The case of the ship Russia claims was hijacked on its way to deliver lumber from Finland to Algeria is becoming curiouser and curiouser. First, one has to wonder how a ship can be hijacked in a place where none has been hijacked since the days of the Vikings. Second, the EU rapporteur for marine piracy, an Estonian admiral, said it was likely the ship had been intercepted by the Mossad, a claim also made by Russian media sources. Third, the Russian ambassador to the EU, no friend of Estonia or Estonian admirals, told the rapporteur in the bracing Russian colloquial equivalent–shut your pie hole. Fourth, Time Magazine’s Russian correspondent has added to this story of spookish intrigue revealing new, previously unpeeled layers of the onion.
The Russian government, which strangely ended the hijacking without firing a shot, claims the ship Arctic Sea was hijacked two days out of port. Its tracking device was supposedly disabled by the hijackers. It’s unclear what the hijackers expected to find when the Russians claim there was only $2 million worth of lumber aboard.
One has to ask how and why a ship disappears in European waters for four weeks; why no one could locate it (though the Russians later claimed they knew where it was all along); why no crew member set off a distress signal even before the hijackers boarded; and why it was found near the Azores, hundreds of miles from where it was supposed to be.
The EU’s Admiral Kouts has offered perhaps the most convincing hypothesis thus far:
In an interview with TIME, he says only a shipment of missiles could account for Russia’s bizarre behavior throughout the month-long saga. “There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can’t explain this situation in any other way,” he says. “As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic.” Kouts says an Israeli interception of the cargo is the most likely explanation.
Following on this claim, is the strange and suggestive fact that Israeli president (and former intelligence master) Shimon Peres, made a surprise to visit to Russia precisely one day after the ship was “rescued.” Might it be possible that Peres went to avert a major crisis in bilateral relations after the Mossad assaulted a Russian ship on the high seas; and that he and Russia’s Medvedev were getting their stories straight for the world media?
Time’s story also raises some other intriguing questions:
There are also questions surrounding the Arctic Sea‘s rescue. On orders from the Kremlin, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov sent a completely disproportionate force, including destroyers and submarines, to look for the vessel. It took five days for them to find it, the Defense Ministry said, even though the Foreign Ministry later announced that it was fully aware of the Arctic Sea‘s coordinates the entire time. To fly the alleged pirates and the crew back to Moscow — a group of only 19 men — Russia dispatched two enormous military-cargo planes. And then on their arrival, the ship’s crew was detained along with the alleged hijackers for days of questioning, with no access to their families or the media.
“Even from the basic facts, without assumptions, it is clear that this was not just piracy,” says Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian maritime journal Sovfrakht, which has been tracking unusual incidents on the high seas for decades. “I’ve never seen anything like this. These are some of the most heavily policed waters in the world. You cannot just hide a ship there for weeks without government involvement.”
If the cargo was highly sophisticated military hardware intended for a Middle Eastern country like Iran (Hebrew only) or Hezbollah, who would have sent it? Clearly, this would not be a rogue Russian operation (though if it is, it indicates that the Russian government has rather feeble control over rogue elements wishing to perpetrate such mischief). Inyan Mercazi‘s article linked above argues for the rogue operation hypothesis. In its favor, is the fact that both the supposed pirates and the original crew remain imprisoned and a brother of one of the hijackers told Estonian TV:
They went to find work and ended up in a political conflict. Now they are hostage to some kind of political game”?
The Israeli media source says the government and the Russian arms traffickers are caught in an “internal power struggle” which explains the imprisonment.
If the shipment was sanctioned by the government itself this would mean that the Russians are willing to sell Iran (or whichever nation was the ultimate destination) advanced weaponry though attempting to do so in secret. It also means that Israel is willing to confront Russia by intercepting and possibly destroying or disabling the weaponry on the high seas.
If this is what the Mossad did, it would not be terribly surprising or out of character. Israel has assassinated weapons experts trafficking with its enemies. Its air force recently destroyed a Syrian facility which may or may not have been a North Korean nuclear reactor. In 1981, of course, its air force destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear plant in Osirak. Boldly intercepting Russian weapons shipments on the high seas would also send a robust signal to one of Iran’s best friends that Israel is not willing to stand for any reinforcement of Iran’s offensive or defensive capabilities.
Though it does remain unclear to me how Israel expects its action will encourage Russia to sign on to draconian sanctions against Iran which it would be likely the UN Security Council would have to approve. The sanctions program, as with Iran in 2002-3, is viewed by U.S. neocons, pro-Israel advocates, and Israeli officials as a necessary precursor to any possible military attack by Israel on Iran. Israeli policy always seems curiously improvised, as if they hadn’t thought this far ahead as to how their immediate action will impact the chessboard in five or ten moves.
I seriously doubt we’ve heard the last of this story.