There is nothing romantic about the pirates who have been hijacking ships off the coast of Somalia. Theirs is a vicious business that endangers maritime workers of many nations, threatens ecological calamities, and pumps millions of dollars into local Islamist militias with links to Al Qaeda.
Somali pirates may have made a serious mistake, however, when they seized a Ukrainian freighter last week that was carrying 33 heavy Russian tanks, grenade launchers, and large quantities of ammunition. Their mistake was to initiate a simultaneous confrontation with the United States Navy and a Russian frigate that is steaming toward the region from the Baltic Sea.
U.S. warships faced off against the hijacked cargo ship not only because of America's interest in protecting oil transport in the Gulf of Aden - through which 30 percent of the world's oil is transported - but also because of concerns about Somalia, a chaotic, failed state.
U.S. special operations forces and Ethiopian troops have been supporting an interim government in Somalia, seeking to prevent Islamist allies of Al Qaeda from taking power. The U.S. warships and helicopters now hovering around the hijacked Ukrainian vessel hope to prevent some part of its cargo from ending up in the hands of the Islamist fighters.
Russia's reasons for moving against the pirates are more linear. Three of the hostage seamen are Russian nationals (along with 17 Ukrainians and one sailor who may be Latvian or Lithuanian). Kremlin officials have been blunt on the subject of protecting their citizens. In the background is an impulse of patriotic pride; a determination to show that Russia has once again become a major power that is not to be trifled with.
The hijacking of the Ukrainian vessel offers an object lesson about converging Russian and American interests in many areas. Piracy emanating from northern Somalia has become a serious threat to international commerce and to stability in the horn of Africa. If the pirates, who have fired on oil tankers in the past, cause an oil spill in the Gulf of Aden, the entire region will suffer an environmental disaster.
More than 60 ships have been attacked so far this year, 30 have been seized, and ransom payments for hostages have totaled more than $30 million. Some incalculable amount of those funds has been funneled to Al Qaeda-affiliated fanatics who are as inimical to Russia as they are to the United States.
If the pirates' latest caper helps bring Americans and Russians together to police sea lanes and guard against failed states, their predatory crimes will have served the cause of international law and order.