An investigative report by the SBS Dateline program this week posed a number of questions on the mysterious events surrounding the MV Arctic Sea last year.
To watch the documentary, click here.
To briefly summarise what happened, and what the documentary alleges:
- The Maltese flagged MV Arctic Sea bound for Algeria was reportedly hijacked off the Swedish coast by men pretending to be Swedish narcotics police in July 2009. The Russians allege the ship was carrying timber from Finland to Algeria, which is, of course, a story no one believes.
- The ship then mysteriously disappeared following the hijacking, arousing international intrigue as the Russians sent their navy to hunt down the ship.
- The MV Arctic Sea somehow showed up at Cape Verde, not Algeria. Cape Verde maintains close ties to Moscow, and hosts Russia’s main air and naval bases in the Atlantic.
The Russians maintain that the hijacking took place, dismissing allegations that it was smuggling weapons to Iran, with the supposed hijackers facing court in Russia last week. Two apparent hijackers - one Russian and one Latvian - have already been sentenced.
But rumours continue to persist that the “hijackers” may have been innocently caught up in a James Bond-esque secret service mission. Could these men have been framed as part of a larger operation?
This is what the documentary appears to suggest, and indeed, most media analyses have arrived at a similar conclusion.
It is not difficult to see through the Russian smokescreen. Why on earth would Moscow send its navy to chase down a ship carrying timber? It’s hardly a commodity that’s worth a) hijacking, and b) a naval expedition.
Subsequent investigations by Russian journalists – interviewed in the documentary – appear to soundly point to an Israeli commando raid on the MV Arctic Sea. To boost rumours of an Israeli raid, the incident was suspiciously followed by unannounced visits to Moscow by the Israeli President Shimon Peres, and later Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Logic, as presented by the Dateline report, suggests that the MV Arctic Sea was in fact smuggling the advanced S300 missile system to Iran. Israel intercepted the ship off the Swedish coast to prevent the smuggle, framing the hijackers in the process.
Did the Kremlin try to smuggle weapons to Iran?
There appears to be valid arguments and counter-arguments on both sides of this question.
Russian maritime journalist, Mikhail Voitenjo – who has since fled to Thailand for safety reasons – believes government officials were behind the attempted smuggle.
However, if that were the case, there is one aspect of the tale that I fail to grasp. If it were true that Russia, or elements within the government, were trying to smuggle a sophisticated weapon to Iran, why not choose the more simpler route of the Caspian Sea, which borders both Russia and Iran?
Russia’s silent response has also been unusual for a country that has long had military ties with Israel’s foes, Iran and Syria. This suggests that elements within Russia - those that were to profit from the sale of the S300 to Iran - may have arranged for the smuggle without the knowledge of either Putin and Medvedev. Once the story broke of Israel’s interception, it would have been potentially damaging and/or embarrassing if it were revealed that sophisticated weapons were being smuggled out of Russia illegally.
Is corruption that rife in Russia that it has such poor control over its arms exports?
The documentary appears to suggest as much, however, one problem with this hypothesis is Israel’s knowledge of the ship. For the Israelis to have conducted such a sophisticated operation, including the framing of hijackers, required extensive planning. The Dateline report reveals that the men were recruited from various countries for a one-off job. This process would have taken several weeks.
In fact, the BBC reported that Mossad informed the Russian government of the ship.
How could the Israelis have such prior advanced knowledge of the smuggling attempt, yet Russia’s leaders kept totally in the dark?
Israel and Russia continue to maintain their silence in regards to the affair, and little has come out of Iran either.
As usual with secret service operations, many questions remain unanswered. However, two things are certain: the MV Arctic Sea was not carrying timber, and someone in Russia with significant power orchestrated the smuggling attempt, which the Kremlin has since been desperate to cover up to avoid international embarrassment.
The framing of the hijackers has, thus, served the interests of both Israel and Russia in keeping the mysterious incident aboard the MV Arctic Sea secret.
Will it be the last time someone in Russia attempts to smuggle the S300 to Iran?
Russia-Lebanon arms deal goes ahead
Meanwhile, Russia has decided to donate helicopters, tanks, cannons and shells to Lebanon. Israel has expectedly expressed outrage, but the donated weapons are unlikely to cause much angst.
Russia has been gradually rebuilding its influence in the Middle East for the past decade, as US influence wanes. Israel will have to adjust to a new Middle East involving a variety of actors that will counter its regional dominance, and in some cases, even challenge it. Iran, Turkey and Russia are each increasing their stake in the Middle East as a decline in US power leaves a void.
Perhaps this is why the Israelis are so keen to improve their ties with Moscow. The Russians, however, continue to ignore Israeli pleas to cease military ties with its regional foes, as noted in Haaretz last week. The latest Lebanon arms deal is unlikely to improve the mood in Tel Aviv.
A change of tact needed?