Monday, 24 March 2014

Weekend in Warsaw

So finally I had my bike serviced,  The gears kept slipping, which is a pain in the arse when you're in low gear toiling up a hill and suddenly you're back in top.  And the brakes weren't working either, so the toes of my trainers were going through it a bit too.  I can't complain really, I've had the bike over 10 years now and it's done a lot of miles (many of them off-road in sandy dusty forest conditions) so it was definitely due some TLC, with spring coming on.

Anyway, one new chain, new brake blocks and cables and a good greasing later it's as good as new (apart from chipped pain here and there of course), so time to take it out again.  The weather was fine, the kids wanted to get out too so off we all went Saturday afternoon.

About 5 km south of my place is the Kabaty Forest.  The last station on the Warsaw Metro line is a couple of hundred metres away, so from the city centre you can be in deep woods within about 20 minutes.  There is a big network of foot- and cycle paths criss-crossing the forest, and there are plenty of seats and shelters to rest in when you get tired.  There are also two or three memorials to the Polish Home Army soldiers who used it as a hiding place from the Gestapo during the war years.  In those day, it would have been outside the city limits and much more dense and overgrown than it is now, and the Resistance movement used it extensively, and died in numbers too.  This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, when the Home Army launched an offensive against the occupying Nazis shortly after the D-Day landings and the French resistance uprising in Paris.  When the expected (and promised) Allied help failed to materialise, a pitched battle raged through what is now the Old Town, with hand-to-hand fighting from street to street, and eventually building to building.  The people, armed with old rifles, knives and petrol bombs, had no chance against seasoned Nazi stormtroopers and their tanks and stick grenades and artillery. At the end of it, much of Warsaw was reduced to rubble, and most of the population killed or captured.  Kids of 10 and 12 years old fought and died alongside their parents and older siblings, all to no avail.  Uncle Joe Stalin refused Churchill's pleas for help and Roosevelt went along with him for the quiet life, so the Germans were left with a free hand.  The Russian Army, half way through the ninety day battle, arrived on the Vistula river's eastern bank at Praga, within a couple of hundred yards of the city, and stopped to watch, forbidden by Stalin to intervene.  A couple of young Resistance fighters swam across the swift flowing river to beg for help.  They were shot for their trouble by the Russians - just another in a long list of atrocities.  At the end of it, the remnants of the population were shipped off to concentration camps, and Hitler angrily ordered the city razed to the ground.....which it was.

Nowadays, the re-built Old Town is one of the more pleasant tourist places here, with a big cobbled market square surrounded by excellent bars and restaurants, and a fine place to spend a summer evening - something I've done many times.  There are also, just a few minutes walk from the Square, some poignant statues commemorating the Uprising, and a display of troop dispositions and maps and photos from the time that tell this tragic story in a variety of languages including English.  A mile or two away, close to the riverbank and the rebuilt Pepsi Arena (home ground of Legia Warsaw football club) is a similar statue to that at the Old Town.  It marks the place where the survivors emerged from the sewers they had in desperation used to escape the holocaust in the Old Town - an unknown number of people, men women and children, died in there too, drowned.......

But back to Kabaty Forest.  We've been there many times before with the kids, and in all weathers, and whether hot and sunny, wet and windy, or cold and snowy, as long as you're properly dressed it's a nice escape from the city.  We've walked around it, and cycled too.  We even buried a dead budgie there once (it seemed more respectable than just dumping it in the bin).  .I've got lost a couple of times, on solo bike rides, and ended up well outside Warsaw, once without a clue where I was (it turned out to be the edge of the affluent Konstancin suburb where government ministers and tv stars live).  So it's big old park, and like nothing I can think of back home in Britain.

Kubzi and I headed off on our bikes, with Ania's sister on our next door neighbour's (borrowed) bike, while we packed the picnic and Ally's bike in the boot of the car, and the girls drove off to meet us in the heart of the forest.  The sun was out, the temperature in the high teens and it was great to get out again in shorts and a tee-shirt.  There were many other cyclists out as well, and the network of cycle paths in our Ursynow suburb were as crowded as the roads.  Many of the other people were riding the "Boris Bikes" that are available in Warsaw now: they're identical to those in London and Paris and New York and elsewhere, and as popular.

It always makes me smile, looking at my fellow bikers.  Now, I tend to amble along at my own pace, enjoying the exercise and the views (and usually the music on my mobile, although I left that at home this weekend).  But there seem to be increasing numbers of people, men and women, who are taking this stuff really seriously, with all the fluorescent lycra shirts, butt hugging padded shorts, streamlined helmets and wraparound shades that are de rigeur on the Tour de France.  I'm usually in cut down jeans and a baggy old tee-shirt.  I don't need wraparound shades because my glasses have tinted lenses.  I do wear a helmet though, mainly to encourage Kuba and Ally to do likewise for safety reasons, even though I look a bit of a tit.  But these enthusiasts - well, to them the cycle paths are their own private race tracks, and they're tearing along full pelt, and God help you if don't get of their way: the volley of verbal abuse that comes your way would probably blister the ears (if I could only understand a word of it).  So it seems that a Polish characteristic is to go like a maniac, whether in a car or on a bike.  When I first started driving here, I was advised to consider every other road user a homicidal madman out to get me, and act accordingly - and by and large that has held true.  I've yet to meet a Polish driver who doesn't consider himself (or herself for that matter....) to be the world's best and safest.  Even when patently they're not.

We managed to arrive at the Forest without accident, anyway, then went off-road for the last couple of kilometers to our meeting place.  The paths there were if anything more crowded than the cycle paths in town, and had the added problem of pedestrians ambling along slowly, with pushchairs, prams and the like, but that was good - everyone out having a great time in the early spring weather.  There were a lot of Alpine Walkers out too - what's all that about then?  I'm told that it's very good exercise, good for your hips and knees and heart, but for the life of me I can't see how the addition of a couple ski poles is going to make any real difference over the stroll to the shops to buy a six-pack of Lech or something.  But it's increasingly popular here, and people of all ages, including considerably older than me, seem to be loving every minute of it.  I prefer my bike, quite frankly.

There is a great bonfire tradition in Poland.  Now back home, a bonfire means two things.  First, Guy Fawkes Night, November 5th, celebrating a misguided and incompetent Catholic plot to blow up Parliament in London and everyone in it.   Big fires the length and breadth of Britain and several million quids worth of fireworks go up in smoke - a very British celebration of failure.  Second, an effective means of getting rid of rubbish - garden cuttings, for instance, or an old car that is no longer working and not worth doing up.

In Poland, it means something else entirely - a party.  In the spring and, in particular, summer months having a bonfire party is a way of life.  You build the bonfire from wood cuttings, logs, charcoal, and whatever else you can safely burn, and once it's going nicely you stick your kielbaski (that's local sausages) onto the sharpened ends of the longest, straightest sticks you can find and cook them over the burning fire.  While you're doing that, typically, you're enjoying a can or two of Lech or Tyskie or any of the other excellent local brews.  When the sausages are cooked, you eat them in hunks of fresh bread or rolls, with ketchup and/or mustard, pickles and fresh salad.  Delicious.
The Masterchef, hard at work

And it was worth it!

Oh, yes - well worth it!

The satsumas were pretty good too.

In Kabaty Forest there is a big clearing with a number of seats and benches, ready made for these affairs. Small sandy patches are scattered around, forty or more, that form a base for the bonfires and are far enough away from the encircling trees to be safe from all but the biggest unattended blazes.  There are also plenty of waste bins as well, to keep the place clean and tidy - and people use them too, unlike in many British picnic grounds I've been to.  Being in a forest, there is no shortage of wood for the fires, and indeed the local park rangers seem to ensure there is a good supply of all shapes and sizes.  For the Forest is also a small national park, managed by the city government, and contains other attractions beyond foot- and cycle-paths.  Adjacent to the picnic area is a sports park that contains indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a volleyball court and swimming pool.  There are also restaurants and bars (if you don't fancy cooking for yourself) and adequate car parking facilities.   On Saturday one field was taken up by a couple of inflatables, a bouncy castle and a six lane slide, for the kids to play on (at least those too young to play football or frisbee).  It really is a good place to spend a warm sunny afternoon.

We had no beer, unfortunately, but plenty of rolls and kielbaski and salads and fresh fruit, so settled down happily on the picnic rug we had taken with us and tucked in.  Ally and Ania cooked the sausages to perfection over the bonfire, and they had a lovely smoky woody flavour, rather than the charcoaled burnt offerings that often comes from more common coal barbecues - so much nicer I think.

Ally too had her first real bike ride.  Until the week before last she was still using the stabilizer wheels, despite our attempts to get them off on holiday at the seaside last summer.  But we tried again and after a two hour terror driven tantrum, she got going eventually and did a number of laps of the fountain behind our local church.  I missed it unfortunately, as I was at home nursing a bad back, and Ania had to put up with all the tears and yelling.  The next day she demonstrated to me by riding around the garage for a while, until people started getting home from work and driving in and disrupting her.

On Saturday we took the bike, and I promised to go with her for a ride in the woods, just the two of us.  Being a stubborn little moo sometimes, I fully expected that when it came to it she would change her mind and refuse - but no: fortified by a couple of kielbaski and some crisps, off we went.  We cycled probably half a kilometer along the main path, back towards home, then turned back onto a parallel one and returned to the bonfire site.  She fell off once, when she clipped a tree root trying to avoid an elderly Alpine walker, but surprised me by getting up and re-starting straightaway.  Then she decided she wanted another go, so off we went again - same route and distance but this time she wanted to cut across a half-ploughed field, just because she had seen someone else do it.  No problem.  By the time we got back, on the two rides, she'd probably clocked up over 2 km.....not bad at all for a first attempt.  When we left, an hour so later, to go home she insisted on cycling part of the way with us, so she did another good k and half through the woods and back to the Metro station, where we loaded her back in the car to go the last 5km home.  I'm so pleased - we can go off for rides together now, all of us.  Great stuff.

So if Saturday was an excellent day (and it was), Sunday was less so, but a nice relaxing day for all that.  We took in Mass at 11 - Kuba has his First Communion in May, so there is preparation to do for that.  Then lunch and an afternoon watching football on tv, and then a couple of movies for the kids.  And an early night - school Monday is an early start for Kuba.

It was a good weekend, and I look forward to repeating it soon.  Living in Warsaw - wouldn't change it.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Home space and retirement planning

Sometimes I wish we had a bigger apartment.

At 60 sq/m or thereabouts it’s a little on the small side, for a growing family.  I love it, it’s my home, it’s warm and comfortable and well equipped, and I’m very happy here.  But still……it would be nice to have a bit more elbow room.

For a start, the kids will soon need – and want – their own rooms, their own space.  They’re happy enough sharing still, but it’s getting pretty crowded in there, with the bunk beds, one chest of clothes and some book shelves taking up one wall, and a set of tall glass-doored cupboards with drawers, full of toys and puzzles and clothes, taking up the other.  More toys and puzzles are stacked ceiling high on top of them.  There is a desk under the window that Kuba uses for homework and such, and a little coffee table squeezed between the beds and the chest that Ally uses (and that will be too small to be practical for her very soon).  Not a lot of space for anything else – even the window ledge is full  They’re already having the odd space spat, and it will only get worse.

Our room too is very comfortable, with a good range of fitted wardrobes, some shelf space and a big comfy bed.  But when I’m working from home, as now, I add a little garden table that’s just big enough to take my laptop, mouse pad and a couple of books, and a stool to sit on, and that’s half the remaining space gone.  Right now too I have two clothes airers full of drying laundry in here, so it’s like an obstacle course – especially getting to my cupboard for clothes.

Yes, it will soon be time to move……..

If I had more space, I could finally have my study.

It would have one wall devoted to my library.  I have dozens of books, many crammed in the bedroom here on shelves and window ledge, but many more bagged and boxed and stuffed in a cupboard in the storage room in the garage.  It would be lovely to have them all at my fingertips, properly arranged alphabetically and even categorised somehow, like the libraries I used to spend hours browsing in back in England.  The City Library in the Barbican Centre in London was my favourite, about three floors of books.  Many a happy lunch break spent there…..

There would be an Ikea rocking chair (I already have that), and perhaps a small cheap and cheerful sofa, space permitting, and of course a reading lamp.  And a coffee table.  There would be a good sized desk with the computer and cabling to the internet, and the printer (at present this resides on another window ledge, in the living room).  And a comfortable chair to sit on while I work, rather than the uncomfortable stool I’m perched on right now.

Another wall would hold a bloody great World Map, on which I would mark with pins (red for work, pale blue for vacation) all the places I’ve visited over the years.  Maybe a white board to scribble notes and reminders on too.  There would of course be pictures of my kids, all 5 of them.  And my wife.  My dear departed mum and dad, and my sisters too.  It would be somewhere to escape to, to lose myself in my books and my music and my thoughts and dreams.

I could also plan my retirement travel there too.

Now I’m looking ahead a bit, but it’s something most people do at my age, I suppose.

Next week I turn 61.  An age I could never imagine in my misspent youth, when football and birds and beer were my passions.  Retirement was something I never contemplated, like marriage and having a home and family of my own.  Then I got both, not once but twice, in different countries and of course at different times.  I lost my hair (most of it anyway), and replaced it with several kilos of unwanted paunch, both after my 40th birthday.  I read somewhere that this is very common, a male genetic feature – hit 40 and get fat, gym or no gym – and I see no reason to dispute the proposition.

Around that time, 40 or so, I began to think about retirement, and figured that 55 would be a good time to do it.  Certainly no later than 60.  Fat chance……  Too many bumps and unexpected turns in the career road for that to happen.  Too many changes, forced as well as voluntary, to build the savings and pension pots I would need finance an early retirement.  A variety of circumstances reduced the pots over time, and I’ve been playing catch up most of my working life.  I should have started saving when I was much younger, in my early 20s, not my late forties, but other things got in the way.

So I’m not even looking at 65 as my retirement age, even though legally I will be entitled to do so (unless of course laws change and that is extended).  Fitness and health permitting – and right now they are both keeping up very well – it will be 70 I think.  Not that long really……but hopefully enough time to get some good contracts in and replenish some of those lost savings.  I don’t think it will be a wealthy retirement, again time is not on my side, but I expect it to be a comfortable one.

The kids, my younger two angels, will be in their mid teens by then, 16 and 18, and hopefully responsible enough to be able to leave now and then, because Ania and I want to do some trips of our own, spend some leisure time together.  Before I get to decrepit to enjoy it.

There are places I would like to go to, and things I would like to do.

I want to return to Crete for a start.  We had a good holiday there, and I loved the island’s rugged beauty and the lovely beaches and warm blue sea.  I would like to see more of it.  In particular, I would love to get the ferry across to Gavdos, wherein lies the EU’s southernmost point, closer to Libya than Athens.  It’s a tiny rugged island south of Crete, with a permanent population of around 40 and no tourist industry to speak of.  One small pension in the main town, and a couple of other places that take in paying guests.  A couple of buses and not much else.  Most visitors tend to camp on the various beaches, under the old gnarled olive groves, where they lead a Spartan and bohemian life for a few days or weeks, cooking on camp fires by moonlight and playing guitars and just chilling in a hippy kind of way.  I’d love to give it a try sometime.

Then there is Australia – bit more ambitious than Gavdos, and more expensive too.  But I’d like to watch a test match at the SCG, swim off Bondi Beach, and take a look at the Great Barrier Reef (keeping a close eye out for Great Whites, of course).  Most of all – and this is something I’ve thought about for 40-odd years – I’d love to climb to the top of Ayers Rock and drink a six pack of Fosters while watching the sun go down on New Year’s Eve.  Just me and the beer and the stars and the silence.  It must be magical, and very probably illegal.

There is the Cabo de Gata national park in Almeria, southern Spain.  Again, this would be a return journey, as we’ve stayed along the coast at Roquetas de Mar a couple of times in my second cousin’s apartment, and in both visits we’ve driven out to Cabo in the hire car several days.  We usually use the long sandy beach next to the little fishing village of Cabo de Gata itself and it’s lovely.  We also drove along a few kilometres, over a spur in the rugged coastline to a small secluded beach next to a lighthouse.  The beach doesn’t seem to have a name (or at least one I’ve been able to find), and it has no amenities apart from a small space to park the car, but it’s lovely.  The first time there were only about a dozen people there, most of us naked, and the sea was warm and the sun shone in a cloudless late September sky.  I went again a couple of years later, in August, the peak season, and it was packed – hardly anywhere to park the car, never mind ourselves, so we gave it a miss. 

But I’d like to spend a couple of weeks exploring the park.  I’d rent a place at one of the small fishing villages that scatter the coastline, one fairly centrally located, get a mountain bike from somewhere and ride.  Ideally I would go out of the peak season – late May/early June or late September – when the area is less crowded with less traffic on the roads but it’s still hot and sunny.  I would take the coastal paths and explore the little coves that are hard to reach by car, or head inland a bit and take a look at the harsh semi-desert of the interior.  I would love that.

I’d like to take a long relaxing train ride.  Something ridiculous, like the full length of the Amsterdam – Moscow or Prague sleeper service via Cologne, Berlin, Copenhagen and Warsaw.  I did the Cologne – Warsaw bit on my way home from the UK back in 2010 (my trip to Trinidad was aborted because of the Iceland volcano and European airspace was closed for a week, so it was my only way home), and I’d like another go, but in more comfort – perhaps First Class with a sleeper cabin to myself.  Cost again……but it would be fun.  Alternatively, I read about a new service that runs from Seattle across the Canadian border to Vancouver and on to Whistler in the Rocky Mountains.  The carriages are mostly those glass-domed panorama ones that Canadian Pacific Railways use of the Trans-Canada route, and the scenery must be absolutely stunning with the track running on a strip between the Pacific and the Rockies.

I want to go to Croatia and sail along the coast visiting some of the 1000 plus islands, most of which are uninhabited.  Santorini in Greece – I read a book years ago that identified the island, pre-volcanic explosion that ended the Minoan civilization 4000 years ago, as a likely candidate for mythical Atlantis.  The book captured my imagination and I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, so I’d like to see it for myself one day.  It looks a lovely place for a vacation anyway, whether Atlantis or not.

A safari in Africa would be nice, and achievable too, perhaps.  We made friends with someone in Trinidad who was from Johannesburg, and we keep in touch and often talk about visiting them, but work and schools and cost have made it impossible so far.  But we could do it, with a little luck, and quite soon.

A return to Trini would be good too, to catch up with my mate Phil and his missus Chrissie, whose wedding was a highlight of our time there four years ago (so long!).  Bake ‘n’ shark on Maraccas Beach in the summer sun, with a chill box full of Carib beer has its attractions as well.

I’d like to see more of Italy.  I spent a couple of months in Rome, working in the Vatican, some years ago, but it was winter, wet and cold, so a trip in better climes would be enjoyable.  Then Tuscany, avoiding Tony Blair and assorted wannabe and neverwillbe celebs as much as possible, and a drive down the spine of the country on some of those wonderful roads so beloved of the Top Gear team.

So I have a bit to do, to satisfy that little lot.  No doubt there will be other ideas and plans come along in the fullness of time, but these will do as a starting point.  If I manage even half of them I will be a happy man, and will have stuff to write about on here for years to come.  I’m very conscious that the nature of this blog has changed over the time I’ve been writing it – it’s less a travelogue nowadays and more of an opinion piece.  That’s partly because there has been so much going on in the world that I’ve had an opinion on, and partly because, over the last couple of years anyway, the travel has tailed off a bit. 

But hopefully I’ll have some new destinations coming up over the rest of this year – watch this space.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Ukraine versus the Russian Bear.

I’ve been watching the situation in Ukraine evolve with interest and a large amount of distress.  Events over the past few days, with Yanukovich doing a runner to his mates in Moscow, the counter rising of pro-Russian activists in the east of the country, and in particular the (so far) bloodless Russian invasion of Crimea, have moved quickly and complicated matters considerably.

I was in Kiev a couple of years ago, just before the Euro football tournament the country co-hosted with Poland – see my post Kiev – Euro 2012 from May 2012 – and found it a nice place.  The country (or at least the little I saw) was enchanting and the city itself an exciting and increasingly Westernized metropolis that offered much to do for tourist and resident alike.  The people seemed to be hard working and clearly looking towards the EU for the future.  The main downside was (and still is) the vast amount of corruption there.  A small example: within a few minutes of crossing the border we were pulled up by the police, probably because our number plates were not Ukrainian.  The document check revealed that we did not have the required insurance permit (which no-one had actually told us we needed).  After a brief discussion, a donation of PLN100, EUR5 and USD5 that went straight into the officer’s wallet (of course without a receipt) smoothed the way, and we were directed to a local garage where we were able to purchase the Green Card.   We were subsequently told that this was very common throughout the country, as the police topped up their low pay in this way: everyone from the President down knew it, and accepted it as part of everyday life.

Given that Yanukovich himself is the most corrupt individual in the country this is really no surprise.  His conduct throughout his two spells as president, in particular his jailing on essentially trumped up charges of rival (and more popular) opposition politician Julia Tymoschenko, has been questionable at the very least, and even two years ago the average Ukrainian couldn’t wait to get rid of him.  Of course, he is not alone.  The country is basically run by a small group of oligarchs – apparently 80% of the country’s wealth is in the hands of a mere 20 individuals – with the rest of population low paid and in many cases close to poverty.  We stayed in one of the wealthier residential areas in Kiev, and the apartment blocks were sub-standard, at least by western European standards.  We passed through poorer areas, both in and outside of the city, and saw a lot of squalor.

If proof of Yanukovich’s corruption is required, news websites here have run a number of articles over the past week, since his flight, showing various properties he “owned” – palatial villas with private pools and 9 hole golf courses in the back garden next to the helipad, dripping with incredibly tacky gold leaf on everything, overstuffed furniture that looked antique but probably isn’t, garages full of limousines….all the trappings of the typical eastern European (in particular Russian) oligarch.  Or gangster.  Another story reported that he had bought one of his daughters a 9 bedroom apartment in Manhattan.  Another daughter was bought an Aegean island (previously gifted by Aristotle Onassis to Jackie Kennedy).  The man is staggeringly wealthy, but the source of that wealth is still shrouded in mystery.  In that, he is similar to his friend Vladimir Putin, who is reckoned to be worth several tens of billions of dollars.  And is equally corrupt – it goes with the Presidential territory in this part of the world.

Faced with that kind of wealth discrepancy, it’s little wonder that most Ukrainians wanted rid of the man and his government.  His decision to drop a proposed trade deal with, and potential membership of, the EU in favour of an immediate payment of several billion dollars and closer economic ties with Russia at the end of last year proved the final straw and the protests started.  I have no doubt you watched it unfold on the tv just as I did.

I remember Independence Square – the Majdan – , where it all unfolded, very well.  When we were there in May 2012 it was an enchanting place.  It was being converted to the main Euro 2012 Fanzone and was dominated by a massive Heineken beer tent designed like half the designated adidas football to be used.  There were massive screens being built to show matches, and many food and drink stalls set up all round the perimeter.  The wide main street that leads into the square is one of the main shopping streets, housing branches of Benetton, Zara, Dior and all the major international stores.  All along both sides were kiosks selling local snack food as well as McDonalds and Pizza Hut.  At one point was a small funfair with a beautiful old carousel – the kids loved it.  You probably saw on the newscasts a column with a beautiful gilded statue at the top.  It stands at the top of a flight of steps and is surrounded by fountains.  During our visit, over the May bank holiday weekend, the steps were turned into a small waterfall in which the kids – and adults too – could splash and play.  We were there late one evening, around midnight, and it was a balmy evening, with temperatures still in the high 20s.  It was crowded with locals and tourists enjoying the holiday atmosphere, drinking beer, eating and laughing and dancing to the street musicians.  We had a lovely time.

Fast forward to now.  The burning tyre barriers.  The shrines to the protestors who lost their lives during the weeks of protest.  The crowds still there, still hoping for a brighter future, closer to the EU than to Putin’s Russia.  The destruction and bloodshed have been painful for me to watch.

And now the corrupt Yanukovich government has been replaced by an unelected group cobbled together from the ranks of the various opposition and protest groups, including the country’s most famous and popular sportsman, the boxer Vladimir Klitschko (who Maggie Lake on CNN insists on calling Kler-tit-ch-ko).  Elections are set for the end of May, and it was expected that this would rubber stamp the protestors’ demands and bring in an EU- leaning government, and everyone would live happily ever after.

The problem is Putin doesn’t see it that way, and nor it seems do many people living in the eastern end of the country and the Crimea, both closer culturally and historically to Russia than to Europe.  Within hours of Yanukovich arriving in Russia the Red Army starts military manoeuvres close to the border with Ukraine.  Russia insists this is purely coincidental, and was a long planned training exercise.  Of course it was…….  The Black Sea fleet of the Russian Navy, based under licence at Sevastopol in Ukrainian Crimea, mobilizes, and other ships start arriving, pulled from Mediterranean duties off Syria – no doubt a coincidence too.  Several thousand troops dressed in battle fatigues, Kevlar armour and helmets, and brandishing AK-47s, but dressed also in masks and without a military insignia anywhere on display, and being transported in unmarked heavy trucks of a distinctly Russian appearance, start patrolling the streets of Sevastopol and Simferopol (the regional capital) and take control of both airports.  Ukrainian flags are replaced by Russian.

Of course, they are Russian troops.  By now the peninsula is under Russian control, and Putin openly admits as much, and says that Russia will do whatever it takes, including use of force, to protect “Russian interests and citizens” there.  Cue outcry in the US, the EU and the UN, all of whom are effectively powerless.  Obama has an extended phone call with Putin, who essentially tells him to piss off – hardly surprising: here is a lame duck US President half way through his final term trying to influence an untouchable President of a huge country that matches the US dollar for dollar and has even bigger mineral wealth to play with.   Why should Putin give a shit what Obama says?  Clearly, he doesn’t.  Angela Merkel has a chat – she it seems has more influence with Putin – but doesn’t really get much further.  Young Bill Hague and Old John Kerry fly in, making pronouncements about “international obligations” being broken and ignored, and threatening sanctions etc etc.  Might make a difference, but only if the rest of the world pulls together – which it won’t, since China has publicly stated it supports Russian actions (never mind other Russian client states like Iran and Syria and Cuba and Venezuela and Byelorussia, who have little clout and will say and do whatever they’re told and in any case have enough problems of their own).  The UN can say what it likes, but Mr.Ban will never be able to force any resolutions through because Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council has right of veto.

I have no idea how this will play out.  I hope Russia pulls back and allows the Ukrainian people to hold their elections peacefully to determine their own future.  I hope there is no need for any sanctions against anybody, because I doubt they will have much effect on megarich Russia.  I hope no young Russian or Ukrainian soldier panics and does something stupid like shoot someone, because this could kick things off badly.  If a war, God forbid, does kick off, I think Poland would inevitably support Ukraine and send in troops and air strikes, and as NATO members would expect support from other members if Russia retaliates.  Which would be very bad indeed - I live not much more than 250 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, and of course in the event of Russian retaliation Warsaw would be a prime target.

I don’t believe it will come to that……..but one thing in life I do believe is that there are no guarantees.