Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 25

Barely a day after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s departure from Moscow, already troubled Russian-U.S. relations appeared to take a fresh hit yesterday following the seizure of a Russian oil tanker by a U.S.-led naval interception force in the Persian Gulf. The seizure prompted an immediate protest from Moscow, where Russian government and Foreign Ministry officials called for the vessel’s immediate release and warned that the incident could harm broader bilateral relations. A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, nevertheless told reporters that an initial inspection of the Russian ship–the Volgoneft-147–had produced enough evidence to detain it and to warrant the conduct of further analysis of its cargo. The ship is said to have smuggled oil from Iraq, an act which, if proven, would put the ship and its crew in violation of UN sanctions imposed after Baghdad’s 1990 Kuwait invasion.

The Volgoneft-147 was boarded February 2 off the United Emirates coast by the guided missile cruiser USS Monterey and was reportedly being inspected yesterday in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz near the mouth of the Persian Gulf. According to U.S. Commander Jeff Gradeck, a multinational interception force (MIF) spokesman, the Volgoneft-147 had been “tracked beginning with its departure from Iraqi waters until its interception because it was believed to be carrying petroleum products of Iraqi origin” (Reuters, February 2). Quigley suggested that the privately owned Russian vessel and its cargo–said to be more than 4,000 tons of gas oil–will likely be confiscated and sold for cash, Russian government protests notwithstanding. “We don’t do this willy nilly,” he reportedly said. “We have reasons to challenge this vessel” (UPI, February 3).

The U.S.-led MIF has been charged with patrolling the Persian Gulf waters in order to guard against the smuggling of goods banned by the UN sanctions into and out of Iraq. U.S. State Department officials said yesterday that the volume of smuggled Iraqi oil has increased as the price of oil has risen. Reports yesterday quoted UN and U.S. intelligence estimates suggesting that smuggling has increased from 50,000 barrels per day in 1998 to 100,000 per day more recently. That was said to be worth some US$25 million per month to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. According to U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley, MIF has queried via radio more than 28,000 vessels since 1990, and has boarded more than 12,000. About 700 have been diverted for violating UN sanctions. A Russian ship was last boarded, he said, in August 1998.

What is particularly interesting about this week’s seizure is that it was followed yesterday by a disclosure that the Clinton administration had in fact been in contact with Russian officials for almost a month warning them that certain Russian companies were involved in smuggling Iraq fuel oil. According to Foley, Moscow had informed Washington that the Volgoneft-147 is privately owned and that they had launched their own investigation into its activities. At the time of the seizure the Russians had reportedly still not provided U.S. authorities with the results of their investigation. U.S. officials were quick to emphasize, however, that they were not linking the activities of the Volgoneft-147 to the Russian government (Reuters, AP, UPI, February 3).