A Mystery Surrounding The Arctic Sea: More Questions than Answers

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

On August 18, 2009 the official website of the Russian president made an announcement about a meeting between Dmitri Medvedev and his Defense Minister Anatoly Sedyukov (www.kremlin.ru, August 18, 2009). Mr. Serdyukov informed the president of the Russian Federation on “the details concerning the freeing of the cargo vessel Arctic Sea.” During the operation eight people were arrested – citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Russia.

According to the Russian version of the story, on July 24 “these people boarded the ship and threatening with weapons, demanded that the crew change the course. Afterwards the vessel was pursuing the route ordered by the hijackers in the direction toward Africa, switching off the navigational equipment.” Earlier the Kremlin website stated that “there was a crew of 15 Russian citizens on board of the lost vessel loaded with timber and headed toward Algeria.” On August 17 the same official website posted the information that “the vessel connection with which had been lost since July 28 was found in the vicinity of Cape Verde Islands” (www.kremlin.ru, August 17). “The members of the crew are alive; they had been taken to the Russian anti-submarine vessel Ladny and are being questioned,” Defense Minister Serdyukov reported to President Medvedev during “a working meeting” in the city of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea during the president’s trip to the Southern Federal District. The Russian president ordered the minister to “thoroughly investigate and report back.”

According to the Russian news agency Interfax, the ship loaded with timber, worth more than one million euros (1.41 million USD), left the Finnish coast on July 22 and should have arrived in Algeria on August 4. Two weeks after its disappearance “the Russian military fleet notified the ships and vessels of its disappearance” (www.interfax.ru, August 18, 2009,

The Kremlin-controlled English language TV channel Russia Today that broadcasts for the international audience reported on August 18 that “while the crew is being questioned by naval officials…the speculations are beginning to run wild; there is even talk that there may have been nuclear materials on this ship, and they might have something to do with this mystery” (Russia Today, August 18). In his interview with Russia Today, Wayne Madsen, an investigative journalist, said that the vessel loaded with timber left Finland for Algeria after “undergoing repairs in Kaliningrad” and in Swedish waters the vessel was boarded by “masked policemen.” According to the journalist, “They held the crew hostage for a while” and after asking them “very detailed and probing questions,” “they left all of a sudden.” According to Mr. Madsen, there are some jurisdictional issues involving Finland and Sweden and “we have NATO getting involved.” Madsen also talked about the possibility that “nuclear materials could have been onboard.” Interfax, on the other hand, reported that “NATO forces helped [the Russians] in the search operation.”

According to Russia Today, the only available information concerning the people arrested in connection with “the hijacking” is their nationality, but the same TV channel reported that “the vessel may have gone through two hijacking attempts – one in Swedish waters” and another “after the ship passed the English Channel.” Interfax also came up with the speculation about two separate incidents.

In his interview to Russia Today, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, highly commended the operation of “freeing the vessel,” saying that “all stages of the operation were excellently managed…the Russian vessels took over the ship that had been captured by pirates at the planned time and place preventing it from getting close to the African coast. ”Mr. Rogozin’s commentary could be read as Russia emerging a great naval power, which is capable of conducting successful anti-piracy operations. Interestingly enough the Russian journalist, Oxana Boyko, who covered the story for Russia Today added that “it may have been NATO forces that actually seized the ship.”

There are several issues in this story that are difficult to explain. It is striking that the Russians did not officially announce the disappearance of the vessel until August 12, although, according to the official Russian sources the connection with the vessel had been lost on July 28 and the people “threatening with weapons” boarded the vessel on July 24. The Russians would have detected the change of course or some irregularities from July 24 to July 28. Needless to say that piracy in the Baltic Sea is almost unheard of for at least several centuries and if independently confirmed, this case would be truly sensational. And why is the state-controlled Russian media talking about “nuclear materials” allegedly being on the cargo vessel? It is difficult to imagine that they are doing this without consent of the Russian government.

It remains unclear who owns the vessel and why the Russians were so nervous about its disappearance, not reporting for two weeks and after having reported the president of the country himself right away got involved. Was this due to the fact that the crew of the vessel was comprised of Russian citizens exclusively? According to the Russian website navy.ru, the cargo ship Arctic Sea, operated by Solchart Arkhangelsk Ltd. and owned by the Latvian company Aquachart SIA, was built in 1991 and it has the deadweight of 4706 tons.

According to Interfax the vessel is registered in Finland and the Finnish authorities “are waiting for an official notification from the Russian side on the seizure of the cargo ship and want to investigate this case of hijacking together with the Russian side.” Finnish President Tarja Halonen visited Russia and held talks with her Russian counterpart in Sochi on August 11, one day before Russia officially announced the “disappearance” of the Arctic Sea. At the moment it is virtually impossible to make a connection between Mrs. Halonen’s visit and the breakout of the vessel story but what we can safely state is that by the time of the visit the Russians did have at least some information and they might discuss it with the Finnish president.

The Russians are saying that among the hijackers who are now in Russian custody “there were four Estonians, two Latvians and two Russians” although, interestingly enough, neither Estonia nor Latvia has been officially notified about the involvement of their citizens in “the hijacking.”

Unless the Russian Federation reveals a complete picture of the mysterious disappearance of the Arctic Sea, its seizure and the investigation of the incident, there will be even more speculations about “the secret cargo” on the vessel ranging from the already mentioned “nuclear materials” to “four X-55 Russian missiles whose destination was Iran” – the operation was allegedly thwarted by “a major Western power.”