I spent last weekend in Tuscany in what was once an abandoned seaside resort, now a glittering showcase for everything that is repugnant about global tourism. I leave out its name because the locals, though no less greedy and unprincipled than other people elsewhere on this venal planet, are hardly to blame for the discovery of the resort, some summers ago, by newly enriched Russians, and its subsequent colonization, or rather barbarization. Remember the joke? “Occupation?” a Russian is asked at passport control. “No, tourism.”
The general atmosphere is that of a big boss’s jail cell in mafia movies, where the privileged inmate enjoys what he believes to be all the luxuries of liberty, but which on closer inspection turn out to be television, slippers, salami, and booze. Here, too, the Russian visitors renting villas for $100,000 a month believe they’re holidaying in Italy, occasionally venturing on tours to nearby Carrara, where Michelangelo shopped for marble, or Colonnata, which the lardiest pigs in Italy have made their home since Leonardo was a boy in short trousers. In actual fact, however, they’re living in a ghetto that they, unbeknown to themselves, have themselves wrought, a preposterous, comical Italianate fiction that makes Disneyland seem like an inland tract of Sardinia inhabited only by incestuous goatherds. Gucci and Louis Vuitton stay open until 11 PM, restaurant menus are in Russian, and Filipino maids are laughing all the way to the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. Even for a chance observer, there is an oppressive sense of eyeless – or at least optically illusionary – tranquility about this place, as though one has been bound, blindfolded, and lowered into an airless, bottomless, soundless well.
Before we all gloat, however, here’s a story in juxtaposition. On April 12, “National Aeronautics Day” in Russia, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, USS Donald Cook, passed the Dardanelles and entered the international waters of the Black Sea “on a presence mission,” according to USNI News, “to reassure U.S. allies following the Russian invasion of Crimea.” Despatched by the Russians to meet this, one of the largest BMD destroyers in the American fleet, was a single Sukhoi SU-24, a fairly old Russian warplane.
Equipped with the Aegis missile defense system and designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles as well as submarines and aircraft, the Cook was armed to the teeth. The Russian attack jet, by contrast, was unarmed – with the exception of a little contraption codenamed “Khibiny,” which, as it approached the intruding vessel, knocked out all the navigation and guidance systems of the high-tech behemoth. Whereupon, over the next hour and a half, the plane executed 12 combat passes over the immobilized Cook at an altitude of some 500 feet, though just one such pass would have spelled a disabled vessel’s doom under battlefield conditions.
Once the Sukhoi had completed its humiliation of the United States Navy, the Cook’s electronics came to life again and it made for the nearest friendly port, at Constanta in Romania, where several members of her crew are reported to have tendered their resignations. It is, in fact, plausible that after realizing that their ship, touted as having been equipped with the world’s most advanced electronics system, had been left eyeless – literally, at sea – by a bag of tricks tucked under the wing of an old crop duster belonging to an allegedly defunct superpower, these brave sailors decided to call it a day.
I know some of you military hardware buffs out there will grumble that none of this ever happened, that it’s all just a load of Kremlin hooey, and that Aegis is as invincible as the goddess whose buckler gives it its name. Yet military hardware isn’t my subject here. This post aims to alert the reader to the circumstances in which different nations find themselves, as it were, at sea, and to remind him that these circumstances are not always civilian.