That Russian ship? Still idling.


MOSCOW, Russia — More than a month ago the Arctic Sea, the Russian-crewed cargo ship suspected of transporting illegal arms to Iran, was recovered off the coast of West Africa. 

One month and no clarity. One month and no ship, even. 

Russian investigators are sticking to their story: The Arctic Sea, a Maltese-flagged ship whose ultimate owner is a company owned by a Russian residing in Finland, was making a standard delivery of $2 million worth of timber from the Finnish port of Pietarsaari to Bejaia, in northern Algeria. On July 24, one day after setting off, it was boarded by eight pirates off the coast of Sweden — yes, Sweden, not Somalia — who held it for ransom, took it off course and were eventually arrested by the Russian navy three weeks later after being spotted near the coast of Cape Verde. 

Officially, the investigation is closed. 

“The ship was searched with the help of modern appliances, inside and outside. There was nothing but timber and lumber,” Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Investigative Committee, told Russian news agencies Sept. 19. “Nothing that could compromise the Russian Federation was found.” 

Of course, a lot could have happened while the ship roamed the high seas for more than four weeks. 

When news of the ship’s disappearance broke in early August, observers started tracking its every move, as far as that was possible. One minute it was spotted in the English Channel, the next off the coast of Portugal. Then, radio silence. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Russian navy to find the ship, which it did, on Aug. 17. Investigators announced that the Arctic Sea was on its way to Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorosiisk. 

When legal authorities speak, people tend to believe them. But this is Russia, and nothing is ever that clear cut. 

Now Russian authorities say the Arctic Sea is idling off the coast of the Canary Islands because Spanish authorities have refused the ship entry into the port of Las Palmas. A Spanish foreign ministry source told AFP, however, that it was Russian authorities who withdrew the request for docking. The runaround is only adding to suspicions that the Russians have something to hide.

Shortly after the ship was recovered, Israeli and Russian intelligence sources began telling the press that far from being the first case of piracy in European waters since the 17th century, the disappearance of the Arctic Sea was a cover story to mask the interception of illegal arms shipments to Hezbollah or Iran. 

The most public proponent of that theory, naval analyst Mikhail Voitenko, fled Russia on Sept. 3, after receiving telephone threats from what he called “serious people.” Voitenko fled to Istanbul and was last heard from in Thailand. His mobile phone has been disconnected.

A couple of weeks before docking in the Finnish port of Pietarsaari, the Arctic Sea underwent repairs in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave nestled between Poland and Lithuania that has long been infamous for arms and drug smuggling. 

Voitenko, and others, suggested that while there it was loaded with weapons — possibly the Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile — then set sail for Syria or Iran. The shipment was noted by Israeli intelligence, who then tipped off the Russians so that they could intercept the shipment without creating an international scandal.

A senior figure close to Israeli intelligence confirmed that version of the events to the BBC in early September, on condition of anonymity. 

Russia’s foreign ministry has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Iran has long been seeking to buy the S-300 from Russia, and a sale was agreed about two years ago. But Russia has held off on delivering the system — which could be used to counter an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations — either because of U.S. or Israeli bargaining, or its own concerns over Iranian militarization.

It’s a topic that figures highly in Russo-Israeli discussions. Israeli President Shimon Peres, visiting Russia the day after the Arctic Sea was found, said he had won a pledge from Medvedev to reconsider the sale during four hours of talks in Sochi. During that meeting, Peres said that Israel would not attack Iran, Medvedev said in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that aired Sunday.

Medvedev also confirmed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret visit to Moscow on Sept. 7, in the wake of the Arctic Sea scandal. He gave no details, but sources have told Israeli media that the visit was designed to further deter Russia from following through on sales of the S-300 to Iran.

Some questions have been answered, but so many remain. What was the Arctic Sea really carrying? If it was weapons, was the shipment approved by Russian authorities or not? Why the bizarre pirate cover, when the ship could simply have been turned around? 

Those who know the answers aren’t talking. And those who are talking don’t know the answers.  “I don’t know why the ship hasn’t been taken in anywhere,” Sergei Kurashin, a manager at Solchart, the company that ultimately owns the Arctic Sea, said by telephone from Helsinki. “You’ll have to ask the Russian fleet and prosecutors.” The company has had no contact with the four crew who remain on the ship, he said. Eleven crew members were airlifted off the ship when it was rescued and flown to a secret Moscow hotel, where they were questioned and then released to their families under orders not to speak to the press. 

The accused pirates, ethnic Russians who are residents of Russia, Estonia and Latvia, remain locked up in Lefortovo, Moscow’s high-security prison. 

“They’re just sitting there,” said Omar Akhmedov, a lawyer for Dmitry Savin, one of the alleged pirates. "There's no investigation, they're not being questioned. I would say everything happening is a violation of the law." 

Akhmedov maintains that his client and the other alleged pirates, four of whom have served time in jail, were undergoing navigational training for an ecological mission, when their rubber boat began taking on water and sought refuge on the Arctic Sea. They have since been caught up as pawns in what he believes to be a commercial dispute or insurance scam. 

Meanwhile, the Arctic Sea remains adrift off the coast of the Canary Islands and may never return home. Its owner, a Maltese subsidiary 100 percent owned by Solchart, says the company stands on the brink of bankruptcy. Eight alleged pirates are sitting in a Moscow jail cell. And comments by top Russian officials, never keen to talk about the issue in the first place, have slowed to a whisper. As with so many Russian scandals, many are being to wonder if the whole truth will ever be known.