Monday, 19 March 2007

While I am travelling...

I have this jolly little travel schedule the next 48 hours:

SK 735 20MAR SVO-CPH 1545 1630
SK 464 20MAR CPH-OSL 1835 1945
LH 3145 21MAR OSL-MUC 1755 2020
LH 3196 21MAR MUC-SVO 2100 0205+1day

Oh smiley joy: Sheremetyevo 2 airport and immigration/customs at half past two in the morning; home by 3.30am? 4.00am? And, naturally, a 10.00am meeting later that morning carbon footprint terms, I think I am going to have to plant a Siberia-full of forest to become carbon-neutral :(

But Dear Reader, please amuse me while I am away by answering the single question poll I have, on the dashboard (below, right of this post and half way down). It would be very interesting for me to see what you think of Russia.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Loss of Flight UT-471

Sadly yesterday we saw the first fatal air crash in Russia of 2007. UT Air Flight 471 crashed while attempting to land. Wikipedia, with grim efficiency, already has an entry on the incident.

Actually, this entry originally had an error in it (it happens, only occasionally, on Wikipedia). Citing an early Reuters report, it suggested that UT Air was banned by the European Union from flying to/in EU airspace, on safety grounds. This not true: there are no Russian airlines banned by the EU: the most up-to-date EU blacklist is here, so yours truly deleted this reference from the Wikipedia entry.

You can see the actual Tupolev 134A involved in this crash (library photo) here: Tu134-A, registration RA-65021 was thirty one years old. Russian Federal Transportation Minister, Igor Levitin, said in February this year that the aging Russian medium-haul airliners (Tu-154s and Tu-134s) would be phased out of commercial use within the next five years. The principal craft to replace them will be the Sukhoi 'SuperJet 100' RJ (regional jet), being built in conjunction with Finmeccanica / Alenia of Italy. The first jets should hit the skies for testing around 2009, although little birds tell me major commercial use of them won't happen until 2011/2012.

The cause of yesterday's UT Air accident is almost certainly pilot error: the cockpit crew seems to have brought the plane down short of the runway by about 400 metres, causing the plane to 'bounce' and flip. There is also talk of landing gear failure and the pilot actually attempting an emergency landing, but this is not currently confirmed.

In any case, the principal contributing factors will be pilot error (landing short) and bad weather (freezing fog). I am not sure if that airport, or for that matter the Tu-134A, have ILS - instrument landing system -to maintain the appropriate glide path in poor visibility; and as I understand it, this seems to have been almost a category IIIA landing ('blind' landing). Of course, though, even the old second generation 134s have radar (housed in the distinctive glass-windowed nose cone).

It was remarkable, actually, that so many people survived: however, the Tu-134, like other Tupolev's, shares its evolutionary background with the old Tu-16 bomber and they have all unusually strong hulls. Indeed, there is even recorded history of a Tu-154, operated by MALEV Hungarian Airlines, surviving after the pilots landed, having forgotten to lower the landing gear (link to Russian language report). Having hit the deck (and realised what had happened) the pilots revved up and took off again (metal sparking all over the runway), before going around and making a conventional landing). You try that in any Boeing or an Airbus and you will be a corpse.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Clarifying my last post...

In furtherance of yesterday’s post (and now I am feeling a lot more human), may I add just these two observations?

Nuclear warheads, unlike, say, castles, have a shortish lifespan. A lot of Russian nuclear warheads (and their delivery systems) are now reaching the end of their operational life. Check out the awesomely good blog, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces: one of those staggeringly brilliant resources which, without the Internet, would be unavailable to most of us.

So while we see that the net warhead position plateaus out through 2008-2011, it is then going to resume a net reduction. So, maybe I should have finessed the writing in my post (but, you know, flu and all) by saying Russia needs more newer nukes: effective, scary ones to keep the balance of peace etc.

And, lest anyone thinks I am being cavalier about all this. This jaunty little YouTube video focuses the mind somewhat… and tells one why the thought of nuclear terrorism is, I think, the most frightening, yet inevitable, next step our society will have to face...

Footnote: the UK nuclear arsenal is, these days, all submarine based. Well, I say all - in fact, the UK of course only has four nuclear warhead-carrying subs; the Vanguard, the Victorious, the Vengence and the Vigilant... Usually there are three out there, in the deep, at anyone time. They carry about 40 nuclear missiles each, aparently, which is kind of creepy.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Why Russia needs more Nukes...

72 hours of heavy-dosing on Russian Coldrex and the buzz ain't what it used to be...

Now, every self-respecting Russian blog has been posting this diagram, below, from those folks at English Russia, promoted courtesy of the apparent Eliteny uber-blog, Siberian Light.

To be honest, though, while not disputing the truth of what it says, I am not sure this observation passes the 'so what?' test. It is intellectually tired and old to say that the US neo-cons are re-setting their nuclear sights on Russia: like they ever stopped? And a global picture of nuke placement, as the French would say, would show the US continues to be an equal-opportunity would-be aggressor.... That is what war-gaming and preparedness is, surely, all about.

But, still, I say, Russia needs more (and newer) nuclear weapons. eh? you think.

Here's my humbled supposition as to why: demographic collapse is already in its early stages in Russia - I don't think it will nearly be as bad as some say, but a population below 100,000,000 by 2040 has to be an odds on certainty at this stage. In that scenario, the current policy to aspire to a standing conscription force is just never going to stack up. I mean, Sergey Ivanov's reforms to reduce 'exceptions to call-up' notwithstanding (because God knows, a broader social and intellectual base in the conscripted army could only but have a positive effect on the force's welfare and fighting potential), it is going to be harder and harder for the Russian armed forces to maintain man-power at their current level (1,500,000 including conscripts and paramilitaries?). I think no-one should pretend that it serves any global interests for Russia to be weak... A Russia, secure in her own borders, is a Russia that can engage outwardly, return us to a bi-polar world (albeit benignly so) and both keep the US in geo-political check (like we've benefited recently from its unfettered unipolar dominance) and show that there are some world normative values of power-play which rogue-states cross at their multi-lateral peril.

Since I genuinely cannot see the case for Russia being anyone's expansionary military threat (the noise of the trouble-making paranoids in Tbilisi excepted), therefore what we are talking about is an armed force for defensive purposes.

And this is my point.

Just as the United Kingdom tonight voted for the renewal of its nuclear arsenal, so I think we should rip up those '80s US-USSR treaties and allow Russia to re-arm too. For exactly the same reason.

For while I think India and Pakistan have now learned the meaning of M.A.D., and North Korea has only ever played Dr Strangelove to blackmail the world for more aid, the simple brutal truth is that Iran will become a nuclear power... and much sooner than we all pray for. Russia, especially under VVP, has been playing a long and subtle game with Iran, which I still believe has every chance of being more effective than implicit threat of a Yankee stand-off. But here's the thing: one has to prepare for the time that it might go wrong. Bluntly, we need the five permanent nuclear powers to reinvest and upgrade in nuclear weapons capability, if only because 'frogs' and their ilk may become a tragic necessity to prevent wider conflict. And since events after 2003, and the Anglo-Saxon adventure in Iraq, tell us there is no Western monopoly on common sense, then we need Russia - we, all of us, the global community of wanna-be survivors - need Russia to be one of those re-arming countries too.

It is a sad comment on our human condition - but I think an accurate one - that it is only through strength and the certainty of overwhelming retaliation - that nations can truly guarantee peace. Of course we have the edifice of the EU to counter-point that assertion (nations of historic conflict coming together in harmony)... yeah right.

Maybe it is my flu'd up and miserable state that says this but, I think it is an awful race against history to see which happens first... urban 'nuclear' terrorism or an angst-y, trigger-nervous Israel doing Washington's work and taking out those Iranian nuclear facilities. But neither Russia, nor the non-aligned world, should hope or bank on that. Regimes like Iran have to believe this is still a multi-polar world where, in contrast to 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', it can see that if it ever does the unthinkable it faces annihilation from more than one direction: my enemy's enemy is mine too. It doesn't say a bunch of beans about human nature, but I honestly think it is a workable strategy for preventing the awful.

...and now I go back to being 'high' on Russian Coldrex...

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Feverish ramblings...

I am just dying of flu and some hideous stomach virus. Really, I think I am on the cusp of death itself: bottles of Evian are just not touching my temperature; my lips have shrunk so much they are now too small for my mouth and seem to have split all over (eew!); everything aches and...well...other people's illnesses are boring I know.
Work was relentless last week - three countries in three days and then a 12-hour stint in the office on Sunday (which, mayhaps, is why my immune system has since declared an unofficial industrial action and apparently now withdrawn labour).

I was in Kyiv again for 24 hours last week: glorious spring weather, before 24 hours in Warsaw. Actually, in Kyiv I had a very interesting lunch with the Editor-in-Chief of Segodnya which, although Wikipedia calls it a tabloid, is actually quite influential. His views on the future of the current Presidency and coalition Government were fascinating but, I'm afraid, not for 'public' repetition on this blog.
To Warsaw I flew, LOT, a staggering turd of an airline. The Kyiv-Warsaw leg of my trip I flew business class and, wow!, I have seen Moscow trolley cars with more élan. It must have the worst business class product in Europe's skies right now. Six seats across, in business class! Honestly, if these small countries of CEE can't do flag-carrier airlines properly, forget it!, and at least become a half-way decent discount carrier.
In the in-flight magazine - actually not bad - the deputy Treasury Minister was forlornly interviewed about LOT's 'future'. As with so much else about Poland, it seems to me at least, progress is blocked only by the ability of Polish politicians and vested interests to argue amongst themselves, not noticing the missed opportunities accumulating around them.

It was a beautiful afternoon when I arrived in Warsaw and, from my hotel room, at the Intercontinental I had a lovely view (right, is the picture I took from my room, with my HP PDA) of the Palace of Culture as it was struck by the late afternoon sunshine. This magnificent building was a 'present' from old Uncle Joe himself and was, of course, an architecturally unsubtle reminder of who the boss was. It is not surprising therefore that there was talk of demolishing it; but I am glad they've kept it. It is a magnificent chunk of sculpted space. In the courtyard, they are still ice-skating. I was in town to speak at a conference on IPOs (or so I thought); actually I seem to have stepped into a war zone between the Warsaw Stock Exchange and London's AIM market. Talk about a battle not worth fighting!

As the day went on, it seemed to me that both the LSE and WSE have missed the plot a tad; and were arguing about the wrong things. The LSE, it seemed to me, just pitched its marketing proposition to Polish firms thinking about an IPO completely wrongly (sell the idea of a London listing first, don't focus on AIM); while, on the other hand, the Warsaw Stock Exchange has missed the big picture that they need to move their butt and make a meaningful effort to become the main regional stock market for smaller-larger and larger medium sized CEE companies, wanting a stock listing, because the likes of London, NYSE Euronext and Frankfurt are soon going to be all over their ass. Their current main argument - our listings' fees are cheaper - is intellectually weak: they need to step up and talk about liquidity, investor targeting blah, blah. I said all this, bizarrely, on a couple of TV interviews and a few newspaper interviews while in town; so the debate, while the wrong one, seems to be a high profile one.
Oh right: so why am I sulking today; apart from the whole ill thing...Like most only children I make a dreadful patient, particularly when there is no-one here to nurse me :(
Well, we live in a world where one can't even be ill in peace any more. I sent out emails and SMS messages around 06.00 saying I am staying at home and planning to rest and, bugger me, when I have been awake today it has been endless emails and gmails, Skype text messages, cell phone calls and all the other half dozen electronic means there are to get hold of me.

Not only do I get to feel guilty taking my 37.5 degree-racked body to bed, but I then get stressed at all the messages bunching up which, if I don't process them today, will make tomorrow even worse. I miss the old days, earlier in my career (before email and PDAs) when a person could be sick and, hey!, actually have an undisturbed day at home trying to get better. These days, I swear, short of actually being on Life Support in an ICU, no-one respects being ill any more....sulk!
But less than four weeks until my 2-week+ vacation to Morocco, where my GPRS doesn't work for my handheld! ;-) ...Why do you think I choose out-of-the-way places for holidays!?! So I think happy thoughts then of my upcoming break here, and here, and here:

That splendid old girl is my mother; whom I took to Marrakesh last year...

Above, is the Ben Youssef Mosque, Marrakesh
Be the first visitor, in the quiet early cool of the day, to the Jardin Majorelle (above, below); Yves Saint Laurant's gift to the city
The urban oasis, below and bottom, of the Villa des Orangers, Marrakesh

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Banging the Tin Drum

I have been meaning to give a quick shout out to which, inter alia, provides the very handy oil price counter I have on this blog's dashboard. I like to keep track of the crude as we have four oil company clients across four countries in my 'Eurasian' region.
Although not often updated, the blog by JeriCan (geddit?) is worth a read and has some novel insights. The oil industry was the first green movement: it saved the whale! Oh yes it did...whales, especially sperm whales, were hunted for their fat for use in lamps and candles; the switch to kerosene oil lamps probably saved many species of whale from total extinction. Kerosene ruled until Mr Edison invented the lightbulb in 1878; then the oil industry nose-dived into recession. It wasn't until Henry Ford's mass produced automobile in 1908 that things looked up for the oil sector, heralding the era of Big Oil some of us know and love today.
PS: I am loving the RusEnergy blog, now its had its makeover.

The whole flying really sucks

I was only supposed to go to Kyiv for one morning; taking that last flight out the night before and flying back to Moscow Friday plans eh? Much though I love living in Moscow, genuinely, and fond as I am of my several times a month trips to our office in Kyiv, the getting there and back seems to be getting worse and not better and stresses me out totally.

Usually to Kyiv I fly AeroSvit, or in extemis Aeroflot (I am not keen on S7 - as Siberian Airlines is now called, that also flies this route as, frankly, I am not wholly confident of their safety). Flying with AeroSvit means using Sheremetyevo 1 airport. Now, with apologies to all Russians, but Sheremetyevo 1 is a third world slum of an airport. Actually Sheremetyevo 2 is pretty awful too, but still a huge improvement to Sherry 1. Badly designed, badly maintained and apparently run by a management team with no skill whatsoever, this primarily domestic airport is surely the worst in the world. I mean, I have used some pretty poor airports in my life. Aleppo 'International', in Syria, before its makeover comes to mind, or using Toussaint Louverture International in Port-au-Prince, was also pretty horrid at times. But, none of these compare to the feckless misery of Sheremetyevo 1 (which didn't look nearly so pretty as in this picture!)

Although 'primarily domestic'. Sherry 1 also covers flights to Russia's 'near abroad', as we all now quaintly refer to the bits of the USSR that have broken away. So, given my patch (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the other 'stans of Central Asia), I am condemned to use it. One would also use Sherry 1 for flights to St Petersburg, but I absolutely refuse to fly Pulkovo airlines (which serves this route) on safety grounds: my opinion only, natch.

Now a new terrminal building has been built (Sheremetyevo 1c!) which according to my travel agent and the airline would be the one we would be using that evening; for the first time! "Not yet commissioned" said the security guard,turning us away and pointing up the road to the grim spectre of terminal 1(a? b?). Only at Sheremetyevo could there be serious confusion as to which terminal you're taking off from...

So, anyway, 9.30pm at night and terminal 1 is stinky, damp and the 'restaurants' massively overcrowded, dirty and it's all just too grim. My flight on AeroSvit is turbulent and we land an hour late, so I don't get to my hotel until almost 1 in the morning. The next day, actually, was a rather successful one (I have written about it on our corporate blog) so I had to stay in Kyiv longer than expected, thinking 'oh well, I'll just catch the last AeroSvit back'....Not! Everything was fully booked, so I had an unscheduled extra night in Kyiv (missing a friend's birthday party in Moscow) and had to hit Hugo Boss for 'emergency' clothing supplies...but somehow managing to spend $500 in the process.

The next day and Borispol Airport - which benefits from a makeover but, if anything, is even less competently run than Sheremetyevo 1 - is chaos. Only a third of the immigration-exit booths are open and the queues (if that word can be applied to the jostling, sprawling mass of which I was a part) contained literally maybe a thousand people. To get through immigration - just to leave the country - and security took over an hour so I then had to run to the gate before it closed. (we then sat in the plane for 90 minutes waiting for transfer passengers - Arrgh!)

Borispol is just too small for the amount of traffic that now comes to Ukraine's capital city and its international terminal extension completely insufficient: the airport only has two air bridges, so everyone else has to board by bus, which is not only boring but, in winter, very chilly. I was flying Aeroflot back and this managed to be 90 minutes late landing: and the route is only 75 minutes long! So, allowing for time difference, I basically 'lost' Saturday flying back home.

Russians are splendidly fatalistic about flying - and with the current safety record of Russian airlines, who can blame them - which leads some of them to have a insouciant disregard for some basic safety procedures.

On my flight out, Thursday night, as we descend and the seat-belt signs go on (so I am guessing we're below 10,000 feet) the woman behind me jauntily turns on her mobile phone and calls her husband "we'll be on the ground in 10 minutes honey!"). Amazing, actually that it worked, but yes it did. We'll be on the ground faster than that, I think, if you don't turn your bloody phone off: we're flying in a 25 year old Boeing. I know this thanks to, which I use compulsively every time I fly, to check the plane I am flying (using its registration code on the fuselage). So, while I doubt using a mobile phone would hassle a new Boeing or an Airbus, on a 25 year old Boeing, who knows?

On the way back, with Aeroflot, we're on an even older Tupolev 154 - oh joy! - and on this flight the man in front of me uses his lap-top and watches his DVD throughout, including during take-off and landing.

Actually, I am less worried on a Tupi: these planes are mechanical rather than electronic and, strangely, I have a lot of faith in them. Mostly they were built in an age when Soviet engineering was at its finest. The engines being at the back of the plane (giving take-off more of a lift-off feel actually) means, if you're in business class, it's an amazingly quiet ride. True, it has a long, bone-jarring taxi-run and, seriously, one wonders if it'll fall apart before the pilot goes for 'rotate'. Also, when you're descending (hurtling might be a more accurate term in a Tupolev), there is the most God Almighty BANG! as the landing gear doors sort of explode open. First timers - whose faces at this point are always a picture to treasure - always think we're all about to be sucked down and out, which, nastily once happened in one of the more ghoulish air disasters I know, whose 33rd anniversary - spookily - was yesterday. Not, you know, that I am obsessive in my fear of flying or anything...