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A Russian storm in a sherry glass

Silvio Berlusconi's done it again. This time the former Italian PM is being accused of masterminding a drinking escapade in Crimea that's sparked a criminal investigation by Ukrainian authorities. Fiona Clark reports.

There's nothing like a good drink at the end of a long day of strolling and wreath laying in the Crimea, so during their trip to the annexed territory the two old friends, President Vladimir Putin and the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, stopped off at a local winery to inspect its formidable stash.

The Massandra winery is home to one of the world's largest wine libraries and according to the Russian news agency, TASS, houses an impressive collection of rare and valuable vintages. The director of the winery, Yanina Pavlenko, showed the two men around the library's nine galleries that contain some 500,000 bottles including some of its most expensive drops.

It was there in the main cellar that Berlusconi inadvertently set in motion a chain of events that have led to Ukraine opening an investigation into the misappropriation of a valuable Ukrainian asset.

Sherry-gate

In an article that makes it sound as though Putin played no part in what could be termed 'sherry-gate' if it had happened in America, TASS says Berlusconi asked if it was possible to taste the wines and the director told him it was. According to TASS Berlusconi exclaimed "I want to drink!" and the pair were immediately invited to the tasting room where Pavlenko proceeded to open a fine bottle of sherry - a 240-year-old "Jerez de la Frontera," harvested in 1775. Its value, according to the Ukrainian prosecutors, is somewhere between $100,000-150,000 (87,000-131,000 euros), and its opening was akin to theft.

According to the first deputy prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Nazar Holodnitsky, criminal proceedings into the incident involving the "appropriation of property in especially large amounts" have been launched and the estimated damages are more than 2 million hryvnia - the Ukrainian currency, or upwards of $92,000. The case is being launched from Ukraine, not within Crimea itself.

Possession in 9/10's of the law

In a slanging match that embodies the saying 'possession is nine-tenths of the law,' Russia says its annexation of the region means the bottle belongs to it and it's perfectly entitled to drink its own drinks. It adds that the winery is managed by a Russian administrative department and that since Crimea was originally Russian before being assigned to Ukraine by former Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, the 240-year-old bottle was originally Russia's. Ukraine, not recognizing the annexation, doesn't quite see it that way and believes it was robbed and wants compensation.

A storm in a sherry glass? Well, possibly, but it shows just how fraught relations are between the two countries as battles continue in the east over the pro-Russian Donbass region. Putin has been accused this week of trying to divert attention away from the ongoing Ukrainian tensions by upping Russia's involvement in Syria.

soldier in front of plane copyright: Alexey Kudenko/RIA Novosti

Russia is keen on putting its stamp on the Syrian conflict

Diverting attention

The US accuses Russia of increasing its military aid to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, while Russia maintains it is fulfilling its long standing military agreements. Russia also says its support of Assad is helping in the fight against Islamic terrorists and that the flow of refugees into Europe would be much higher if it weren't for Moscow's military aid to Assad.

In the meantime, analysts in Moscow are working hard to uncover Putin's true motives. The populist line is to argue he's simply 'sticking it to the west' by pointing out that poor US foreign policy has created fertile ground for the rise of groups like the "Islamic State" and that someone - Russia - has to sort this out. Others say he's hoping he can come up with a peace plan that he can present to the UN, like he did back 2012 when Russia claimed Assad could be persuaded to step aside, and the world will like him again and forgive him over Ukraine and Crimea. And a third line is that the whole Syrian involvement is a cunning plan to divert attention away from the tensions in eastern Ukraine while the pro-Russian groups cement their foothold there.

Trying to second guess the Russians is always a risky game. It's like trying to imagine what that 240-year-old sherry tasted like: we'll never know; all we can do is watch as the consequences unfold.

woman in theatre copyright: Fiona Clark

Fiona Clark writes a regular column for DW from Moscow

Fiona Clark is an Australian journalist currently living in Russia. She started her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a TV reporter in the mid-1980s. She has spent the past 10 years working on publications such as The Lancet and Australian Doctor and consumer health websites. This is her second stint in Moscow, having worked there from 1990-92.

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