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Sep 16, 2009 | 16:54 GMT

12 mins read

Russia: The Mystery of the Arctic Sea

Pekka Laakso/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Russian news outlet Interfax reported Sept. 15 that the dry goods vessel the MV Arctic Sea was steaming in the Atlantic near the Canary Islands. It is being accompanied by the Russian guided missile frigate Ladny. The ship has been involved in several mysterious incidents over an almost two-month period and created a great deal of confusion and speculation.
Russian news outlet Interfax reported Sept. 15 that the dry goods vessel the MV Arctic Sea was steaming in the Atlantic Ocean, near the Canary Islands, accompanied by the Russian guided missile frigate Ladny. The Arctic Sea has been at the center of several mysterious incidents dating back to July 24. The ship's voyage and disappearance has led to confusion and speculation — much of which is highly unbelievable. The ship left the port of Pietarsaari, Finland, on July 23, for Bejaia, Algeria, allegedly loaded with $1 million to $2 million worth of timber. As with many merchant vessels, the Arctic Sea has many owners. It is flagged in Malta, and a Maltese company owns some interest in the vessel, as do a Russian shipping firm and the Finnish company whose product was on the ship. The captain and crew are primarily Russian, from the city of Arkhangelsk. (click here to enlarge image) According to the ship's crew, on July 24 at approximately 3 a.m. local time, the ship was passing through Swedish waters, between the islands of Gotland and Oeland, when a rubber boat with the word "Polis" — the Swedish word for "Police" — written on the side approached the ship. Eight to 10 men claiming to be anti-narcotic police boarded the ship. The assailants beat the night watchman and the engineer on duty, detained the 15-man crew and proceeded to destroy the ship's communications equipment and collect the crew's cell phones. Twelve hours after they first boarded the ship, the assailants departed. Since police in this part of the world are not expected to do such things, the assailants' behavior suggests that they were impersonating police. The crew's story does not add up, however. The crew said the assailants destroyed the communications equipment and took their cell phones, yet the ship's captain was able to relay messages back to the Russian Embassy in Helsinki reporting what had happened to the ship. Furthermore, the captain's wife reported receiving text messages from her husband's phone as late as July 26, two days after the alleged assault. These actions would appear to be impossible if the ship's communications gear had been destroyed and cell phones had been taken. The ship did not make a port call after the assault, nor were there any reports of it undergoing repairs at sea. Swedish authorities did not make reports of the alleged assault public until July 31. After the July 24 incident, the Arctic Sea continued on its way to Algeria, passing through the English Channel on July 28, when it sent routine radio updates announcing its arrival, origin, destination and cargo (though it is unclear how the ship was able to establish contact with controllers in the English Channel if its communications equipment was destroyed). Then, on July 30, as the Arctic Sea was off the coast of Brest, France, the ship's locator beacon was switched off, rendering its electronic signal invisible to authorities tracking traffic onshore. Besides a visual sighting of the ship off the coast of Portugal on Aug. 1, the location and route of the Arctic Sea were publicly unknown until Aug. 17. The disappearance of the ship's signal was not made public until Aug. 9 — five days after the Arctic Sea was supposed to have arrived in Algeria. After a brief international effort to locate the ship, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced Aug. 17 that the Russian navy had located the Arctic Sea approximately 300 miles off the islands of Cape Verde (Russian authorities claim to have known the location of the ship all along). Eight men of Russian, Estonian and Latvian citizenship, who Russia claimed were pirates responsible for hijacking the ship (they had allegedly issued a ransom demand to Finnish police), were detained and taken to Russia. An investigation of the ship by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) turned up no irregularities. Since the announcement of the Arctic Sea's location Aug. 17, media reports have indicated that the ship will return to Malta for further investigations. On Sept. 11, Russian news outlet Ren TV reported that the ship's signal was turned off and lost again, but this report could not be confirmed. Certainly the mysterious voyage does not yet appear to be over. Worldwide, maritime mysteries happen daily. Many things can and do go wrong aboard isolated ships located hundreds of miles from land. However, the story of the Arctic Sea has several points that make it worth investigating. First, if Russia's claims that pirates were involved in the July 24 attack are true, it would be the first pirate attack in the Baltic Sea in several hundred years. Second, this ship's locator beacon was switched off inexplicably, a significant breach in maritime protocol — not just once, but twice. Third, these peculiarities involve a ship under Russian control and, given the increased scrutiny of Russia and its strategic interests as the country continues its resurgence, peculiarities and irregularities could indicate new or shifting tactics. STRATFOR is watching the Arctic Sea as closely as we can — though we do not yet have a clear picture of exactly what activities the Arctic Sea is involved in or why so many irregularities have befallen this particular ship. Some possible explanations are worth exploring.

The Highly Unlikely S-300 Theory

The very unusual sequence of events surrounding the Arctic Sea has led to much speculation. Piracy in the Baltic is unheard of, and it is hard to believe that the ship could have passed through some of the most heavily trafficked, heavily policed waters in the world, around Western Europe, with pirates at the helm without anyone noticing. Russian malfeasance was quickly associated with the incident, as observers began to suggest that the ship could have been used to transport illegal arms and that the allegations of piracy were simply a cover. The most controversial of these rumors alleged that Russia was attempting to ship S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran — something Russia and Iran are suspected of negotiating over for some time. This rumor gained credence when Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of the Russian shipping journal Sovfrakht, speculated that the ship had been carrying something more controversial than timber. Additionally, it was revealed that the Arctic Sea had undergone repairs in Kaliningrad immediately before receiving its load in Pietersaari, which raised speculation that a secret smuggling compartment could have been built into the ship. Also dubious are the claims that S-300s were loaded onto the ship without the Kremlin's knowledge. Ten to 15 years ago, Russian organized criminals were heavily involved in selling and trafficking stolen Russian military hardware. However, since 2000, Vladimir Putin — first as president, then as prime minister — has consolidated control over Russia, its organized criminal groups and certainly its military equipment, making the renegade days of state plundering a memory. If a shipment containing an S-300 missile system (one of the most sensitive and highly desired weapons systems in Russia's inventory) were leaving a Russian port, the central government would undoubtedly know about it. Logistically, sending S-300s from Russia to Iran on a ship like the Arctic Sea would be extremely problematic. Two of the Arctic Sea's sister ships have experienced significant problems in the past; one capsized in 2006 and one developed a debilitating list and had to be rescued in the Mediterranean. The S-300 missile system is a highly sensitive, expensive collection of advanced Russian military hardware, and putting such sensitive gear on a cargo ship like the Arctic Sea would not be the most secure option. Potential maintenance issues aside, shipping S-300s around Western Europe would be placing Russian interests in an area of the world where Moscow has little situational awareness or control. Compared to the United States, which has a spaced-based surveillance and communications network that can keep watch over any ship, anywhere in the world, Russia is far more limited in its ability to track ships. And there are many competent, potentially hostile navies in Western Europe (and the Middle East) that, if they chose to, could easily interdict a ship like the Arctic Sea and block any transfer of weapons. If Russia really wanted to transport S-300s to Iran, it would send them through the more traditional routes traversing the Caucasus, via land or air, or across the Caspian Sea. Russia has much better control in the Caucasus and the Caspian. These routes are much more secure, fast and economical. Sending a shipment of sensitive and highly controversial weapons all the way around Western Europe is an invitation for controversy — which is exactly what occurred. The rumors about S-300s on board the Arctic Sea certainly alarmed some strategic actors in the Middle East (including the United States), but if Russia sincerely wanted to get S-300s to Iran without them being discovered, there are more subtle and effective ways to do that.

Other Possibilities

Many possible explanations of what might have happened to the Arctic Sea would be inconsequential to STRATFOR. However, there are some possibilities that would make the matter more interesting. While it is highly unlikely that Russia was attempting to send S-300s to Iran on the Arctic Sea, it is certainly plausible that small arms were on board the ship. There is still plenty of trafficking of small, non-strategic arms such as automatic rifles, grenades and mines from Russia to countries in Western Africa like Sierra Leone and Liberia that are under a U.N. arms embargo. A cargo ship like the Arctic Sea is much more appropriate for transporting small arms than large, complex and expensive surface-to-air missile systems. Judging from where the Arctic Sea was found Aug. 17 (off the coast of Cape Verde), it is possible that it was smuggling small arms to a country in West Africa, a region with a demand for light arms due to its myriad political and criminal conflicts and awash in diamonds to trade for them. Another, more intriguing, possibility involves arms shipments to Latin America. STRATFOR has noted in the past year that, with Russia's resurgence following the August 2008 Georgia war, Russian activity in the Western Hemisphere should be watched closely as Moscow could try to follow the Cold War strategy of maintaining levers against the United States in the West in order to bargain with the United States in Europe. One way to do this would be to supply militant groups in Latin America such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia with weapons. Highly coveted arms such as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs), which are capable of bringing down aircraft, would be an ideal way to offer strategic support to a group that could certainly frustrate U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. The United States and Colombia are heavily reliant on air power, which would be highly vulnerable to MANPAD attacks, for counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations. Again, the Arctic Sea's location does not rule this scenario out. Extensive drug trade routes exist between Latin America and West Africa that overlap the islands of Cape Verde. Air and sea craft used to smuggle drugs from Latin America to West Africa (and then on to Europe) could smuggle small arms back to militant groups in South America from somewhere like Cape Verde. The Russian navy and FSB are so far the only known actors to have actually encountered or boarded the ship after it was found near Cape Verde, so there are no accounts of the ship independent of Russia's official story that the Arctic Sea was carrying Finnish timber and nothing else. Since Russian officials likely would have been complicit in any significant transfer of arms, the official Russian accounts must be viewed skeptically. Furthermore, Moscow very frequently uses disinformation campaigns and distractions —such as the mystery surrounding the Arctic Sea — to keep international focus away from other activities. At such a critically significant time, when the world is watching what military supplies Russia is shipping around the world, it would not be surprising if Moscow was using the Arctic Sea scandal in order to confuse those already on edge. We cannot confirm these scenarios, and it should be emphasized that these are only hypotheses based on what little information is available on the Arctic Sea. The irregularities surrounding the ship are in many ways unprecedented, so it is difficult to extrapolate using past incidents. Given what we do know, these scenarios are certainly possible, but so are many others. There is also a strong possibility that these stories or at least some details are inaccurate. STRATFOR will continue monitoring the situation.

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