Issue 219: 2019 10 17: The Cock-Up Factor

17 October 2019

The Cock-Up Factor

Dragons, spies and cosmonauts.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Half a million euros.  In cash.  Life savings, let’s say.  What would you do with it?  Put it in the bank?  Invest it?  Spend it?  Or hide it away somewhere safe and close to hand, like the 49-year old garage owner from Soest, near Dortmund, who recently stashed €540,000 away in his workshop, in an old oil-fired boiler that hadn’t been used for years?

If you didn’t catch the story, you can probably guess what happened to that cash.  The garage owner went away last Christmas and left a friend to look after the workshop (the secret stash remained a secret, of course).  The temperature dropped, the friend worried about frozen pipes – and fired up the ancient boiler.  The garage owner returned after his two week break to find all but €20,400 of his hoard reduced to ashes and soot.

The story was reported in Bild this week because the judge has just dismissed the garage owner’s attempt to sue his friend (probably not his friend any longer).  And the Dortmund tax inspectors are reportedly about to pay the garage a visit.

The story is interesting for a number of reasons.  Is it a metaphor for modern Germany, a country admired for its wealth creation but often criticised for its reluctance to spend that wealth, for pulling in money from the rest of the EU via exports to Italy, Spain and Greece and then sitting on it?  Is it a contemporary example of something deeper and more ancient in the culture, a typically ambivalent story about hoarding, and indeed about material riches itself, to take its place alongside all those old Germanic myths, legends and folk-tales about selfish dragons amassing heaps of treasure in hidden places and jealously guarding it against all comers, in defiance of Adam Smith’s recommendations about the circulation of wealth?  Both dragon and treasure usually come to a sticky end in such tales (Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, etc), after all.

Most of all, however, it’s interesting as proof that triumph (half a million euros!) and disaster (dust and ashes) are always so close, that a cunning plan almost inevitably invites cock-up, especially if it involves subterfuge.  And as such, it was a reassuring counter to another, potentially much more disturbing and alarming, story in the news this week.

As if we haven’t got enough to worry about – climate change, Isis fighters busting out of prison in north Syria, another Brexit cliff-hanger, etc, etc – along comes the confirmation, as reported in The New York Times, of the existence in Russia of a secret elite spy division – Unit 29155 – dedicated to destabilising Europe.  Set up ten years ago, with an HQ in eastern Moscow, its officers are la crème de la crème of the GRU (military intelligence) – highly decorated and experienced veterans of black ops in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Chechnya, experts in “subversion, sabotage and assassination”.  And they’re over here, among us, hidden, secretly working away to destroy our institutions and way of life.  Its finger prints are allegedly all over an attempt to bump off an arms dealer in Bulgaria, an attempt to destabilise Moldova, an attempted coup in Montenegro, an attempted assassination of a rogue GRU agent in Salisbury (investigative journalists at Belingcat have just unearthed photos of suspect and GRU officer Anatoly Chepiga at the wedding of the daughter of the commander of Unit 29155)…

Hang on, hang on.  The poisoning of Sergei Skripol in Salisbury – that was a complete cock-up, wasn’t it?  Mr Skripol survived, and his assailants were clumsy enough to poison his daughter as well and succeeded only in unintentionally killing one innocent British citizen and poisoning another – a black farce culminating in that hilarious and embarrassing TV interview of two “sports nutrition salesmen and tourists” protesting their innocence.  And all those other cases – the Bulgarian hit, the happening in Moldova, the coup in Montenegro – all “attempts” only?  So they were all failures as well, were they?  And didn’t the Dutch security services catch a bunch of bungling Russian spies – GRU officers – red handed, trying to penetrate the OPCW (the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) in the Hague, exactly a year ago?  That sounds like Unit 29155 as well, doesn’t it?  Further reassuring proof, if need be, that a cunning plan almost inevitably invites a cock-up.

But let’s not be too complacent about this.  Perhaps the Unit considers the alarm and dismay caused by its operations to be more important tactically than the actual success of the operations themselves.  Perhaps it has had many successes but they’ve remained invisible precisely because they were successful and thus undetected.

On the other hand, there may have been other cock-ups or narrowly-avoided disasters which have been hushed up or even disguised back home as triumphs.  The recent obituaries of the heroic soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who died last week aged 85, suggest that Russia is experienced at such things.

In 1965 Mr Leonov made the first spacewalk, from a craft more than 300 miles above Earth and orbiting at nearly 20,000 miles per hour.  A great achievement and a genuine triumph – which was terrifyingly close to complete disaster.  Outside, his spacesuit blew up like a balloon because of the absence of atmospheric pressure in space, which meant that he couldn’t haul himself back along the cable (his hands kept slipping out of his gloves) or fit back in through the craft’s airlock.  With only minutes to spare before the orbit would take him out of sunlight and into total darkness, and almost blinded by sweat, he managed to deflate his suit by opening its oxygen release valve (thus risking suffocation at the same time) and haul himself in through the airlock, head-first rather than the approved feet first, which meant that he had to go through some almost impossible contortions in the tiny space of the airlock to get himself back into the craft itself.

Then he and the other member of the two-man team were alarmed by a dramatic and mysterious increase in the oxygen level in the craft, risking the danger of explosion; one tiny electric spark in that highly flammable atmosphere…  Luckily the level dropped, but then the automatic re-entry system failed and they had to resort to manual.  Then the landing module had problems separating from the orbital module, sending the whole craft into a rapid, painful and punishing spin.  When they did return to Earth, they found themselves in the frozen wastes of Siberia, surrounded by forest, snow and wolves, 2000km away from the planned landing site.  Luckily, a rescue team got to them just before hypothermia, frostbite or dangerous wild animals did.

Disaster a hair’s breadth away, so many cock-ups – but a triumph nevertheless, thanks to the courage and ingenuity of the two cosmonauts.  Needless to say, the near-disasters and the cock-ups were hidden away when the success of the mission was broadcast.  After their crash-landing in Siberia, when ground control had no idea where they were or even if they were alive, their families were told that they were safe and sound and resting up in a secret location.

Four years later, by the by, a motorcade taking Mr Leonov to the Kremlin to celebrate the completion of another space mission was attacked by a gunman trying to assassinate Brezhnev, who was also in the motorcade.  The gunman fired at the wrong car – he hit the cosmonauts’ vehicle by mistake and the driver was killed.  But the soviet leader was unhurt.  A cocked-up assassination attempt and a political disaster narrowly averted only by luck, no doubt swept under the carpet by the authorities.  Did it set the standard for future GRU/Unit 29155 operations, perhaps?

 

 

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