The Mystery of the Arctic Sea

"Sea Victim" by Evgeni Dinev at
“Sea Victim” by Evgeni Dinev at

In July 2009 the world was fascinated by the mystery surrounding the cargo ship the Arctic Sea. American owned, Canadian operated, based in Malta, and with a Russian crew, the ship had taken on a load of timber in Finland, which it was delivering to Algeria. It never arrived. After passing through the English channel, its tracking system was shut off, and the ship disappeared from the world. It was amazing enough that in an era of satellites and modern navigation systems an entire ship could disappear. But then came the remarkable announcement that in July the ship had been taken over by pirates in the waters off Sweden. The men had approached the ship, and -in English- claimed to be police. They took over the ship, and interrogated the crew, before leaving hours later. But first they allegedly had disabled communications equipment and confiscated the crews’ phones. This was unusual enough, as there had been no pirates in the Baltic in living memory, or for centuries for that matter. The ship was in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Even stranger, however, was what happened next- the ship continued on its way without stopping for authorities to investigate the crime (for a timeline of events, click here).

The Russian government mobilized virtually its entire naval force in the Atlantic to search for the ship. But days passed without any news, and it seemed that the ship might never be found. By this time, people wondered if the ship was truly carrying finished timber, as the manifest claimed. What could be important enough to attract the attention of pirates? On August 14, 2009 the ship was finally located off the Cape Verde islands, where Russian naval forces boarded it. Then the story became stranger.

The day after the ship was rescued, Israeli President Shimon Peres unexpectedly traveled to Russia, where he spent four hours speaking with Russian president Medvedev. No information on what they discussed was released. One of the hijackers told his brother that his group had been set up in a political affair. The Russian government then stated that the hijackers were still on the boat, although the men claimed to be environmentalists rescued from a shipwreck. As the media uncovered information about the criminals -who mostly seemed to petty criminals from Latvia and Estonia– people wondered how they could have engineered a hijacking. In September a Russian journalist, Mikhail Voitenko, suddenly fled the country to Turkey, after questioning the official Russian version of events. He claimed that he had received a threatening phone call, and believed that he had to flee for his life.

More questions were raised after Finnish authorities revealed that they had checked the ship for radiation before it left Finland. They denied that it was because the ship had a nuclear cargo. Instead, they said that a fireman had thought that there might be radiation on the ship, but that was a “stupid idea.” There was no explanation given for why a fireman might have thought that the ship had radioactive material, or why Finnish authorities had taken this seriously enough to test the ship.

As Simon Shuster later noted when writing in Time, the authorities sent “two enormous military-cargo planes” to fly eleven crew members and eight hijackers back to Russia. Another report said that three planes were sent. Which raised the question- what else needed to be carried in those planes? The fact that the Russian authorities sequestered the crew for two weeks -even from their families- did nothing to dampen speculation.

There were many different theories as to what happened. Most assumed that the ship was carrying dangerous cargo (anti-aircraft missiles, jet airplanes, or nuclear materials) to the Middle East. The consensus was that the most likely cargo was S 300 anti-aircraft missiles for Iran, which would have strengthened that country’s defenses against a possible Israeli strike on its nuclear program. People speculated that perhaps the weapons had been sold by Russian military and intelligence officers, acting in collusion with organized crime. Most observers said one plausible explanation was that  Mossad –Israeli intelligence– had arranged a hijacking to prevent the cargo from reaching Iran.  For Russian Times coverage of this allegation, click here.

Virtually no-one believed the official Russian account. In 2010 the British newspaper The Guardian reported on U.S. Diplomatic Cable leaks, which revealed that a Spanish authority believed that the Arctic Sea case clearly involved arms trafficking. In 2011 Finnish authors claimed that the ship carried supplies to make chemical weapons. But were all these ideas and speculations just baseless conspiracy theories?

In the end, the suspected hijackers were found guilty in a Russian court, and sentenced to several years imprisonment. But very little information about the case has become available, even after the court process. Why was the ship hijacked? What was its cargo? And what did the interrogation of the hijackers reveal? To this day, the true story of the Arctic Sea remains a mystery.

Update: Are you interested in Northern mysteries? You could read my new book Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History, which examines an Indigenous tradition regarding an evil spirit. In Canada, you can now purchase the paperback from my publisher Heritage House, or here. The print version of the book is forthcoming in the United States and Europe this April. But it is already available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play BooksNookKobo and iBooks.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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