Reset at Sea: US-NATO-Russian Cooperation in the Struggle against Piracy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 126

Russian Navy cruiser Varyag

Piracy has a long history and the struggle with it is closely tied to concepts of national sovereignty, freedom of the seas, and the protection of life and property at sea. In 1609, Hugo Grotius, (1583-1645), the great Dutch legal theorist, provided the legal foundation for making piracy unlawful. In his book, Mare Liberum (Free Ocean) he argued that the ocean belonged to no one state and all were free to use oceanic routes for trade or passenger traffic. Those who attacked shipping outside of a state of war between two sovereign states were no more than bandits at sea and subject to repression by any naval forces that came upon them. International law did recognize the right of warring states to conduct guerre de course (raids upon the opponent’s merchant shipping by warships and armed merchantmen acting as privateers under a letter of marque and reprisal granted by his sovereign). By the mid-19th century, the European powers had agreed to abolish privateering, The US Constitution still lists issuing letters of marque and reprisal as part of the enumerated powers of congress. Yet, apart from unsuccessful efforts to persuade congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, no modern application has been made. Instead, the civilized world has accepted the concept that piracy defined as robbery and illegal violence at sea is a threat to maritime commerce.

While piracy has persisted on the margins of world trade, the recent pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden have brought the problem back to global attention. Since 2005, the International Maritime Organization has called for efforts to combat piracy in this area. The fact that Somalia is a failed state torn apart by on-going civil war, set the stage for this 21st century piracy. A weak national government in Somalia, locked in an on-going struggle with opposing Islamic forces has been unable to establish de facto sovereignty over the rest of Somalia, while the autonomous province of Puntland has become the most important base for pirate operations along the coast. These pirates are not interested in seizing cargoes for disposition, but seek to hijack vessels and hold their crews for ransom, which is frequently paid out, making piracy big business.

In 2006 Combined Task Force (CTF) 150, which was composed of naval forces conducting counter-terrorism off the Horn of Africa, began anti-piracy operations from their base at Djibouti. Other countries joined the struggle. In June 2008, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution condemning piracy and robbery at sea and authorized the application of all means necessary to suppress such acts. These efforts sought to apply existing maritime law, international law, and national laws (which limits them to having jurisdiction over their own citizens), to deal with these attacks on merchant ships. The initial goal of naval operations against these pirates is to “deter and disrupt” their activities, to detain, interrogate, and disarm pirates. However, these actions would then culminate in the pirates’ release. In the absence of an international tribunal to prosecute pirates, naval powers could not dissuade pirates (who did not face trial and punishment for their actions) from continuing their activities which continued to be profitable at low risk. In January 2009, the US provided the leadership to create CTF 151 as an international naval force to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. However, as a consequence of this legal gap, the number of pirate attacks in 2009 increased to 214 vessels with 47 being hijacked at sea. Russian naval forces began their own patrols to suppress piracy off the Horn of Africa in the fall of 2008 and have maintained a naval presence since then. Russian experts have written extensively on the problem of international maritime law and international relations (Mezhdunarodnaia Zhizn’, No. 2, March 2009).

In July 2009 President, Dmitry Medvedev, proposed a solution: the creation of a separate international court to try cases of piracy (Nezavisimaia Gazeta, April 8, 2010). The response to this proposal was positive. In April of this year, the UN Security Council passed unanimously a Russian resolution calling on the UN Secretary General to provide “concrete” measures for the prosecution of pirates, including a special chamber at the national court of one of the countries in the region (RIA Novosti, April 27).

The background to the UN resolution involves increasing international frustration over the continuing pirate attacks, especially the hijacking of merchant ships, in the face of an international naval presence. The profile of Russian anti-piracy actions off the Horn of Africa increased in 2010 and took on an aspect of deeper international cooperation. On March 4, Krasnaia Zvezda announced that the Commander-in-Chief of Russian Naval Forces, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskii, discussed anti-piracy cooperation with the Chief of Staff of the French Navy, Admiral Pierre-François Forissier. The article went on to explore the global response to the threat of piracy and noted Russia’s ongoing commitment of naval forces to the task (Krasnaia Zvezda, March 4). On March 12, Russian warships involved in anti-piracy operations began formal cooperation with CTF 151 when the Russian ASW Frigate, Neustrashimy, from the Baltic Fleet met the USN destroyer, Farragut, off the Horn of Africa. The Russian captain of the Neustrashimy met with the Commander of CTF-151, Rear Admiral Bernard Miranda (USN), to discuss coordinating anti-piracy activities between Russian and CTF-151 naval forces (Krasnaia Zvezda, March 13). On the same day the Russian Rescue Tug, SB-36 from the Black Sea Fleet escorted the Thai fishing trawler, Union-3, when the vessel and its crew were freed from pirates off the Seychelles Islands after reportedly paying a $3 million ransom. Among the crew of the fishing trawler were 22 Russian seamen. The Union-3 had been seized in late October 2009 (Izvestia, March 9).

Russian naval activities in support of anti-piracy operations have increased in intensity and deepened in terms of international cooperation since March. On May 5, Somali pirates attacked and seized the Liberian-flagged and Russian owned tanker, Moscow University, in the Indian Ocean about 350 miles east of the Gulf of Aden. The ship’s crew was able to report the seizure, disable the ship’s engines, and lock themselves in the rudder compartment. A NATO helicopter located the hijacked ship, and the Russian cruiser, Marshal Shaposhnikov, raced to intercept the tanker early the following morning. The Somali pirates fired on the Marshal Shaposhnikov’s helicopter and its captain, certain of the crew’s safety, ordered his vessel to fire on the tanker and sent a boarding party of naval infantry to recapture it. In the ensuing fight one pirate was killed. The crew was rescued, and the ten remaining pirates disarmed, placed under arrest, and interrogated before being released to their boat. Since the vessel was sailing under a Liberian flag, Russia could not prosecute the captured pirates. The Staff of the Russian Pacific Fleet noted the assistance of the NATO helicopter in the operation and called the action a good example of international cooperation (Novaia Gazeta, Izvestia, May 7).

Evidence of deepening naval cooperation in the struggle against the Somali pirates was shortly forthcoming. On May 5, NATO Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, agreed to include Russia-NATO cooperation in the struggle against Somali pirates as part of a plan of military-to-military cooperation for 2010 (ARMS-TASS, May 5). During the same period President Medvedev signed a decree imposing an arms sales embargo on Somalia (Voenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 5-11).

Just over one week later the Marshal Shaposhnikov visited the port of Djibouti and the representative of the Djibouti navy announced that Russian warships involved in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden would be allowed to use that port as a base of operations (Vzgliad, May 17). On May 24 the Russia-NATO Council discussed cooperation in the struggle against Somali pirates (Kommersant, May 20). At the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Riga, Latvia, the Russian delegation composed of members of the State Duma had the usual issue of concerns to raise (Russian military doctrine, NATO’s expansion, the continuing dispute over the territorial integrity of Georgia). However, the Russian parliamentarians and their American counterparts found common ground for cooperation in the struggle against Somali pirates and the need to seek an international legal regime that would permit their trial upon capture (Biznes & Baltiia, June 1).

On June 2, local press in the Russian Far East reported that Russian merchant seamen were taking part in an international petition drive to persuade national governments to unite their efforts in the struggle against piracy (Vladivostok, June 2). On June 4, the Russian navy announced the deployment of a flotilla from the Pacific Fleet on a friendship visit to the US. The vessels, the cruiser Varyag, the rescue tug, Fotii Krilov, and the tanker, Boris Butoma, under the command of Rear Admiral Vladimir Kasatanov will visit San Francisco with the goal of developing “practical and friendly contacts between the Russian Navy and the US Navy.” In a review of Russian naval activities during this summer’s deployment season, the author of the article noted the continuing deployment of Russian warships off Somalia. The author noted: “The contribution of the Russian navy to the efforts of the international community in the struggle with pirates off the coasts of Somali is already highly appreciated by many influential international figures” (Krasnaia Zvezda, June 4). In this area of naval cooperation against a common threat to freedom of the seas, the US-NATO “reset” with Russia appears to be working because there are shared interests that override conflicts in other areas.