The war in Ukraine has made the Firth of Clyde busy again. We used to have neighbours – he died, she moved away – who could remember the view from their house when it was filled with shipping during the second world war: when big liners such as the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth arrived, as my neighbours used to say, “as regular as clockwork”, packed with troops and supplies on their way to the D-day beaches from the ports of North America.
There is nothing quite as momentous as that now. What happens more frequently is the humdrum arrival or departure of an oil tanker. Two or three tugs from Greenock will sail round the headland and take up their position in the channel; a large tanker will move slowly into view from the lower firth; the tugs will settle ahead, astern and abreast of the tanker; together the small convoy will head across Rothesay Bay towards the Nato jetty in Loch Striven. There, tanks submerged in the green hillside store oil. Merchant ships flying flags of convenience bring the oil in; navy tankers in various shades of warship grey take it away, presumably to Nato fleets exercising in the North Atlantic.
Late last month a particularly imposing ship came and went from the jetty. I identified it from an online shipping movements site. It was the USNS Patuxent, 31,200 deadweight tonnes, an American “replenishment oiler” that could, like a giant sow, refuel two warships, one lying either side of it, at the rate of 3.6m litres of diesel an hour. I sent a photograph to a friend, and my friend wondered what would happen if she posted it on Instagram: what view would the authorities take, given the war in Ukraine? And I replied that the authorities – the Ministry of Defence, MI5 or whoever – would be entirely relaxed. A week or two before, the Royal Navy itself had published a video of one of its vast new aircraft carriers in the narrow waters of Loch Long, where it had gone to restock its armoury from the munitions dump in Glen Douglas. The idea, presumably, was to publicise British armed power.
Other wars, not least the cold war, produced different behaviour. In the 1940s, when midget submarines and bouncing bombs were tested in Loch Striven, security men visited the few people who lived on its shores to make sure their curtains were closed. From the 1950s to the 1980s, aerial photographs that included the Clyde’s military infrastructure were marked “secret” or “restricted” and kept from public view. Even 10 years ago a car thought be loitering suspiciously on the roads near the nuclear submarine base in the Gare Loch (or its nuclear warhead-fitting facility in Loch Long) might be followed for a while, if only to give the watchers some practice in watching. It probably still happens. Even now, ship-tracking sites will record the movement of everything from a prawn dredger to a supertanker, though not a Trident submarine.
In general, far more powerful and less obvious forms of surveillance have replaced the old restrictions and gumshoe techniques. Meanwhile the enemy, the potential target of the weaponry that the 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 a majority of the people who live in it? Does it include the music of Tchaikovsky or the Russian tennis players shunned by Wimbledon? Should the government’s newfound distaste for oligarchs extend to all of them, as ruthless looters of the Soviet people’s assets, or are some oligarchs better than others?
I am shocked by my own ignorance. In the week that the Patuxent arrived in Loch Striven, the local Argyll paper carried a story about an oligarch’s superyacht that had been stranded in the Norwegian port of Narvik because dockworkers had refused to refuel it. The yacht, the Ragnar, was said by the paper to be owned by the Russian businessman Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, “a former KGB comrade of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin”, though as yet absent from the EU and UK lists of sanctioned oligarchs and also from the US’s much longer list of the possibly sanctionable.
His house in Monaco is some way outside the Dunoon Observer and Argyllshire Standard’s core circulation area. What explains the paper’s interest in him is his son Evgeny’s purchase in 2017 of a country estate 10 miles from Dunoon. The estate, Knockdow, covers 250 acres of the Cowal peninsula and includes two lakes, two 2,000ft hills, a millpond, pastureland, a forest and an 18th-century mansion, Knockdow House, which has 12 bedrooms, six principal reception rooms and as its centrepiece 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 made at least some of their fortune from slave-worked sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Evgeny, whose employment is hard to discover but whose interests are yachting and re-enacting historic battles, is said to have paid £4m for it. His father is thought to be worth at least a hundred times that amount, after a short post-KGB career as the chief executive officer of Norilsk Nickel. You might say that the riches of the earth, cheaply and sometimes brutally harvested abroad, have kept the place going since the beginning.
I can see the estate from our window, though the house itself is hidden behind a slope. It lies just three miles away across the water at the beginning of Loch Striven, but to reach there by any transport other than a small boat means a ferry crossing and a 40-mile drive: the Clyde estuary has a complicated geography. For that reason I’ve been there only once and never bothered to know it. It might have been the moon – this is what I mean by ignorance. Last month, looking at a plan of the estate, I saw that it surrounded the Nato jetty and its oil tanks on all three landward sides. In other words, the big grey ships come and go from a small square of MoD land that sits inside 250 acres bought by Evgeny Strzhalkovsky from funds that may well have been supplied by his father.
Until recently, that might have served as an advertisement for globalisation – old enemies living together, outbreaks of peace. Today it looks like the outcome of a perplexing historical episode. Welcome, oligarchs! No questions will be asked.
- The Black Box of Peter Thiel’s Beliefs
- While the focus is on Ukraine, Russia’s presence in the Sahel is steadily growing | Bruce Mutsvairo, Mirjam de Bruijn, Kristin Skare Orgeret | international News
- EU member states to issue joint warning to UK over reduced fishing rights | international News
( Information from theguardian.com was used in this report. To Read More, click here )