The truth is adrift with the Arctic Sea
By Cristina Batog
Mystery novels pale in comparison to the case of a hijacked cargo ship, the
Russian-crewed, Finnish-managed and Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea, which
disappeared while sailing in Swedish national waters on the Baltic Sea.
The Russian media continue to feed public frenzy by positing wild explanations,
while Russian government officials de facto support these theories by providing
contradictory and scarce information about the incident. Even the simplest
narration of the course of events can leave one baffled.
Thus far, it is known that between July 21 and July 23, the Arctic Sea,
a 4,000-ton, 98-meter general cargo vessel, set sail from Pietarsaari, Finland,
for Bejaia, Algeria. Property of Solchart Askhangelsk Ltd of Finland, the ship
was operated by 15 Russian
nationals. It sailed under the Maltese flag, and was said to carry roughly 1.3
euros (US$1.85) million worth of timber.
On July 24, between the islands of Oland and Gotland, the vessel was attacked
by a group of 10 to 12 people in black masks. They beat and bound the crew
while searching for something on the vessel. According to some sources, the
hijackers spent nearly 12 hours on the Arctic Sea before leaving
After the attack, the crew reported the incident solely to the Russian Embassy
in Helsinki, which then relayed the information to Swedish authorities a couple
of days later. Meanwhile, the Arctic Sea followed its course.
On July 28, the Arctic Sea had the last radio contact with the British
Coast Guard as the ship entered the English Channel between Britain and France,
at which time the crew reported everything was okay. However, according to
other sources, the final transmission was on July 30, 80 kilometers south of
Penzance in southwest Britain.
After that, the Arctic Sea sent no signals and the vessel disappeared
from radar screens. It was allegedly hijacked again on August 3, at which point
the hijackers demanded a $1.5 million ransom for the vessel's safe release.
The Russian navy embarked on its first major operation since the end of the
Cold War, rushing three battleships and one frigate to find the Arctic Sea.
According to the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Federal Security
Service (FSB) was also involved in a search-and-rescue operation. On August 14,
the Russian navy rescued the vessel in international waters 480 kilometers off
the West African island nation of Cape Verde.
This is the version of events aggressively promoted by the official Russian
media. As in many prior cases (for example, the downing of a Korean passenger
plane in 1983; the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, or the poisoning of
Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006), this version is clumsy. The Moscow
version raises, among others, the following questions:
If, for the past 500 years, there have been no pirates in the Baltic Sea, why
have they suddenly reappeared?
Given that a hijacking operation of this scale is financially costly, why would
the pirates target an old rusty vessel with cargo of even lesser value?
Why did the pirates leave it? Did they really abandon the ship?
When and by whom was the ship hijacked again?
Why did the Russian navy and the FSB suddenly decide to act so decisively to
rescue a Maltese-flagged cargo ship, while ignoring the plight of Russians
captives overseas - for example, sailors hijacked by Somali pirates or arrested
under false pretexts by Nigerian authorities?
Only one thing is clear: the Russian authorities have something to hide.
Julia Latynina, a Russian investigative journalist, noticed that, before the Arctic
Sea received its cargo in Finland, it underwent two weeks of
maintenance in the Russian port of Kaliningrad, a major Russian military base
in the Baltic Sea.
This is where, Latynina presumes, the ship was loaded with a cargo attractive
to the pirates. Could it be drugs? No, says Latynina. They wouldn't be worth a
sophisticated operation of hijacking a ship in the highly policed waters of the
Baltic Sea. She believes that the only plausible explanation must be an illegal
shipment of weapons destined for, say, Iran or Syria. Moreover, there were no
pirates, but rather a group of professionals sent by a state displeased with
This correspondent asked a former GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) officer,
who many years ago escaped to the West, what he thought was on board the Arctic
Sea. Instead of giving a direct answer, he suggested checking an
obscure Russian-language website Anvictory.org, where a former Russian military
officer based in Ukraine, Vladimir Filin, posted an article entitled,
"Biochemical weapon which [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin intends to drop on
Jewish heads." Filin writes that the Arctic Sea, under the cover of a
load of Finnish timber, was delivering a shipment of weapons to Iran via
Filin said the crates (loaded on board in Kaliningrad) could have contained
four X-55 strategic cruise missiles (without front sections) and devices to
implement an air launch from military planes of the SU-24 type, provided that
the aircraft were retrofitted as carriers of a single cruise missile.
He asserts, too, that this was not the first shipment. According to Filin:
had previously delivered to Iran the front sections of X-55, which was
retrofitted to carry Soviet-made chemical weapons.
The biochemical weapons were already delivered from Russia to Iran by air. It
was expected that, in the near future, Russian specialists would arrive in Iran
in order to bring the SU-24 and X-55 up to a state of readiness and to train
Iranian military personnel.
It was also expected that, given the high probability of an Israeli military
strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, X-55 missiles loaded with
biochemical warheads could be used in the Iranian counterstrike against Israeli
[...] Given the scale of the potential international brouhaha, a country with a
distinct interest in preventing this shipment chose to interdict it in an
[...] So far, this is all what I have to say.
this article was written before the Russian navy rescued the ship.
Last Thursday, the former commander of defense forces of Estonia, Tarmo Kiuts,
repeated the same presumption. He said on board the Arctic Sea most
probably were Russian X-55 missiles that the vessel was carrying to Iran.
In its latest version, official Russian television said ecologists had hijacked
the Arctic Sea because they had ran out of fuel for their boats.
Cristina Batog is a graduate of Georgetown University, specializing in
Russia and Eastern Europe.