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M A C D O N A L D C O L U M N I S T
Russia’s Ghost Ship Reemerges
August 20, 2009 | From theTrumpet.com
The missing freighter has been located, but we’re still searching for the truth.
he Trumpet is not in the business of subscribing to, nor proliferating, conspiracy theories. In our
craft, facts are friends. In general, we rely on hard evidence to reveal the truth about events and trends, and the details about how they happened, or are happening. Sometimes, however, facts are used to discern the truth about what did not happen. The recent “disappearance” and “reemergence” of the Arctic Sea, a Russian-manned and -operated cargo ship, is a case in point. While facts shedding light on what exactly unfolded on board the freighter during its 15-day “disappearance” are scant, the evidence we do have informs of what this event was not. This more than likely was
a mundane act of piracy.
The saga began July 24, when the Russian-operated freighter was hijacked on the Baltic Sea by up to 10 masked men masquerading as Swedish police searching for drugs. The invaders interrogated and in some cases beat the 15-man Russian crew, searched the vessel with a fine-tooth comb, and then, according to initial reports, fled on an inflatable dingy. Here’s where the story grows strange. It’s believed not until July 27, a full three days later, was the ship’s operator, Solchart, a Finnish company run by three Russian businessmen, informed of the hijacking. “The vessel had all the necessary modern means of communication and emergency alarms, and was located in waters where ordinary mobile telephones work,” noted Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the respected Russian maritime journal Sovfracht. “To hijack the vessel so that no one makes a peep—can you imagine how that could be? I can’t.” Two days later, Swedish police broke the story of the alleged hijacking, which took place near the Swedish island of Gotland. One day later, on July 30, the Automatic Identification System on the freighter—which by this time had successfully passed through the English Channel—went silent, and the 4,000-ton vessel became a ghost ship. By now, news organizations the world over began running stories on Russia’s missing cargo ship. The media was curious. People were growing concerned.
Everyone, that is, except the vessel’s Russian operators. Despite mounting anxieties over the mysterious disappearance of the Russian-manned, Russianoperated freighter, the ship was not reported missing until August 4, when it failed to deliver its cargo to Bejaia, Algeria. Even then, the Kremlin remained strangely nonchalant. It wasn’t until eight days later, on August 12, that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, under pressure from family members of the crew, suddenly ordered the Russian Navy to take “all necessary measures” to locate the ship. The Kremlin’s urgency, manifested in Russian frigates and nuclear submarines searching the Atlantic, quickly bore fruit. By last weekend the Arctic Sea was located about 300 miles off Cape Verde, in the Atlantic Ocean. By Monday, the freighter had been retaken by the Russian Navy, and the eight hijackers—comprised off four Estonians, two Latvians and two Russians—had been taken into custody. Despite the happy ending, Russia’s bizarre ghost ship saga is far from over. Many experts agree that the facts suggest this was not a routine act of piracy. First, acts of piracy are extremely rare in European waters, particularly the bustling sea lanes north of the Continent. As Reuters noted, “[A] hijacking in European waters would be almost unprecedented in modern times.” Second, if this were an act of piracy, why would pirates take a vessel with so little booty? The Arctic Sea held a mere $1.3 million in timber. Countless other ships traversing the high seas had tens of millions of dollars’ worth of freight. Third, if this was a random act of piracy and Russia truly was surprised, why didn’t the Kremlin react more swiftly? Its sloth-like reaction to the news of the hijacking and disappearance indicates it had some intelligence about what was going on. The likely elimination of piracy as a legitimate explanation for the Arctic Sea’s disappearance adds significantly to our understanding of this recent chain of events. With the simplest and most welcome explanation eliminated, we are left to contemplate other more disturbing explanations. “I think there was probably some sort of secret cargo on this vessel, not criminal but secret, and a third party of some sort did not want the cargo to get to another party so this highly sophisticated operation was cooked up,” stated Mikhail Voitenko. “I don’t think that it was pirates who took this vessel, but it really smells of some sort of state involvement. This is real cloak-and-dagger stuff, like a [John] le Carre novel” (emphasis mine throughout). Russian political analyst Yulia Latynina agrees, saying that the ship may have been carrying “highly illegal cargo.” Another intriguing point raised by Latynina, writing in the Moscow TimesWednesday, pertains to the possible reason why the Arctic Sea underwent a major remodel in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad immediately before it stopped in the Finnish port to pick up its cargo: The Arctic Sea was carrying something, not timber and not from Finland, THAT NECESSITATED SOME MAJOR WORK ON THE SHIP. Something that required dismantling the bulkhead, complete with gas cutting torches, during two weeks of “repair work” in Kaliningrad before the voyage, and something so large that it couldn’t be loaded for delivery onto just any little boat. What type of merchandise would require such a major remodeling of the freighter?
To put it plainly: THE ARCTIC SEA WAS CARRYING SOME SORT OF ANTI-AIRCRAFT OR NUCLEAR CONTRAPTION INTENDED FOR A … COUNTRY LIKE SYRIA, AND THEY WERE CAUGHT WITH IT. And this wasn’t a one-time delivery. … Most likely, it was a tried and true route that had been used successfully for quite some time. And now they’ve been caught. Of course, these experts don’t have hard evidence confirming their analyses (that we know of). That said, the file of evidence—which now includes reports of authorities testing for radiation at the Finnish port where the Arctic Sea began its mysterious journey—suggesting foul play is growing. The facts suggest that this was no run-of-the-mill act of piracy, but that larger, more significant, parties were involved. As Voitenko noted, “The operation cost more than the cargo and the ship combined. It makes sense only if looked at as a conflict between states. I believe states, state interests, were involved in what happened. I believe the countries involved found a solution and agreed to ‘keep it in the family.’” Perhaps there is a logical explanation to this bizarre course of events. But what if Voitenko and Latynina are right? What if the Arctic Sea was carrying a nuclear weapon, or nuclear material, or some kind of deadly military hardware to a nation or organization in the Middle East, or to Osama bin Laden (who, coincidentally, recently stated that he would “soon have a nuclear weapon in my hands”)? Perhaps this was a glimpse into a terrifying underworld in which weapons are proliferated among and between rogue and dangerous states and organizations. Voitenko provided another small sign that there might be something sinister to the saga of Russia’s mystery ship. “I can’t say anything about the roots of this story,” he wrote on his website this week, “and I don’t plan to dig further … I need to think about my own skin too. “Understand that as you will.” • Brad Macdonald’s column appears every Thursday. To e-mail Brad Macdonald, click here. Please note that, unless you request otherwise, your comment may appear on our feedback page. To read more articles by this author, click here.
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