A Case of Intelligence Piracy? If So, by Whom?
Ever since the merchant cargo ship MV Arctic Sea went missing en route from Finland to Algeria for 18 days between late July and mid August – ten intelligence services, including US agencies, have been falling over themselves to plant a profusion of misinformation about its true fate.
They have only succeeded in generating the impression that the ship was caught up in a major intelligence incident. The nature of that incident is anyone's guess.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly therefore put its intelligence experts to work and they came up with five possible hypotheses.
1. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, staged a stunt to trick Western intelligence agencies.
The SVR is the successor of the First Chief Directorate (FCD) of the KGB. This proactive organ of Soviet Counterintelligence was adept at routinely pulling stunts on this scale in the Cold War.
2. A Western intelligence stunt to trick the Russian SVR, pulled by the US CIA and British MI6 secret service, or alternatively by the Israeli Mossad.
3. A Western intelligence operation to show Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin that their own agencies were pulling the wool over their eyes and transferring conventional and unconventional weapons to rogue countries like Iran and Syria or international terrorists.
4. Corrupt Russian intelligence and military personnel were in partnership with private arms dealers to smuggle sophisticated Russian weapons to rogue countries.
This sort of operation was common in the 1990s, when crooked Russian and Ukrainian officials worked with mafia elements in the illicit arms trade.
5. A mafia operation to smuggle weapons or nuclear materials to the Middle East behind the Kremlin's back. According to this theory, the traffickers shipped their cargo from Russia by a Russian ship to throw surveillance off the track. It is therefore possible that the lies spread by Western, Russian and possibly Israeli intelligence about the Arctic Sea were part of a plot to foil the mafia operation.
Where do the Finns fit in?
The only apparently solid information available is that at the crux of the mystery ship affair was a suspected attempt to transfer a nuclear weapons system or materials from Russian soil to the Middle East.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources have reported before that terrorist organizations are good at using marine transportation for their objectives.
On July 23 the Arctic Sea set sail from Jakobstad, Finland to Algiers, carrying $1.3 million worth of timber, according to the ship's documents. To this day, there is no proof that the ship ever carried any timber.
Two weeks prior to this voyage, in early July, the ship put in at the Russian port of Kaliningrad for repairs. The ship's bulkhead was dismantled to make room for loading a very large object. Why?
Today, it is clear that those repairs were carried out to prepare the vessel for a cargo very different from timber.
Kaliningrad is reputed to be a hotbed of smugglers and spies operating around the Baltic Sea. It is also the venue for quiet rendezvous between crime bosses specializing in arms trafficking all over the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, Kaliningrad has become a naval counter-intelligence center for the Russian SVR.
When the MV Arctic Sea arrived from Kaliningrad at the Finnish port of Jakobstad, it was screened by the Finnish Security Technology Laboratory for radiation, a short time before it was allowed to leave. The laboratory is part of STUK, the Finnish government's nuclear watchdog.
In other words, Finnish intelligence had been alerted to the possible presence of nuclear materials in the ship's hold and decided to carry out tests.
On Wednesday, August 19, Haari Toivonen the laboratory director denied that the ship was screened. But in closed discussions with Western intelligence personnel, Finnish agents confirmed that it had been.
There was no disappearance
The entire course of this vessel was accompanied by a welter of such denials from Swedish, British, French, Maltese, and Russia intelligence officials. Finally, they leaked word that the MV Arctic Sea was boarded on July 23 on the Baltic Sea by eight “pirates” dressed as Swedish coast guards men.
The identities of those “pirates” were not revealed. Were they Western intelligence Swat teams? Crime mobs trying to lay hands on a nuclear cargo? Or, as the Russians maintain, four Estonians, two Latvians and two Russians, with criminal connections?
At no time did the ship's captain send out distress signals or admit his vessel had been captured.
But neither has anyone officially accounted for the 18 days when the ship disappeared off the map.
On July 30 its automatic signaling system beamed its presence off northwest France. The system was switched off thereafter until August 17 when the Russian Defense Ministry announced it had traced the ship and crew to 483 kilometers off Cape Verde coast.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, said Monday August 17 that the media had been deliberately fed false information so that they would not be able “to calculate the true actions of the Russian forces“
The next day, the Malta Maritime Authority issued the bald comment that the Arctic Sea had “never really disappeared.” The inference was that since it never disappeared, the vessel's whereabouts were known.
On Thursday, August 20, all the crew and “kidnappers” returned to Moscow leaving the riddle of the Arctic Sea unsolved.