to the outside world and virtually no access to travel, a zoo guidebook served as a travel guide for a journey to distant lands. For children a zoo was a magic carpet to imaginary places. And odd though it might seem few stories capture the sense of hope that lived in people’s hearts during the dark days of World War II as the story of how Ukrainians cared for their zoo animals. In Zoos, Science, and Evolution I take a guided tour of Kharkiv zoo, review the writing of the bad-boy of modern Ukrainian literature, and investigate the bad-boy of modern science who oversaw the destruction of classical genetics and created what some call the biggest scandal of twentieth century science.

Excerpt:

We agreed on a route around the zoo and Sergei continued to offer his ideas. “Odd though it may seem, the zoo is one of the few cultural establishments that survived the Soviet period relatively unchanged. There were some extreme cases in which individual animals were regards as “bourgeois” and so were not allowed, but generally the authorities encouraged zoos.”

I toyed with the idea for a few moments, wondering if perhaps the penguin, with its dinner jacket-like attire, was considered “bourgeois.”

“Theatres were forced to change their repertoires, circus clowns were forced to change their acts, and galleries and museums were forced to change their exhibits, but zoos exist today in very much the same way they did a hundred years ago.”

“But is the zoo concept still relevant today, particularly when the conditions for the animals are so poor?” I pressed.

He was a quiet-spoken man, but now he spoke with an authoritative voice. “You can’t expect to understand our culture without having endured our history.” He chose carefully a verb that suggested prolonged pain and hardship. 

We agreed on a route around the zoo and Sergei continued to offer his ideas. “Odd though it may seem, the zoo is one of the few cultural establishments that survived the Soviet period relatively unchanged. There were some extreme cases in which individual animals were regards as “bourgeois” and so were not allowed, but generally the authorities encouraged zoos.”

I toyed with the idea for a few moments, wondering if perhaps the penguin, with its dinner jacket-like attire, was considered “bourgeois.”

“Theatres were forced to change their repertoires, circus clowns were forced to change their acts, and galleries and museums were forced to change their exhibits, but zoos exist today in very much the same way they did a hundred years ago.”

“But is the zoo concept still relevant today, particularly when the conditions for the animals are so poor?” I pressed.

He was a quiet-spoken man, but now he spoke with an authoritative voice. “You can’t expect to understand our culture without having endured our history.” He chose carefully a verb that suggested prolonged pain and hardship.