Russia has retrieved its Arctic Sea shipping vessel that was hijacked and charged the offenders. The story doesn’t end there, though, as reports continue to surface alleging the “hijacking” were Israeli operatives sent to intercept missiles headed to Iran.. Other reports indicate the Russians staged their own hijacking after being notified of the ship’s contents by Israel. Regardless of who the hijackers were, they have thwarted a shipment of weapons that would have raised the stakes in the region for Israel and possibly even provoked military conflict.
On July 24, the Arctic Sea was hijacked by eight individuals while it was in the Baltic Sea, headed for Algeria carrying less than $2 million worth of timber. It was retrieved by the Russians on August 17 near Cape Verde. The authorities have released minimal information about the hijackers, except to say they are in custody and being charged with kidnapping and piracy. The crew members won’t talk, saying they were told by officials that doing so would compromise “state secrets.”
The attention surrounding the ship’s hijacking heightened after the Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper that has had more than a handful of its journalists killed after investigating the misdeeds of officials, reported that the ship was transporting X-55 cruise missiles and the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. The ship’s stop for “repairs” at Kaliningrad, the residence of a major Russian naval base that would house such missiles, may have provided a cover for such weaponry to be placed in a secret holding spot. The Iranians and Syrians have long talked about acquiring such arms, which present a severe threat to Israel.
The X-55 cruise missiles have a range of about 1,550 miles, putting Israel in Iran’s crosshairs, and are capable of carrying payloads with weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear warheads. It is not believed that Iran currently has the long-range bombers necessary to launch such a weapon at this time.
The S-300 is an advanced air defense system that would severly hamper the ability of the Israeli Air Force to launch air strikes on Iranian nuclear targets. It can track up to 100 targets, and engage a dozen of them, downing aircraft up to 27,000 meters in the sky. It would result in the Israelis losing 20 to 30 percent of the aircraft involved in a potential strike on Iran, assuming that the Israelis don’t have a secret way of disabling the system. One Israeli Air Force source said that the system would result in increasing Israeli casualties in such a strike by 50 percent. For this reason, experts like Pentagon advisor Dan Goure have described the S-300 as a “game changer” in the Middle East.
The report claimed that the hijackers were really working for the Israeli Mossad, sent to intercept the ship’s contents, and pointed to President Peres’ trip to Moscow the day after the Russians retrieved the ship, which was described as a surprise visit. Prime Minister Netanyahu is also reported to have made a secret visit to Moscow to discuss Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria, explaining his sudden absence.
The Russian Foreign Minister, predictably, has denied that the vessel was carrying any such missiles, sticking to the government’s line that it was a hijacking by pirates. The Israelis have likewise denied any involvement, with the Foreign Ministry refusing to comment beyond describing it as a “classic conspiracy theory” and a spokeswoman for Peres saying that his trip to Moscow was long-planned. Although the Israelis denied that the visit was connected with the Arctic Sea, the Foreign Ministry did confirm on August 18 that President Peres met with Russian President Medvedev to discuss arms sales to enemies of Israel, and that he “stressed that Israel has concrete proof of Russian weapons being transferred to terrorist organizations by Iran and Syria, especially to Hamas and Hizballah.”
There are many reasons to doubt the story being put forth by the Russians. Simon Scuster wrote in Time that many important questions remain, such as why the Arctic Sea would be targeted if its cargo was only of timber of relatively low value and why no distress signal was sent out. Shuster also points out that one of the hijackers has said he was “set up” and is now involved in a “political game,” and that an disproportionate amount of naval forces were dispatched by the Russians to find and retrieve the vessel.
Despite Russia’s claims that the vessel had gone missing, the Malta Maritime Authority has said it was "continuously tracked" and "had never really disappeared." Martin Selmayr, spokesman for the European Commission, said the story is bigger than appears, saying “'This was quite a unique case, the full details of which will certainly one day be made the story of a Hollywood movie.”
Mikhail Voitenko, editor of a Russian maritime journal, is also convinced the government’s story is untrue. As an example of why, he’s pointed to the fact that cell phone service was available where the vessel was hijacked.
“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,” Shuster quoted him as saying. Voitenko has fled Russia out of fear for his life after stating his belief that the Arctic Sea was carrying arms, saying he had received a threatening phone call from someone that he hinted was connected with the government.
An investigation by Ynet News also concluded that the official story was not credible and that the ship was indeed transporting missiles, but offered an alternate theory as what happened. The newspaper doubts that the hijackers was an Israeli operation, as they would have intercepted it during its travel and seized the supplies. According to this version of events, Russian intelligence hijacked the ship after receiving a tip from a foreign intelligence agency, perhaps the Israelis, that rogue military elements involved in organized crime had sold the missiles and were shipping them on the Arctic Sea vessel in violation of an international treaty.
BBC News also corroborates this story, citing an Israeli source as saying that they informed the Russians that they knew about the shipment and would go public with the information if it was not stopped.
The Sunday Times meanwhile has confirmed that the Israelis were in fact the ones that notified the Russians about the missile shipment, and said that Russian sources suggested that the Mossad had used the hijackers to seize the ship, unaware of the cargo inside, thus setting them up as the one alleged hijacker claims.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has warned that the sale of the S-300 to Iran could close the window for a potential Israeli air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, forcing Israel into taking military action before the option became significantly more costly. If it’s true that the Russian ship was carrying the S-300 and/or the X-55 missiles, then the “hijackers,” whoever they were, may have just prevented a regional conflict from erupting.