What are the stakes for America and the world as we approach the U.S. election of 2020? It is the proposition of this series that the stakes are extremely high, and that they include the ability to investigate what may be an attempt by non-state actors to acquire nuclear weapons with which to hold a veto over the actions of sovereign nations. At the very least, the attempt may involve opening stovepipes into the infrastructure of weapons-related materials and processes, in a way that confers on the non-state actors some levers against the infrastructure.
In Part I, we looked at the unprecedented, and still unique, foray of the financial house Goldman Sachs, starting in 2009, into owning and trading in physical uranium. In Part II, we outlined the basic story of the mystery ship M/V Arctic Sea, whose activities while “missing” for 17 days in 2009 are still unaccounted for.
Besides recounting those basics, we surveyed the startling connections to the characters and events of Russiagate and Spygate established by the identity of Arctic Sea’s commercial insurer, the Russia-based Renaissance Insurance Group.
The starting framework of the Uranium Jerky series is a set of events that were all contemporaneous in 2008 and 2009. At the time, there was no way to discern clearly the number of potentially related things that were happening simultaneously. In hindsight, however, the concatenation of events is more and more striking. In Part III we will move along the tale of Arctic Sea, picking out a few additional points of significance that shed light on the nature of Russia’s orientation to the ship’s saga.
Let’s pick up the tale with the final paragraphs of Part II:
The narrative about Arctic Sea in 2009 begins to look like something that was managed, apparently by competing parties, throughout the ship’s peculiar voyage, rather than like something that emerged through unguided events. Russia (i.e., Putin) knew who was involved in [Boris] Jordan’s Sputnik and Renaissance [companies], and the American interests on the other side knew that the Russians knew. Renaissance was 14 years old at that point; everyone knew its history and the waxing and waning fortunes of interlinked parties like Soros, HIID, Hermitage, and the Magnitsky affair.
If Arctic Sea was being used to transport things in secret, the strongest likelihood is that while both sides had some idea that a secret transport was in play, one side was surprised, in the summer of 2009, when the specific ship Arctic Sea turned out to be involved.
Which side was it? Frankly, it looks like it was Russia. The implication from that would be that Arctic Sea’s secret transport activities were not on behalf of a Russian government enterprise, and that in July of 2009, someone high enough up in Moscow figured that out.
That interpretation would be perfectly consistent with some Russians being involved in Arctic Sea’s shenanigans; what it would mean is that those Russians weren’t acting under government direction. That may be highly unlikely in 2020, but it was by no means so in 2009.
Let’s inspect a few more details. One is that the structure of operation for Arctic Sea changed just before the fateful voyage in July and August 2009. The ownership and operating structure were ambiguous enough all along to baffle most media reporting on Arctic Sea’s ownership, but the change that occurred in June 2009 was especially arcane.
Arctic Sea’s prior history was very typical, with multiple changes of ownership and management since the ship left its construction yard in Turkey in 1992. After changing hands under several names, she received the name Arctic Sea (previously Jogaila) in March 2005 when she was bought by Solchart Ltd. (See a serviceable history here; a more detailed history that goes only until May 2012 can be access here, but will require running some Russian through a translator if you want to understand all the information. This latter entry is the one screen-capped below.)
As Jogaila, the ship had been owned and flagged in Lithuania since May of 2000. Since 1992, she had been registered through Lloyd’s Registry. When she was bought by Solchart in 2005, her registry was switched to Russia’s PMPC, and her flag switched to Malta. The ship was owned through the Maltese shell company Arctic Sea Limited, which had been incorporated in Malta in October 2004.
If that time sequence has particular meaning (and it may not), it appears to mean that the need for a ship, and the prospective name of it, were established some months before the ship was selected and purchased (the purchase being in March 2005).
Arctic Sea was managed by Aquaship Ltd of Riga, Latvia from 2005 until November 2008. The extant records appear to indicate that Solchart, which owned the ship through the Maltese shell company, became the managing entity at the end of that period.
Solchart had been incorporated in Finland as a freight forwarding and management company, Oy Solchart Management Ab, since 2001. Interestingly, in March 2008, Solchart Arkhangelsk, a separate branch, was newly registered as a company in Russia, according to a Lloyd’s entry cited in a Stratfor research document (published by WikiLeaks in 2012 or 2013).
Assuming that the Lloyd’s information about Solchart Arkhangelsk was correct, March 2008 is the same month the name of Severnvale Nuclear Trading Ltd in Ireland was changed to Vinkins Holdings Ltd, with its ownership tracing to highly-connected Russians (linked in turn to Joseph Mifsud and his lawyer, Stephan Roh). That coincidence, like so many, is well worth noting.
Much of the reporting in 2009 reflected Arctic Sea as being operated by Solchart Arkhangelsk, which was described at the time as the Solchart entity responsible for “technical management and crewing.” That’s where the crew came from for the July-August voyage. The Arkhangelsk firm was clearly linked to the firm in Finland, through one of the company officials, Nikolai Karpenkov. However, contemporary accounts of the Arctic Sea incident indicated that the Arkhangelsk firm referred all questions about the ship’s voyage to Solchart in Finland, which managed the cargo charters and scheduling.
In Part II, we discovered that Arctic Sea had disappeared from AIS tracking during three previous trips, as cited by veteran Russian-affairs writer John Helmer. Two of the trips, in 2007 and 2008, were made under the management of Aquaship Ltd.
After the management changed in November 2008, as noted above, Arctic Sea made the third trip with the missing tracking period in April 2009 under the management of Solchart.
Then, in June 2009, came the odd administrative change. On 18 June 2009, Oy Solchart Management Ab, the company registered in Finland, “devolved” into two separate companies, Oy Solchart Management Ab, and Oy White Sea Ltd. White Sea became the parent of the Malta-registered Arctic Sea Ltd, the shell owner of M/V Arctic Sea.
Days later, Arctic Sea made her repair stop in Kaliningrad, and then the cargo trip of July and August 2009, with that new structure in effect.
That’s actually pretty significant, given the frequently noted link of Kaliningrad to smuggling of various kinds. It suggests an intent to buffer Solchart from whatever Arctic Sea was about to embark on.
But it might not seems quite so significant, were it not for the additional detail that the July-August 2009 trip differed from the previous “missing track” trips in two other ways.
Geographic and ship-movement deets
One was that in July 2009, Arctic Sea’s AIS was turned off as she exited the English Channel. In the previous three trips, the AIS was turned off much further south, at the Strait of Gibraltar.
The other, however, was that the originating Finnish port for the July-August 2009 trip was a different one.
Recall John Helmer’s summary for the three earlier “missing track” deployments (see the full quote at the link above or in Part II): “In all cases, the vessel appears to have taken on cargo at Loviisa and Kotka (Finland), and Tallinn (Estonia).”
In July 2009, Arctic Sea made no stop in Tallinn. And the ship’s departure point in Finland was a much different one: Pietersaari (Jakobstad) on the Gulf of Bothnia.
Loviisa and Kotka are close together on the Gulf of Finland, east of Helsinki. Tallinn, in Estonia, is at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland in the west. Kotka and Loviisa are both major export ports for the Finnish timber trade, and the freight forwarding agent that normally moved timber to those ports for Arctic Sea’s charters is well established in both of them. There is no information on what the ship did in Tallinn on those previous trips. (It may have been – in hindsight, probably was – significant.)
But for the July 2009 departure, Arctic Sea was in Kaliningrad until about a week before leaving for Algeria, and then left from Pietersaari. The ship made no stop in Tallinn, meaning she did not enter the Gulf of Finland at all.
In fact, the reports about the “raid” off Sweden on 24 July indicated the ship was in transit between the Swedish islands of Gotland and Oland at the time of the attack – which would have put Arctic Sea outside the routine maritime transit lanes between the Gulf of Bothnia and the larger Baltic (see the map), and looks uncommonly like she was going out of her way to avoid the Gulf of Finland, and perhaps the Russian surveillance inevitable there.
That’s one possibility, at any rate. Notably, an August 2009 report in Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat indicated that the normal freight forwarding agent, Oy Aug. Ljungqvist Ab (ALJ), seemed to know nothing about the trip to Algeria that began in July (h/t: Stratfor/WikiLeaks). That firm would have little to say anyway; its business applies to moving the freight around in Finland and dealing with Finnish customs. But it probably indicates that Ljungqvist – which provides services for Loviisa and Kotka, but was not listed for Pietersaari/Jakobstad (see Stratfor) – did not consign freight for the July-August trip.
Arctic Sea was thus out of pattern and operating under a new structure – on paper – for the July-August 2009 expedition.
Before checking just a few more details, we may note (again) that it appears the ship’s management company was changed between the second “missing track” trip in 2008, and the third one in March-April 2009.
After the third trip, the structure of Artic Sea’s management and ownership was changed before the fourth “missing track” trip in July 2009. The pattern of stops on the way out of the Baltic also changed entirely for that fourth trip. One possible interpretation is that there was an effort in late 2008 to obscure the ship’s activities from someone, by shifting from the Latvian management company to in-house management by Solchart. Then a decision was made to alter Arctic Sea’s next voyage even more significantly, with a departure pattern that in hindsight is both more striking and more apparently furtive.
As mentioned in Part I of Uranium Jerky, one of the “minor” details of Arctic Sea’s saga is an eye-opener.
Keep in mind that Finnish, Maltese, Swedish, and apparently U.S. and Russian authorities knew where the ship was the whole time. It was the general public that thought the ship was missing between 30 July and 14 August.
Now, here comes the detail. The “location” of the ship was announced to the public on 14 August 2009. At the time, the location was given as 520 miles off the Cape Verde Islands, with the disclosing authorities being from France and Russia. (On 17 August, more widely disseminated reports had the ship 300 miles west of Cape Verde.)
Much of the mainstream media didn’t pick that up for a day or so, but at least one outlet, the San Diego Union-Tribune, did carry a report it early on 15 August, authored by Lynn Berry, the Moscow bureau chief for Associated Press.
A Russian-manned cargo ship that vanished last month in the Atlantic was found yesterday near Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa, French and Russian officials said. …
“Cape Verde coast guards said they have located the boat” about 520 miles off Cape Verde, French Defense Ministry spokesman Capt. Jerome Baroe said. France was involved in search efforts together with several other countries.
Russian naval ships were ordered to pursue the ship after the Cape Verde coast guard reported the freighter was outside the country’s territorial waters to the north, Russia’s ambassador to Cape Verde, Alexander Karpushin, said.
So we can be certain that the Russian announcement came simultaneously with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s one and only visit ever to the Cape Verde Islands, on 14 August 2009.
Later summaries provided by Russian spokesmen made clear that Russia had known before then where Arctic Sea was. The date of disclosure about that knowledge was therefore selected, not dictated by an actual timeline of detection. The Russian disclosure, in conjunction with France’s announcement, also emphasized that the Russian navy was sending four ships to intercept Arctic Sea in the Atlantic.
Hillary’s visit had been in planning for some time, as it came at the end of a several-stop jaunt to Africa. (It’s also noteworthy that Dmitry Medvedev had been in Africa in June 2009 to talk about commercial cooperation with African nations on nuclear power, uranium, natural gas, and aluminum.)
The Russian timing on Arctic Sea was as pointed as the timing a few months earlier, in February 2009, when Russian long-range bombers zoomed Canada less than 24 hours before President Obama’s first visit to Ottawa.
Curiously enough, in early July 2009 Russia also conducted multiple strategic bomber flights in the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the Arctic, during Obama’s first visit to Moscow. In the course of the Moscow visit, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement on negotiations for the New START strategic arms treaty – making the timing of the bomber flights unusually eye-catching.
The obedient U.S. media remained silent about those bomber flights, but a small outlet in Alaska, the News-Miner in Fairbanks, reported a few days later on a talk given locally by Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins in which he spoke of how unusual the timing of the flights was.*
This year, there have been 13 Russian bomber flights near Alaska, some of which included fighter escorts, Atkins said. In the past, it would be “politically embarrassing” for the Russians to conduct such flights while a U.S. leader is visiting the Russian president, but the general said the Russians conducted three such flights during President Obama’s recent visit to Moscow.
Russian journalist Yulia Latynina alluded to the pointedly-timed bomber activity as well, in a Moscow Times article on 8 July 2009 (see link in the Commentary article above) recounting a summit breakfast discussion between Obama and then-prime minister Putin:
The outcome of the last Russian-Georgian war was determined when Putin met one-on-one with Bush in Beijing. Similarly, whether or not there will be another Caucasus war will depend on what Putin reads in Obama’s eyes during this summit. Whether on Georgia, missile defense, or other issues, Putin may have read something in his eyes that Obama didn’t know was there, as Russian bombers uncharacteristically buzzed Alaska during the summit.
Oddly enough, the Russians also went well out of their way in the same month – July 2009 – to claim that they had taken the United States by surprise with strategic missile launches from the North Pole on 15 July. Whether they did or didn’t achieve surprise isn’t the point. The point is their clear signal that they wanted the world to think they had. (Actually surprising the U.S. with strategic missile launches would have violated the arms agreement in force at the time, which required formal notification of launches for testing and exercise purposes. The Russians’ meaning was that the location of the launch area – which didn’t have to be declared beforehand – took the Americans by surprise. My post at the link explains why that’s nonsense. Making that specific claim was a strange thing for Russia to do.)
This was all at a time when the Obama administration had quite an accommodating posture on the New START treaty negotiations, and indeed on other matters as well, as far as the public could discern. (It was in March 2009 that Hilary Clinton had presented Sergei Lavrov with the giant red “reset” button, which actually read “overcharge.”)
Russia doesn’t waste such timing on coincidence. If Russia does something in your face in the middle of your diplomatic feel-good moment, it’s because Russia means to do it.
As humorous as it may sound, the timing of the Cape Verde announcement in Arctic Sea’s history is a very good indication that Russia was not happy, and Russia was making a point – in particular, quite possibly, trying to score one on Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps related; perhaps not: it’s not inconceivable, given where Arctic Sea was located (reportedly west of the Cape Verde Islands), that Russia was highlighting where the ship might have been headed, were she not to be stopped by the Russian forces that were then en route. A position west of the Cape Verde Islands is obviously not on the way from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. It looks very much like an attempt to head for South America.
If Arctic Sea had been carrying something for Russia (i.e., for the Medvedev/Putin regime), highlighting the potential that it was headed for South America would not have been Moscow’s first choice. That has its own interesting aspect, a point we will visit in Part IV.
An accusation against Estonia
The next heavy deet is that during the trials of the “hijackers” in Russia, more than two years after Arctic Sea was recovered and the Russians had publicized the makeup of the supposed “hijacking” party of 24 July 2009, Moscow requested that Interpol issue a Red Notice for the former chief of Estonian national intelligence in connection with the event.
The Estonian in question, Eerik-Niiles Kross, had gotten cross-ways of Russia in several situations since Baltic State independence was achieved in the 1990s. At the time of the Arctic Sea incident, the most recent one was filling a role as adviser to Georgia during the brief war with Russia in 2008, when Moscow encouraged the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to break away from Tbilisi and effectively join with Russia.
The Russian allegation was basically that the Arctic Sea “hijacking” was an Estonian operation, also involving a German and an Israeli, as well as the Latvian ship management company Aquaship, which had previously managed Arctic Sea. The story was somewhat fantastic (see here and here as well) and notably included a main character (a ghostly Russian businessman) of whom there was never any trace, outside of Russian claims about testimony from one of the hijackers.
There could be more here than meets the eye, due to several factors. One is that Russia doesn’t live in perpetual suspicion of Estonia solely because it’s Estonia (although there’s a good deal to that). Russia’s suspicions about Estonia are constantly stoked by the long-embedded influence there, on government agencies and the media, of George Soros and his Open Society Foundation.
We’ve encountered the Soros influence on Estonia before, in connection with Spygate. Recall that Estonia is one of the European nations through which British intelligence and John Brennan purported to have gained prejudicial intel about Donald Trump’s links to Russia in 2016. During the period 2011 to 2016, the president of Estonia was Toomas Ilves, a very close friend of Soros’s.
But there are also reasons to think that it was Russia that was caught by surprise over Arctic Sea’s July 2009 departure, and Russia that may have deployed the commando team that took down the cargo ship off Sweden – apparently having recruited the team in Estonia. This Russian recruitment was strongly implied in a lengthy article from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in October 2009. (Granted, RFE/RL has been linked since the mid-1990s to the Open Society Foundation, when Soros’s resources were brought in to rescue the U.S.-government-funded enterprise from a post-Cold War demise.)
Russia kept the all-Russian ship’s crew and the hijackers incommunicado after they were all taken to Russia in August 2009, and all the post-event judicial processing was done in Russia. Eventually the crew were allowed supervised questioning by the media, but conflicting crew accounts and (probably) fear of retaliation by the Russian government have kept information from the crew mostly off the radar.
It’s been a notable aspect of the whole affair, in fact, that the Western mainstream media have been largely content to merely sort out the official narratives of governments and industry representatives. Those narratives don’t solve the mystery of Arctic Sea, but the media have been uncharacteristically incurious about that.
In any case, the commandos being Russian assets could fit either of two scenarios: Russia having chartered the ship’s voyage with the government being complicit, but having some weird Russian reason for putting out a story about a hijacking; or the Russian government being caught off-guard by Arctic Sea’s movement. (If I had to guess, it would be the latter.)
But the converse proposition – i.e., a Western nation suspecting Russian mischief and wanting to take the ship down – doesn’t fit anything. Neither Estonia nor another Western nation would have mounted such a bizarre hijacking operation, regardless of who chartered Arctic Sea (especially not in Swedish territorial waters).
If its concerns were forthright and legitimate, a Western nation, armed with suspicions, would simply have asked Finland to impound (or inspect and clear) the ship before she left Pietersaari. Again, that’s regardless of whose motives were under suspicion. Failing interception in Finland, a Western nation could have worked with Sweden or Denmark (at the mouth of the Baltic) to intercept the ship in territorial seas. There’d be no need for dramatic, anonymous takedowns in rubber boats.
Intriguingly enough, the Israeli outlet Ynet published a report in September 2009 indicating an apparently high confidence assertion that the Russians did undertake the “hijacking” with the commando team on 24 July 2009. There is no way to verify that reporting at this point.
Meanwhile, numerous experts confirmed at the time that the last thing the incident would be was piracy. (One expert is cited in the Ynet article, but this assessment was ubiquitous in the Arctic Sea reporting. No one thought it was piracy.) Besides there having been no piracy in the Baltic for centuries, the commando operation was obviously well funded (if not necessarily sophisticated) and executed effectively, and was simply beyond the motive and resources of anyone who would act for pecuniary purposes.
Looking at other possibilities, Russia had no apparent need to transport cargo secretly in such a way. Clients like Iran or North Korea would be much easier to reach by going through Asia, well away from the best surveillance capabilities of Western nations. Even for transporting suspicious items to Latin America or Africa, the main point of surveillance vulnerability was the Baltic and its approaches, and Arctic Sea went through them anyway. To transport cargo secretly from Russia to Latin America, the smartest route (even if interim stops were included to obscure the cargo’s complete voyage) would be from the Barents Sea or perhaps the Far East, not the Baltic or the Black Sea and Mediterranean.
A little concentrated thought clarifies that Russia didn’t need to charter Arctic Sea for a secret-cargo voyage on this profile. If the ship was carrying a really hot potato – and it seems she was – it was probably for someone else.
If Russia recruited a takedown team in Estonia, one interpretation to put on Russia’s blame-Estonia gambit is that Moscow, at least, suspected the charterer behind Arctic Sea’s voyage had a connection to Soros and his political allies in the West.
Juxtaposing that with the Soros-linked battery of Russiagate “intelligence” from Eastern Europe in 2015 and 2016, which purported to finger Russia and Trump, opens up quite a picture of a protracted blame and counter-blame game, with Putin’s Russia and Soros’s influence network as the key players. It’s a game that, at a political level, has been a sore point in much of Southeastern Europe for the last two decades – starting with politics in Ukraine, but by no means ending there.
In the case of Arctic Sea, as in all the others, either side’s blame-throwing effort could well be a put-up job to make the other look bad – a shadow war among global adversaries for which national populations are hapless bystanders.
In Part IV, we will look at a potential Arctic Sea connection with nuclear materials transport, and at the disposition of the ship after the 2009 incident, which is of significant interest to our assessment of the incident itself. In Part V, we’ll consider a handful of additional peculiar coincidences surrounding the year 2009, in which the connections range from Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell to an Italian shipbuilding firm whose chairman met with Obama at an oddly timed dinner in May 2017.
* I tested the News-Miner link in the archive of my old Commentary piece on the Russian bomber flights, and discovered it is no longer functional. You can verify by hovering over that link that it existed as a News-Miner story file in July 2009. I’ve been unable to find a copy of it in its original form anywhere on the web, but there is a complete copy of the article’s headline, byline, and text in a comment at the Optimistic Conservative article from July 2009 about the Russians’ North Pole missile launches (“Hat Speech,” linked in the text above and also here).
That copy made by one of my readers may be the only complete one of the Chris Freiberg article left on the Internet. I have screen caps made of it, and can post those on notification that anyone is having trouble viewing and reading the entire article at Optimistic Conservative.