Russian fleet "invades" Britain

The Russian fleet anchors off the northern coast of the island of Unst, the most northerly island of Britain's Shetland Islands, which are off the northern coast of Scotland.

Russian fleet makes final blip on the Shetland radar

Sam Jones
Saturday September 3, 2005
The Guardian

They may have missed the cold war by a good 15 years, but it seems this time the Russians are finally coming - well, to the Shetlands anyway.
Yesterday morning, just as the Ministry of Defence prepared to acknowledge the changing tide of international affairs by switching off its radar listening station on Unst, Britain's most northerly island, a fleet of Russian warships appeared off the island's north coast.

Fortunately, their presence was not the harbinger of some sinister attack modelled on a trashy airport thriller.

The fleet - which included an aircraft carrier - was merely anchored in international waters.

Last night the MoD confirmed that five Russian warships were off the island.

"We are aware that they are in international waters, and they have a right to be there," said a spokeswoman.

"The UK has warm relations with Russia, and the Royal Navy has visited Russian ports."

The naval presence excited islanders, who headed up to high ground with binoculars as word of the visitors spread.

Duncan Sandison, a deputy lord lieutenant for Shetland, said that a few years ago the sight of the massed fleet would have caused a big stir.

"At one time we would have got quite excited about this," he said. "I would think this is a slight embarrassment for the Ministry of Defence. I think if this had happened off the English coast it would have caused a bit more excitement."

The visit also stirred up a few bitter feelings.

During the cold war, the radar listening station at RAF Saxa Vord on Unst was Britain's frontline against a Soviet invasion. Since the cold war ended with the collapse of communism, the island has seen its strategic stock plummet. In July, the MoD said it was shutting the station and mothballing the site.

The MoD decision angered islanders, who say that closure of Saxa Vord will destroy their community.

They argue that Unst's economy will be devastated when a quarter of the population - 70 personnel and their families - leave the island to start again elsewhere. Islanders also fear that a further 40 local jobs will go on Unst, the population of which is only 700.

Although yesterday's events would once have inspired a terror not seen since the arrival of the first Vikings more than 1,000 years ago, some islanders were left wondering whether a bit of glasnost and foreign investment would not be a bad idea.

Sandy Macaulay, a local development worker, said that some residents were already discussing the apparent visit from the Russians in a positive light.

"Local people are saying that it would be great if the Russian navy moved in," he said.

"Seeing that the MoD are not interested in Unst any more, maybe we should ask for a foreign military presence that could occupy the RAF camp, provide local jobs and replace the [camp] population."
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