The apparent disappearance of the freighter Arctic Sea in August 2009 has all the elements of an espionage thriller.
The apparent disappearance of the Russian-flagged and Russian-crewed freighter Arctic Sea in August 2009 while transiting the English Channel, and then its seizure soon afterwards off the Cape Verde Islands by the Russian navy, has all the elements of an espionage thriller.
Allegedly the ship, carrying a cargo of timber, valued at $1m, from Finland to Algeria, was boarded in the Baltic by eight hijackers who masqueraded as Swedish drug investigators. Once aboard, they supposedly took control of the vessel and steered away from the Mediterranean.
When news of the incident was made public, the Russian navy intervened, found the vessel and arrested the eight men who are now in a Moscow prison facing charges. The eight, from Estonia, Latvia and Russia, have put forward a defence claiming to be environmental campaigners whose dinghy ran into trouble in the Baltic and were rescued by the Arctic Sea.
However, rumours have circulated that the freighter had been fitted with a secret compartment while undergoing repairs in Kaliningrad and was actually carrying a consignment of Russian S300 anti-aircraft missiles or even Kh-55 air-launched cruise missiles destined for Iran.
The S300, designated SA-21 by NATO, is a long-range weapon introduced by the Soviets in 1978. It is considered a sophisticated, effective missile that, if installed in Iran, would have a significant strategic impact in the region and provide a defensive ring for nuclear sites that otherwise might be vulnerable to Israeli aircraft engaged in a pre-emptive strike.
Whether the Arctic Sea really carried a concealed cargo remains unknown. Various unidentified sources have claimed that a Russian organized crime group intended to sell the weapons to Tehran and that the attempt had been interdicted by Mossad which tipped off an embarrassed Kremlin.
Certainly the mobilization of the Russian navy in a search for a missing cargo ship was unprecedented, as was its speed and efficiency in tracking down the elusive ship. Another piece of the jigsaw is an unscheduled visit made by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, to the Crimea to confer with his Russian counterpart the day after the successful interdiction. Perhaps some answers will emerge when the eight pirates go on trial.