This article continues an exploration of some strange and remarkable incidents in and related to the history of the uranium trade in the years 2008 and 2009. The justification for having this interest, in the middle of the most crucial U.S. election in at least 150 years, is laid out in the introduction to Part II.
There is good reason to investigate what has been going on with uranium and other nuclear-related items in the last two decades, and one of the chief factors in that is discussed in Part I: the involvement of Goldman Sachs in trading and possessing physical uranium starting in 2009. To date, there has been no other such involvement by a financial house, or any company not originally constituted to hold and trade physical uranium.
In Part II, we looked at the weird history of the freighter M/V Arctic Sea, which supposedly went missing in the Eastern Atlantic for 15 days in 2009 – yet actually didn’t. Arctic Sea’s saga was distinguished by some very unusual details (“the deets’), including a stop in Kaliningrad for cargo-hold modifications before departing on the voyage from Finland; a prior history of conducting voyages with “missing” periods; and the ship’s insurer being from the same Renaissance group of companies that paid Bill Clinton $500,000 for a speech in Russia just prior to the U.S. decision to allow the same of Uranium One to a subsidiary of Russia’s Rosatom.
In Part III we pursued some additional “deets,” starting with a change of ownership structure just before the remarkable 2009 voyage. Even more eye-opening, the announcement that the ship had been “found” made reference to the Arctic Sea being west of the Cape Verde Islands on exactly the day of Hillary Clinton’s one and only visit to the Cape Verde Islands (at any time, but also as secretary of state), on 14 August 2009. Finally, we reviewed another unique feature of the case: that Russia blamed Estonia, and in particular Estonia’s former chief of national intelligence, for concocting Arctic Sea’s “hijacking” and “disappearance” as a plot, and actually requested a Red Notice by Interpol on the Estonian official.
Part IV continues with a final and most significant detail of the original Arctic Sea saga, and recounts the equally peculiar story of what happened to M/V Arctic Sea after it.
That recap brings us to perhaps the heaviest deet of all in Arctic Sea’s story – if it’s a valid concern. There are reasons not to dismiss it as one.
That detail is the hint of reports that an unnamed party was concerned enough about the potential of an undeclared nuclear-related cargo to have a radioactivity sweep done of Arctic Sea while she was waiting to leave Finland. (See link below.)
At any other time, the weight of probability would be against this being a factor in the Arctic Sea drama. But it was July 2009, and as we’ve outlined up to now (Part I), a lot was going on with uranium moving to and fro in the earth, and going up and down in it. Think of the keywords involved – Russia, Kazakhstan, Clintons, bribery, Soros, Iran, Obama administration, oligarchs, Goldman Sachs, to name a few – and ask yourself if it’s really so far-fetched that Artic Sea might have been a tool for such uses.
The hints are minimal, but not uninteresting. The strongest is the one that isn’t speculation. A Finnish official speaking to Agence France Presse (AFP) in August 2009 said that a fireman in Arctic Sea’s Finnish port of departure, Pietersaari, had asked for a radioactivity sweep because he had suspicions on that head about the ship. The official was dismissive about that:
Jukka Laaksonen, head of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, said firefighters conducted radiation tests on the ship — last reported off Cape Verde — at a port in Finland before it began a voyage full of intrigue.
But he dismissed as “stupid rumours” reports in British and Finnish newspapers that the ship could be carrying a “secret” nuclear cargo that could explain why it was attacked on the Baltic Sea before vanishing.
“Some fireman for some reason thought that there might be some radioactivity involved in this shipment and that was a very stupid idea. There was no basis for that,” Laaksonen told AFP.
(Even if it was a stupid idea, it was presumably done to reassure personnel like the requesting fireman who might fear they had been exposed to it.)
Although Laaksonen didn’t state clearly that the radiation test turned up nothing unusual, we would normally assume we can trust the Finns in such a matter. That said, it is of passing interest that Mr. Laaksonen seemed to go out of his way to ridicule the idea. Rather than mocking the monitoring request, a more definitive and temperate statement would have been that Finnish authorities found nothing to indicate there was a radioactivity problem, or a basis for suspecting one.
Keep in mind also that if other Western nations and Finland knew of there being more to this story, we would share the information among governments but not necessarily disclose it to the public.
Additional, circumstantial evidence includes the reference to a possible nuclear cargo by Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, whose article at the Moscow Times got considerable play during the peak period of Arctic Sea media coverage. Latynina didn’t name a source or provide detail on that reference, so there’s a severe limit to where we can go with it.
It’s also noteworthy that Russia, after escorting Arctic Sea to the Cape Verde Islands, kept the ship there for some time, with incidental references of varying credibility suggesting that cargo was removed (scroll down at link; “Media coverage and speculation”) from Arctic Sea in the islands and flown out.*
Moreover, when Arctic Sea finally did move, she went to the area of the Canary Islands for a brief period, while the Russians sought permission from Spain to dock her there. According to another AFP report, Russia ceased trying get that clearance after “Russian investigators unloaded evidence from the Arctic Sea onto a Russian warship to be taken to the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk,” in the words of a Spanish official quoted in the report.
The nature of the evidence isn’t specified, but if it consisted only of small items such as logbooks or computer records, it probably wouldn’t have been reported at all. It’s unlikely anyone would have noticed it happening. This AFP report sounds as if the “unloading” was a noticeable event.
The unloading took place on or just before 22 September 2009, after which Arctic Sea apparently made her way to Malta, where Solchart had her re-manned for the final leg of the originally scheduled journey to Bejaia, Algeria. As mentioned above, the timber cargo was delivered shortly after the week of 3 November 2009.
Speculation about the nature of any undeclared cargo on Arctic Sea was rampant at the time. As discussed in my own blog treatment of the story, in 2009, I thought it very unlikely that Arctic Sea was carrying weapons components or weapon systems. The customers for such cargo, delivered by clandestine means, would be reached with much better secrecy and security by going through internal routes in Asia.
A theory suggested in a widely read piece at the time, by Christina Batog in Asia Times, got a lot of play, but was likewise improbable, in my view. Ms. Batog’s August 2009 article cited a former Russian military officer who proposed that Arctic Sea might have been detailed to transport nuclear warheads for former-Soviet long-range cruise missiles which Ukraine had sold to Iran some years before, and which reportedly had been delivered piecemeal. (See also here, footnotes 185-193. It should come as no surprise that Batog’s former Russian military officer was living in Ukraine at the time, and that Batog was also able to cite the Estonian defense forces commander, Tarmo Kiuts, as agreeing with the supposition outlined by the Russian military officer.)
That theory prompts a number of questions, including where the nuclear warheads would have originated, why they would be transported by the implied route (i.e., Kaliningrad to Pietersaari to Algeria – or another Mediterranean port – and thence to Iran), and why, if a Western nation – including Israel – had intelligence about such an expedition, the Western nation would choose a bizarre takedown in Swedish waters in the Baltic Sea rather than simply working the matter with the government in Helsinki.
Another line of speculation was that the customer might have been in Latin America – most likely Venezuela – rather than being Iran or Syria. For that to be the case, a transit profile involving the Cape Verde Islands, or the West coast of Africa, would make sense. Arctic Sea’s role would be to deliver the contraband cargo for further transport at a port in that area, before continuing to a West Mediterranean port to deliver timber.
Interestingly, moreover, there was a flurry of reporting at just that time that Venezuela was supplying uranium to Iran (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Hugo Chavez was in charge in Venezuela and maintained close ties to the Iranian regime. Given the cooperation of the two nations both before and since 2009, it would have been perfectly in character for Chavez to abet Iran in sneaking uranium across the Atlantic for retrieval during Arctic Sea’s disappearances, with Arctic Sea then delivering it to a port in the Med (possibly Bejaia, but not necessarily) for forwarding by another vessel.
That possibility seems unlikely, on its face, to account for Arctic Sea’s earlier disappearances in 2007, 2008, and April 2009. That said, however, it’s not impossible. Although the ship had undergone no special modifications in that period, modifications might not have been necessary for transporting relatively small quantities of uranium or yellowcake (U3O8). Uranium shipments small enough to fit fully containers could be loaded in relatively minor quantities on Arctic Sea, even without modification. (That this would be an exceptionally uneconomical method of shipment is not something that matters to those trying to act in secret.)
If moving uranium from Venezuela has merit as an explanation, however, the July 2009 trip, with its out-of-pattern profile and after Arctic Sea had been modified at the shipyard in Kaliningrad, would stand out as a key analytical factor.
Ultimately, we are left with this. Regardless of the type of cargo being moved, the reasons to doubt that Russians would move it through Finland and the Baltic remain compelling, whether they were Russians acting independently (e.g., organized crime) or on behalf of the Russian government. That point militates against hazardous material, like uranium, being transported from or through Finland, which was a feature of every Arctic Sea trip with a “missing” period.
It does not affect the hypothesis that Arctic Sea may have used “disappeared” time to transport hazardous cargo from a pickup point off West Africa to a location in the Mediterranean. One thing we can probably assume about that is that the location would not have been in Spain, France, Italy, or Greece.
But we should not too readily discount other coastal nations like Albania or Montenegro (the latter at the time a haven for Russian oligarchs), any more than we would discount ports in North Africa.
Syria seems unlikely to me, partly because of how recently Israel had destroyed the nuclear reactor facility being constructed there, an operation executed in September 2007. Israel was also on high alert for suspicious shipments anywhere in the Eastern Mediterranean because Operation Cast Lead had just been fought, in early 2009, with its focus on the arms supply and war-making infrastructure built up by Hamas in Gaza.
Syria would also require additional transit time from Gibraltar. A port no further east than the Adriatic, or perhaps Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, would be more likely.
Arctic Sea delivered her cargo of timber to Algeria in November 2009. Solchart Management went bankrupt around that time, and ended up selling off its assets, including Arctic Sea. More on that in a moment.
The ship’s crew had been repatriated to Russia by the time Arctic Sea departed the Cape Verde Islands. They were held incommunicado for some 10 days, and ultimately released under a gag order.
The “hijackers” were incarcerated throughout their legal processing in Russia, which resulted in all of them receiving sentences of 7 to 11 or 12 years. The earliest sentenced were committed to prison in 2010; the last in March of 2011. It’s not clear from readily accessible reporting how many have been released from prison at this point. If they have been, they aren’t talking.
Although there has been interesting follow-on material on how their reported claims differ from the official story, the details don’t illuminate the issue we are inspecting.
Arctic Sea, meanwhile, showed little activity over the next few months, although she did reappear in Finland, bringing a load of lime, at the very end of 2009.
The ship was seen again in Malta in April 2010, just setting off for a new life in the St. Lawrence Seaway that links the Great Lakes, between the U.S. and Canada, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic.
Arctic Sea under new ownership
This detail – Arctic Sea’s new ownership – is eye-catching in its own right, arguing a special interest by someone in moving Arctic Sea to North America, and having her ownership be comparatively obvious and well-advertised.
In the more typical course of things, a smaller freighter sitting in Malta, with no prior connection to North America – and even one with no strange history – would be more likely to end up in Europe or the Middle East, owned by a low-profile shell company and used for charter shipping or perhaps regular runs by a lesser-known coastal feeder line with limited port options.
But beginning on 12 April 2010, Arctic Sea’s new ownership structure included Great Lakes Feeder Line (GLFL), the Canadian subsidiary of a Dutch company, as “owner,” and the U.S. company Arctic Runner Shipping, Inc. as “registered owner.” The ship’s coming to North America was heralded in industry press as well.
The actual sale was reportedly concluded by the U.S. company Logistics Plus, which has the same owner and CEO as Arctic Runner Shipping, and the same company address in Erie, Pennsylvania. The CEO is a man named James P. Berlin, who goes by Jim and has a reputation as something of a maverick. His logistics and freight company has been in business since the 1990s.
Arctic Runner Shipping, however, was clearly created for the purpose of participating in the St. Lawrence Seaway business of Great Lakes Feeder Line, and specifically of owning Arctic Sea.
It will turn out that that purpose and timing were both odd. In another of many interesting coincidences, meanwhile, Jim Berlin’s big kickstart in the logistics business was a contract with General Electric in the late 1990s (described at the links above). I emphasize at the outset that this may have no special meaning.
But GE, of course, was notorious as a corporate crony of the Obama administration. In an arresting conglomeration move, GE had also become the owner of NBCUniversal (in 2003), and retained the media giant until it was sold in stages to Comcast between December 2009 and March 2013. (NBCUniversal properties were notably complicit in broadcasting packaged propaganda for Obama administration initiatives, something discussed by conservative media at the time.)
Readers may remember that there was considerable speculation early in the Obama administration – in the mainstream media – about numerous links between the administration and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Even newsrooms that approved of Obama were incensed at the “sweetheart deals” awarded to GE by his administration.
The point is not that this is positive proof of a GE connection to the Arctic Sea purchase. The point is that it’s another among many odd coincidences surrounding events in this period that are dubious and unexplained, but do have interlinking threads, such as Arctic Sea’s insurer being directly linked to the Clintons and George Soros (Part II).
A ship without a mission
It’s not, moreover, as if the Arctic Sea purchase by Berlin made inherent sense. Interestingly, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty interview in 2010 emphasized Great Lakes Feeder Lines’ (GLFL) role in the purchase of the ship, touting its Dutch connection and making no mention of Berlin or any American owner. (The article is published in Russian. If it doesn’t auto-translate, you can run it through an online translator like Google Translate.)
But by the time Arctic Sea was delivered to Canada in 2010, the majority shareholder in GLFL, which had been founded in 2005 by the Dutch shipping executive cited by RFE/RL, was actually … Jim Berlin. Erie Magazine reported that in its September 2010 issue.
The RFE/RL article, published on 6 May 2010, didn’t mention Berlin or Arctic Runner Shipping — although Arctic Runner was formed in March 2010 to purchase Arctic Sea in April. RFE/RL mentioned only the Dutch founder of the GLFL enterprise Arctic Sea was joining, and interviewed him.
Which, as we’ll see, was a bit strangely timed. Oddly enough, when Arctic Sea was delivered, GLFL was already in commercial difficulty.
In July 2010, Arctic Sea was touted as the ship that would put Erie on the map as a feeder port, with Artic Sea slated to make regular runs between Erie and Montreal.
But the company had had exactly one run on its own in the “feeder line” role plying the Great Lakes. That took place in 2008, with the company’s other asset, M/V Dutch Runner.
GLFL was unable to drum up any more feeder line business in 2009 (see studies linked below), and resorted to hiring Dutch Runner out for government-contracted (i.e., unprofitable, subsidized) transport of supplies to the ice-infested northeastern coast of Canada, in Labrador and Newfoundland. For-profit shipping was thus not very interested in GLFL.
That’s what Dutch Runner spent a portion of 2010 doing as well. (The U.S. Coast Guard in fact thanked Dutch Runner as one of the private maritime parties that provided quality reporting on the Arctic icepack off Newfoundland and Labrador during the 2010 survey season.)
A Canadian government-commissioned study showed that GLFL’s run as a feeder-line business was over by 2009 (see here as well). The reason: its rates weren’t competitive with rail and road transport in the price environment at that time for mineral and agricultural commodities, the cargo St. Lawrence Seaway feeders were set up to service. Only one feeder was making a go of the business over the period of the study.
So it was something of a curiosity that an established, savvy logistics firm like Berlin’s would invest heavily in GLFL and buy the line a second ship in 2010, when there had been no feeder-line work since 2008 for the one it already had (Dutch Runner).
Dutch Runner’s eventual fate was a curiosity in itself: the ship ceased operation off Newfoundland and Labrador in October 2010 – bowing unexpectedly out of a five-year contract for deliveries there – and headed for a major 2.5-year repair period in Turkey. It returned afterward, but apparently couldn’t find work again, and ended up sitting at the dock in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia for nearly three years while a new owner, a shadowy group that changed names at least once during that period, was trying to make it seaworthy and man it for a trip to the Caribbean, to be given a new flag and identity. Port Hawkesbury is a small port in a remote area; this strange situation captured considerable local attention.
Dutch Runner finally left Port Hawkesbury in 2018. Arctic Sea, meanwhile doesn’t appear to have ever made a run in Canadian or U.S waters for Great Lakes Feeder Lines. (In retrospect, it appears that both ships were offloaded from GLFL in late 2011; see the rest of Arctic Sea’s history below. Arctic Sea was sold by November 2011, and Dutch Runner made her last cargo run as a GLFL asset in October 2010, heading for Turkey early in 2011.)
As mentioned above, however, Arctic Runner did leave Malta in April 2010, reportedly heading to Greece to pick up cargo for delivery in Quebec in May. Good use was thus made of her transit to Canada. It was a peculiar circumstance, however, as noted by the blog Flags of Convenience, that Arctic Sea’s stop in Greece appeared to be at or near the island of Kos, just off the coast of Turkey. (See map below.) A cargo that needed transporting from Kos to Quebec was likely to be, shall we say, of an unusual nature.
In June 2010 – i.e., after the delivery to Quebec – Flags of Convenience was tracking Arctic Sea east across the Mediterranean to the destination of Damietta, Egypt, where it appears the ship arrived mid-month. Arctic Sea was later located in the Strait of Gibraltar, lingering for at least a few hours, at the end of June.
Following that, the ship was photographed by Canadian ship-spotting hounds along the St. Lawrence, painted in GLFL livery: on 22 and 23 July 2010, and then pierside in Montreal on 31 July.
If Arctic Sea did anything after that for GLFL, it didn’t make news. One possibly related event does stand out, however, during the period of Arctic Sea’s ownership by GLFL and Artic Runner Shipping. The event occurred in January 2011, and involved our old friend Solchart Arkhangelsk (see Part II) performing its last documented ship management activity.
Information from that event, collated at an import/export aggregation website, shows Solchart Arkhangelsk contracting four batches of cargo, all in one shipment, for export from Ukraine on 18 January 2011. In the years in which Solchart Arkhangelsk was tracked on the website, this was the sole import/export event associated with the firm.
(Recall from Part III that the role of Solchart Arkhangelsk in the Solchart scheme was crewing and ship technical management. Solchart in Helsinki was the entity that scheduled cargo for Artic Sea. Solchart Arkhangelsk was incorporated in March 2008 and dissolved due to inactivity in Jan 2018, with no revenue shown by Russian business registry sites after 2014, so it’s likely that this strange shipment from Ukraine was the only cargo movement the company ever put its name to.)
The cargo, according to the manifests cited by the tracking website, consisted of some navigation annuals, charts, and what appears to be “30 tons” of “fresh drinking water” originating in Ukraine. The freight agent in Ukraine was a real company, Maritime Supply and Service, with an address in Mariupol.
The cargo’s destination is not given. It may be available, but viewing more information about the event (if there is any) requires a purchased subscription.
The export transaction is listed as involving M/V “Arctic S.” (T/x is the Russian equivalent of M/V.) It is conceivable, of course, that it was another ship with a name “Arctic S—–” and not the Arctic Sea we are looking at. Since the management company is Solchart Arkhangelsk, however, and this is the only freight-consigning activity formally recorded from it, the odds are good that the ship was our Arctic Sea.
There is no indication I can see that a ship actually picked up cargo in this transaction. But there’s also nothing to indicate that our Arctic Sea, IMO 891279, was not available for a trip at the time.
So this one’s a bit of a mystery.
Such a trip would have meant Arctic Sea heading across the Atlantic again for a one-off, like the apparent trips in 2010. A couple of highly uneconomical runs across the pond, in 2010 and 2011, would amount to quite a peculiar history for Arctic Sea in the GLFL period. If Arctic Sea was in the Med in January 2011, it makes excellent sense to question whether the ship was really delivering drinking water from Ukraine.
Arctic Sea was sold by November 2011 to a new owner, PMAC Marine, in Sharjah, UAE. That’s when her life appears to have actually returned to normal.
Arctic Sea was re-registered at that point with the European ship-registry service DNV GL (after having been registered with the Russian PMPC since 2005), and her name has changed a couple of times since. It is now Baby Leen. She’s still in service and has lately been running charters in East Asia.
In Part V, we will survey a set of interesting developments from the period immediately surrounding Arctic Sea’s 2009 expedition, involving unusual movements of uranium and nuclear-related materials, the politics of tracking ships and cargo, and a foreign buyer in the shipbuilding business in the U.S. Great Lakes.
* As a matter of tangential interest, it is noteworthy that the former Soviet Union had supported the independence movement of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau against Portugal – their colonial custodian – in the early 1970s, and had military access to an airfield in Guinea (at Conakry) after the two colonies gained independence in 1975. That access was revoked in 1977. Cape Verde allowed Soviet and Cuban military airlift aircraft to refuel at the Sal airfield in the late 1970s, during trips to and from Angola, but did not accord Moscow more extensive access in spite of numerous requests.
This history came up briefly in some reporting on the Arctic Sea incident, in particular when the Russians sent military IL-76 cargo planes to transport the ship’s crew and “hijackers” to Russia from the islands.
Russia had continued to court Cape Verde after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in large part because of the islands’ strategically important location.
Reportedly, in fact, as of 2007, Russia had plans in a “stage of quite advanced study” with Cape Verde to provide the islands with a floating nuclear power station; i.e., a nuclear generation capability hosted on a vessel offshore. When Russia is planning something like that in a remote location, the assumption is always that it figures in national strategic calculations, and is not merely the bright idea of some brash entrepreneur.