Russia denies mystery ship was carrying missiles to Iran
Speculation that the Arctic Sea cargo ship seized in the Baltic in July was carrying weapons or other illicit cargo continues to swirl.
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Kraska, a serving naval officer, says he believes the Arctic Sea was involved with "illicit cargo ... weapon sales." He adds that it appeared, "some other group knew about it, and thought that they could capitalize on the idea.... It somewhat fell apart, and now Russia is holding the bag."Skip to next paragraph
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Russia agreed to sell its S-300 missile system to Iran in 2007, which prompted furious complaints from the US and Israel. The system has the ability to intercept aircraft and ballistic missiles at a range of about 100 miles, and is more powerful than the Tor-M1 missile defense system that Russia sold to Iran for $700 million in 2005. Russia has not so far delivered the S-300s, apparently taking into account international unease over Iran's nuclear program.
The day after the 7,000-ton Arctic Sea was recovered by the Russian frigate Ladny off Africa's Cape Verde islands, Israeli President Shimon Peres flew unexpectedly to Moscow. He met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and said he'd earned a promise from Russia that it would reconsider the Iran weapons deal.
While there's little doubt that Iran is eager to upgrade its arsenal, Pavel Felgenhauer, the defense columnist for Russia's Novoya Gazeta newspaper, told AFP that the Arctic Sea was unlikely to have carried such unwieldy cargo. He says the ship's hold is too small to conceal an S-300 shipment.
"Hypothetically, such a cargo ship could transport grenade launchers for Hezbollah or Hamas, Igla portable anti-aircraft missiles, something more compact than the S-300," Mr. Felgenhauer said. "At least this would not violate the laws of physics."
But international defense experts continue to say that some sort of weapons smuggling was likely behind the strange saga of the Arctic Sea.
"It's a completely plausible scenario.... This is a pattern that's happened in the past," says Russian security expert Nikolas K. Gvosdev, also of the US Naval War College. Dr. Gvosdev says there were "reports earlier this year of a weapons smuggling network in the Russian Navy."
Efforts to reach Russian authorities for comment were not successful.
On Aug. 25, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Alexander Bastrykin, the chief Russian investigator on the case, as saying "they might have been carrying not only timber." The chief of the Russian general staff, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, told reporters that "the motives behind the [Arctic Sea] seizure are not wholly clear. We do not know what it [was] carrying."
The Helsinki-based police task force is comprised of members from four nations: Finland (where the ship sailed from and where its management company is located), Sweden, Malta (the country where the Arctic Sea is registered), and Estonia (where six of the alleged hijackers were said to have resided).
Last week, Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen discussed the "possible motives" surrounding the hijacking with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, according to Finland's Helsingin Sanomat newspaper.
Anna-Mari Vimpari, special advisor to Prime Minister Vanhanen, confirmed the meeting took place. "The Prime Ministers agreed to share information - that was Mr. Vanhanen's point...and we ask the cooperation of authorities, and to that Mr. Putin agreed," she said.
Story updated at 6:00 ET to include comment from the Finnish government.