Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 25

In Moscow, not unexpectedly, the reaction to the seizure of the Volgoneft-147 was not a happy one. Aside from the protest and the warning that the vessel’s seizure could harm bilateral relations, Russian officials continued to insist that the ship had never entered Iraqi waters and that, at the time of its boarding, it was in fact delivering Iranian fuel oil to the port of Al Fujayrah in the United Arab Emirates. Russian sources provided little information as to the status of the reported Russian investigation into the Volgoneft-147’s activities, but official denials were apparently based on examinations of the vessel’s records in Moscow.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Sredin, also Putin’s special representative for Middle Eastern affairs, yesterday provided some additional details regarding the earlier U.S. warnings to Russia. According to Sredin, the U.S. State Department had warned Moscow at the end of December that a ship flying the Russian flag–the SFAT-1–had been observed in an Iraqi port and was believed to be engaging in illegally smuggling Iraqi oil. On January 24, Sredin continued, another message from the State Department arrived implicating the Volgoneft-147 in the same sort of activities. Moscow was warned, Sredin said, that the two ships faced possible MIF searches.

At that point the Americans were reportedly asked to wait while Russian authorities checked into the situation themselves. According to Sredin, that investigation demonstrated that the two ships had not visited Iraqi waters–information which the Russian authorities turned over to the American authorities. It was for that reason, he said, that Moscow expressed its “bewilderment” when word came from the UAE and the U.S. on February 1-2 that the Volgoneft-147 was to be seized (Russian agencies, February 3). Sredin’s remarks shed little light on the seriousness with which Russian authorities had taken the earlier American warnings about the Russian ships’ activities in the Gulf. But they do shed some light on reports that a second Russian ship (presumably the SFAT-1), also suspected of illegally transporting Iraqi oil, was waiting out of MIF’s reach in Iranian waters as the Volgoneft-147 was seized this week (Reuters, February 3).

In Moscow, meanwhile, reports suggested that the Volgoneft-147 had been chartered by a company called SovFrakht. The company’s general director yesterday warned that SovFrakht would file a suit against the U.S. government if the seizure of the Volgoneft-147 proved unjustified. He also intimated that the seizure was politically motivated (Bridge News, February 3).

However well the charges against the Volgoneft-147 are substantiated, SovFrakht’s warning is likely to be a familiar refrain in Moscow in the coming days. Moscow is Baghdad’s foremost backer at the UN (where it has clashed repeatedly with Washington’s more unforgiving policy toward Iraq) and can be counted on to challenge not only the seizure of the Volgoneft-147, but the legality of MIF’s activities more generally. And that, in turn, could add yet another point of friction to a relationship already beset by tensions, notwithstanding the best efforts of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during her recent visit to Moscow.