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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Focuses on a New Ship Saga

President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday ordered the government to look into the seizure in China of two Russian cargo ships, a move triggering suggestions that he was seeking to deflect attention from the mysterious piracy case involving another Russian vessel, the Arctic Sea.

Medvedev told First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov to deal with the ships, whose crews have been stranded onboard in Shanghai for almost a year because their owner, the Arctic Sea Shipping Company, has been unable to pay a maintenance bill. The crews, with a total of 21 men, asked Medvedev for help in a telegram Wednesday.

Transportation Minister Igor Levitin said on state television that the ships’ owner was hiring replacement crews.

Stories about the Arctic Sea — a Maltese-flagged ship that has nothing to do with the Arctic Sea Shipping Company — still dominated newscasts on state-owned television channels Thursday, as its crew and purported pirates were brought to Moscow for questioning. (Story, Page 3.)

Reports about the two vessels marooned in Shanghai were also prominent.

The Prosecutor General’s Office said Thursday that the state-owned Arctic Sea Shipping Company, which runs a total of 24 ships, owed more than 50 million rubles ($1.6 million) to the Chinese shipyard.

The company owes another 16 million rubles to its employees, including those stranded in China, prosecutors said. Prosecutors ordered the company, the Transportation Ministry and the Federal Property Management Agency to pay the salary arrears.

Neither Medvedev nor Levitin mentioned that it was state owned.

Fighting wage arrears has been a top priority for the state since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin berated factory owners, including billionaire Oleg Deripaska, in the Leningrad region town of Pikalyovo for not paying workers.

The ships’ owner not only failed to pay the bills for repairs on the Vasily Yan and Professor Voskresensky, which arrived in Shanghai in September, but also stopped paying wages to the crew in April, said Nikolai Sukhanov, a seamen’s union leader in Vladivostok.

The crewmen haven’t been able to buy tickets to get home, and they have scant supplies of food, water and electricity. Power and water to the Professor Voskresensky were cut off Aug. 14, Sukhanov said.

Chinese authorities have no obligations to the crew, said Mikhail Voitenko, a shipping industry expert and editor of Sovfracht Maritime Bulletin.

The Arctic Sea Shipping Company had been a responsible owner and never previously defaulted on its payments, he told The Moscow Times.

“I’m under the impression that they want to stifle a scandal with the Arctic Sea,” said Pavel Salin, a political analyst at the Center of Current Politics, a think tank. “It looks like they are pushing one situation to replace the other in media coverage.”

A Russian frigate on Tuesday captured the eight purported hijackers of the Arctic Sea, which was carrying a load of Finnish lumber to Angola, near the island nation of Cape Verde. The Defense Ministry has said the attackers had demanded ransom and threatened to blow up the ship if they weren’t paid after boarding it in the Baltic Sea.

It remained unclear Thursday why the hijackers would commit one of the most blatant acts of piracy in European waters in centuries if it carried just lumber, prompting Salin and others to suggest that it might have had a much more valuable cargo onboard.

Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov said Medvedev’s announcement could have been an attempt to steal the spotlight from Putin, who is scheduled to hold a disaster relief meeting in the country’s east on Friday, following a deadly accident at Russia’s largest hydropower station earlier this week.

The order to help the stranded crews in China was Medvedev’s public relations response, Vinogradov said.

Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank, said Medvedev’s decision to respond to a call for help was standard procedure rather than an attempt to push the country’s other Arctic Sea story from the headlines.