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By John Helmer in Moscow

The last time Russia took fighting pirates seriously was two centuries ago, when the Empress Catherine the Great, followed byher short-lived successor Tsar Paul I, backed the Knights of Malta, 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 manoeuverability 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 her own. That was the legendary Maxim Vasilii, who learned his seamanship from the Barbary corsairs; adapted their tactics to stealhis own ship, the Thermopolae, from a Greek port; managed to circumnavigate the world in the mid-17th century; and was an advisor to Tsar 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 — Tsar 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, that on Monday last, 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 Tsar 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.

Translating the Kremlin version, what Medvedev actually said was: “I consider that we need to look at this [piracy] problem both from the viewpoint of our criminal law and criminal trial, and from the viewpoint of the creation, maybe, of separate international practice [международной практики] on these affairs.” Russian and English-language news agencies have published the translation of the last phrase as “the formation of some kind of international court on this theme.”

Here is the Russian text as it was recorded:

«Считаю, что нам нужно посмотреть на эту проблему как с точки зрения нашего уголовного права и уголовного процесса, так и с точки зрения создания, может быть, отдельной международной практики по этим делам.

Думаю, что можно было бы Вам вместе с МИДом, другими заинтересованными ведомствами вступить в контакт по этому поводу со своими иностранными коллегами, с тем чтобы посмотреть различные варианты привлечения к ответственности лиц, виновных в пиратстве. Потому как зачастую государства, откуда происходят эти пираты, никаких действий не предпринимают, а очень часто, по сути, способствуют такого рода преступлениям. От этого страдает огромное количество людей и значительное число судоходных компаний, просто интересы государств страдают».

It is highly unusual in Russian state policy to concede legal jurisdiction over attacks on Russian property and interests, including those on the high seas, to foreign bodies. In the Baltic Sea, for example, the Kremlin has long been suspicious of attempts by the other, non-Russian shoreline states to create international organs or rulesthat may give themselves advantages, at Russia’s expense. This is a pressing issue right now, as some of the Baltic powers, encouraged by Washington, are trying to block the laying of the Nord Stream gas pipeline on the Baltic seafloor, to deliver Gazprom’s gas between St. Petersburg and Germany, and avoid such hostage-taking and ransom troubles as the pirates in Kiev think up from time to time.

Just as pressing, and as intractable, are attempts by some of the Caspian Sea littoral states to impose their interest in regulating the seafloor on the others. In the Caspian case, the Washington-backed plan is to lay the Nabuccopipeline on the seabed to deliver non-Russian gas supplies to Europe in competition with Gazprom.

Even older are the disputes Russia has had with the Ottoman powers, and then with the Turkish government, over the right of Russian ships to pass unrestricted through the Bosphorus Straits — the narrow waterway at the mouth ofthe Black Sea that has always been a vital opening for the Russian Navy and its commercial fleet to reach the Mediterranean.

In this context of grand strategy, with half a millenium of gunboat diplomacy to learn from, was the new president of Russia really ceding jurisdiction over pirates attacking Russian vessels to a court seated in another place, and run by a bench of judges who aren’t Russian, and read from their own statute book?

Medvedev’s office declines to elaborate, except to point out that the transcript of Medvedev’s remarks indicates he was talking with Yury Chaika, the former Minister of Justice, and currently the General Prosecutor. “I think that it would be possible for you,” Medvedev reportedly told Chaika, “together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other interested departments, to contact their foreign colleagues to examine different variants of how to bring the persons guilty of piracy to account, because frequently the states, where these pirates come from, don’t take any measures, and very often, as a matter of fact, aid such crimes. A large quantity of people and considerable number of shipping companies are suffering from that, and the countries’ interests suffer as well.”

Chaika evidently did not concede Russian jurisdiction to anyone else. He reportedly told Medvedev: “Dmitry Anatolevich, our law allows: if the crime is committed by non-citizens of the Russian Federation against citizens of the Russian Federation outside of the Russian Federation, then, according to our legislation, those persons can be subjected to criminal prosecution on the territory of the Russian Federation. Basically, both the subject of the crime and the body of the crime correspond to the [Russian Criminal Code] article 227 ‘Piracy’.”

Chaika went on: “There is a different issue. You are absolutely right, there can be complexities from the point of bringing to responsibility, personal identification and so on, other legal procedures.”

Medvedev: “Certainly, moreover, considering that quite a lot of countries suffer from pirate activity, I consider that there may be not only, I stress, the military response, but also the legal one to what is happening, [and this]should be coordinated; that is, it should be common. Think it over, and speak with your foreign colleagues.”

Chaika: “Well, we are now negotiating with both the Council of Europe and with everyone else, we will do what it takes.”

The official state news agency ITAR-Tass has issued a version in English of what Medvedev said with a slightly different nuance: referring to the recent capture by the Russian destroyer, Admiral Panteleyev, of 29 suspected Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, off the Horn of Africa, Medvedev went on: “We have seized the pirates, now we’ve got to understand what is to be done next. After all, they can be tried in different jurisdictions. This is an international matter which will require calling a conference or creating some independent judicial institution. We are prepared to do this with our foreign colleagues, and I have discussed that with our foreign partners…The president said that ”our navymen maintain coordination with foreign counterparts. But what we need is not combat operations. We are always able to give a good punch. We need legal qualification of everything that has been happening.”

If Chaika told Medvedev that he isready for action, his front office is not. Asked to clarify what the General Prosecutor thinks of the “international court” on piracy, his spokesman said the prosecutor’s office is not prepared to answer on the spot. Instead, a written letter of questions was requested to be faxed.

At the Ministry of Justice, the official spokesman Natalya Vishnyakova said: “The Ministry of Justice has nothing to do with this problem”. Sheexplained that this is because Medvedev was giving his order to Chaika, and Chaika is the General Prosecutor, not the Minister of Justice. Chaika was the Minister of Justice until June 2006. He was then replaced by Alexander Konovalov, who had been a career prosecutor in St Petersburg and Bashkortostan.

The Foreign Ministry has also proved equally reluctant and unprepared, at least to comment on what the President has just said about an international piracy court — if that is what he said. The Foreign Ministry’s information department said it does not respond to press inquiries by telephone; requested a fax letter; and referred to the ministry’s spokesman. His telephone line was running so hot, it wasn’t possible to get through.

The minister himself hasn’t ignored the problem. Last November, when Medvedev met outgoing US President George Bush at a Pacific regional conference in Lima, Peru, the official communiques reported Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying the two presidents had “paid special attention to struggle against piracy. At the end of the meeting they agreed that our countries would launch practical and legal initiatives on this issue.
It’s going to be more efficient this way.”

The Russian foreign minister went on to say about his own talk on the subject with his US counterpart at the time, Condoleezza Rice: “We discussed the need for stronger efforts within the framework of the U.N. Security Council in the struggle against piracy. We should think what steps the Council can take in this direction. We should exert every effort to fight against this evil not only on the water but also on Somalia’s coast where we should try to restore order jointly with this state’s legitimate government.”

Lavrov’s reference to coordination of the anti-piracy campaign under the UN Security Council is much clearer, and much more in line with traditional Russian, as well as Soviet policy on international order. Lavrov wasn’t conceding that pirates should be dealt with by a newly empowered international organ capable of acting independently of the UN Security Council, where Russia is one of the five veto members. But that was several months ago. What has changed?

In mid-February, theRussian Navy’s missile cruiser, Peter the Great, seized 10 Somali pirates, three boats, arms and drugs. The pirates were off-loaded in Yemen.

Then on April 28, the Admiral Panteleyevcaptured 29 suspected pirates off the Somali coast, after they had attempted to attack the Russian oiltanker, NS Commander, manned by a crew of 23 Russians. No question about the legality of Russian military action — and of the legal jurisdiction to try those who had been arrested. Some of them, it has subsequently been announced, turn out to be Iranian and Pakistani nationals, who had themselves been taken prisoner by the pirates. They have now been released.

The Russian Navy has been increasingly active in projecting its capabilities in international waters, as it was before the Soviet government fell in 1991. In recent months, the Russian Navy has operated with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean, and with Venezuelan forces in the Caribbean. The Russians havealso exercised in the eastern Mediterranean, using ports in Libya and Syria for refuelling; there have been uncorroborated reports of negotiations to establish more permanent naval basing arrangements with both countries. The naval spokesman Igor Dygalo has denied that the Russian Navy intends to set up a base at Socotra.

Senator Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin’s troubleshooter for Africa,and chairman of the International affairs Committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, says that Russia doesn’t want to see unilateral moves by other countries in the area, either to deal with pirates, or terrorists.

He referred explicitly toIsraeli air and sea attacks on alleged terrorists in the northeast of Sudan, and in the Red Sea. According to US, Sudanese, and Israeli press reports, on January 28 and February 11, Israeli warplanes destroyed a convoy of trucks and a cargo vessel because the Israelis believed they were carrying arms for the Gaza Strip. On April 7, following the disclosures, the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claimed the following justification: “We operate everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure – in close places, in places further away, everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure, we hit them and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence. It was true in the north in a series of incidents and it was true in the south, in a series of incidents. There is no point in going into detail, and everybody can use their imagination. Those who need to know, know. And those who need to know, know that there is no place where Israel cannot operate. There is no such place.”

“I was in Cairo”, according to Senator Margelov when the Israeli Air Force attacked the land convoy in Sudan. “It is a dangerous precedent when Israel conducts military operations outside its territory without the permission of the United Nations Security Council.” He denied that Russia had “real evidence” to justofy the military action. If there had been evidence, he added, the United Nations Security Council is the mechanism to deal with it. As for piracy originating from Somalia, Margelov said that Russia reserves its right to self-defence, but also favours a fullycoordinated international approach to the problem. In the short term an “international maritime security force” is required to fight the pirates, Margelov said. He added: “if we don’t rebuild Somalia, piracy will continue. This is a disease of the failed state. Roubles are more efficient than arms.”



The Russian Navy destroyer Admiral Panteleyev has again defeated a Somali pirate attack on a Russian oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden. According to the Russian wires, the Novoship-owned product carrier NS Spirit was attacked on Sunday morning, May 10, by a group of pirates, who approached in a speedboat. The master radioed to the Pantaleyev, then 15 nm from the tanker, and a helicopter gunship was despatched. No further details have been reported, as Russia is celebrating the defeat of Germany in World War II, and offices are closed. There were no injuries reported to the tanker’s 22-man crew, and no damage to the vessel. The NS Spirit was built in Croatia for Novoship in 2006, and is registered in Liberia at 47,000 dwt. It was carrying a cargo of gasoline at the time of the attack. The latest incident suggests that operational orders have been changed for the Russian Navy patrol in the waters off Somalia; and that the policy is now to deter attacks, and take no prisoners.

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