Nukes, drugs, pirates: Russian ship lost in sea of rumor and intrigue

The last known contact with the Arctic Sea was July 31. Mystery surrounds its movements and the fate of its crew.
Whether or not it has anything more dangerous than a cargo of timber on board, vanished ship Arctic Sea certainly now carries the answers to one of the most intriguing maritime mysteries to emerge in recent times.

Since it disappeared off the charts more than two weeks ago, rumors and conspiracy theories have stirred in the Russian-crewed vessel’s wake, with a fog of conflicting sightings and reports doing little to help separate fact from fiction. Conjuring plots worthy of “Hunt for Red October” author Tom Clancy, online chatter has thrown up numerous theories about the fate of the Arctic Sea, casting the ship variously as a covert weapons transporter, a drug courier or the booty in a mutinous crime venture. Then there are the predictable supernatural explanations, invoking Bermuda Triangle legends or drawing comparisons to the Mary Celeste “ghost ship”, a twin-masted merchant vessel that was found under full sail — minus its crew — in the Atlantic in 1872. Fueling the Cold War-style conspiracies is Moscow’s involvement: The Kremlin says the Russian Navy, backed by space hardware, is huntong the Arctic Sea. Sightings of Russian attack submarines off the U.S. coast last week have only helped to fan the flames. However fanciful, these theories do at least attempt to explain why anyone — whether hijackers, pirates, or spies — would be interested in a 17-year-old Turkish-built, Maltese-flagged vessel with a rather mundane payload of Scandinavian wood. An apparent ransom demand, which Finnish police say has been issued to shipping company Solchart Management suggests some motive for abducting the vessel, but has done little to clarify the events since the ship was reportedly boarded by hijackers on July 24. After that incident off the coast of Sweden, according to a confusing array of sightings and reports, the Arctic Sea sailed through the English Channel, was possibly hijacked a second time off Portugal, vanished on July 31, was sighted off the Cape Verde islands on Friday and then blipped back onto computer screens in the Bay of Biscay for a fleeting moment on Saturday. Track reports of the ship’s journey ยป There is the real possibility that much of the mystery surrounding the ship is as a result of a media blackout imposed by military and law enforcement agencies to protect the lives of the 15 crewmen as they attempt to take out or negotiate with those behind an extortion bid. Micro-blogging site Twitter, meanwhile, has been working overtime to try to fill this vacuum of facts, with users collating and swapping a litany of claims by unnamed sources and sketchy media reports. Some speculate the disappearance is part of a Russian military training exercise, or perhaps a rehearsal for a 9/11-style terror event involving non-military merchant craft bound for the United States. Piracy theorists meanwhile argue that the ship’s original boarders never left, maintaining an illusion of normality through the English Channel before spiriting it off to an unmonitored port for resale. While this seems one of the most credible explanations, maritime experts have expressed strong doubts that such an attack would or even could take place in heavily-policed European waters.

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Others work with the premise that the ship was never boarded in the first place, and accounts of the hijacking were fabricated by the crew with the intention of making off with the ship and selling it on. The most dramatic theories suggest that the Arctic Sea picked up weapons or a mafia drugs consignment while undergoing maintenance during a recent port call in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, then the drug deal went sour, or the weapons mission attracted outside intervention.

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian Maritime Bulletin, told CNN he believes the Arctic Sea must have been carrying a “secret cargo”, to attract such attention, however he would not elaborate on its nature. In a breathtakingly bold piece of geo-political deduction, one Russian Website takes this even further, detailing a plot that has the Kremlin using the Arctic Sea to deliver X-55 cruise missiles to Iran with the aim of drawing U.S. attention away from territorial disputes with Georgia. However, it says, the mission was thwarted by a covert U.S. military operation.