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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Mysterious Cargo of the Arctic Sea

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The Arctic Sea turned up just as suddenly as it disappeared, and Russian officials acknowledged Tuesday that they had known the cargo ship’s location and fate for several days. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said eight hijackers who had seized the ship on July 24 had been arrested on board.

Here’s the timeline for this fantastic tale, if you haven’t been following. On July 24, the Arctic Sea suffered (or supposedly suffered) an attack off the Swedish island of Oland, in the Baltic Sea. News of the incident only broke on July 29 — possibly by accident or possibly leaked by the ship’s owner in hopes of influencing the attackers. In any case, the reports at the time suggested that “pirates” tied up and tortured the crew before leaving the ship 12 hours later.

The following day, at 1:29 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on July 30, the ship’s signal vanished. It’s technically possible that by July 24 the Arctic Sea was already on a different course and that the Automatic Identification System transponder was installed on a different boat (or that its parameters were simply entered into another transponder). It’s unlikely, however, that the attackers would try to navigate the Danish straits and English Channel without any communications. More likely, the AIS was working aboard the Arctic Sea and then cut off after information about the ship’s seizure was leaked.

The ship’s owner, though, wasn’t worried, even by the silenced AIS. The alarm was only sounded Aug. 4, when the ship failed to arrive as expected in Bejaia, Algeria. In other words, the owners must have known what happened to the vessel — there’s no other way to explain their actions.

Neither the run-of-the-mill explanation (that the owners allegedly stole the ship to claim the insurance money) nor the bandits hypothesis (that attackers were supposedly looking for drugs) adequately explains the disappearance. An old bathtub packed with timber, or even a load of cocaine, wouldn’t be worth enough to justify the risk and commotion, or the preparation required.

Then there’s version No. 3: the special services. The Arctic Sea was carrying something, not timber and not from Finland, that necessitated some major work on the ship. Something that required dismantling the bulkhead, complete with gas cutting torches, during two weeks of “repair work” in Kaliningrad before the voyage, and something so large that it couldn’t be loaded for delivery onto just any little boat. To put it plainly: The Arctic Sea was carrying some sort of anti-aircraft or nuclear contraption intended for a nice, peaceful country like Syria, and they were caught with it. And this wasn’t a one-time delivery. I’m not a believer in the omniscience of the CIA or Mossad, who might have somehow found out that on a certain date a certain old vessel would be delivering a certain little something. Most likely, it was a tried and true route that had been used successfully for quite some time. And now they’ve been caught.

On Saturday, Aug. 15, the Arctic Sea’s AIS again worked briefly in the Bay of Biscay. Shortly thereafter, France announced that there was no cargo ship in the area and that the signal was coming from one of the three Russian Navy ships there.

It’s tough to say why a Russian military ship would suddenly decide to send out the Arctic Sea’s signal (they removed the AIS transponder, took it with them and then somehow clumsily bumped into it and turned it on?), but, by the looks of it, that’s when Russia found itself backed into a corner. And now instead of a possible tragedy we’ll see a cover-up operation.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.