On November 8, 2013 the Greek coastguard detained the cargo ship, Nour M, sailing under the flag of Sierra Leone in the Aegean Sea. The reason for the detention was the information that the ship was carrying, 20,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and explosives in 59 freight containers without proper documents. It is reported that the ship departed from the port of Oktyabrsk in the Ukraine on October 25. According to the ship’s captain, Hüseyin Yilmaz, its final port of destination was the port of Tripoli in Libya, and the cargo was intended for the Libyan Ministry of Defence.
On September 7, The Washington Post reported that Russia’s Rosoboronexport uses the port of Oktyabrsk for supplies of arms for Syria and Venezuela. This assumption is supported by the data of March 20-27, 2012 concerning the delivery of Russian arms (SA-10 Grumble and SA-17 Grizzly surface-to-air missile systems, Smerch multiple rocket launchers and SSC-6 Sennight mobile coastal defence missile systems) by Ocean Voyager and Ocean Fortune ships to Venezuela. Both ships belonged to Kaalbye Shipping International, which is a partner of Rosoboronexport.
Rosoboronexport is mentioned in a report by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as being involved in the supply of Russian arms to Syria. And despite the violence of the Syrian conflict, and being viewed as facilitating the bloodshed, Russia is very much invested in the Assad regime. “The Russians have not disrupted their resupply of the Syrians,” Rogers said in an interview. “This includes very sophisticated systems that could be just as dangerous as the chemical weapons.”
Independent research carried out by C4ADS (Center for Advanced Defense Studies) indicates that the port in Mykolaiv Oblast has become one of the key transit points for the supply of Russian arms to troubled areas of the world. According to the analysts of C4ADS, ships that sail under the flags of Syria and Lebanon are used to smuggle weapons to Syria. Several Syrian cargo ships made more than ten trips between the port of Oktyabrsk and one of the three major ports in Syria (Latakia, Tartus, which is home to a Russian naval facility, and Baniyas) during the period from January 2012 to mid-2013, although there is no reliable evidence of the presence of weapons on board.
After the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Russia continued to comply with the terms of the previously signed arms contracts, including ones for the supply of various types of weapons, and abstained from signing the treaty on the arms trade in April 2013. The Russian Foreign Ministry insists that Russia supplies Syria exclusively with defensive weapons, and, in response to the criticism from the United States, pointed out that the supply of SA-10 Grumble air defence systems is a deterrent that prevents outside interference within Syria.
Thus, there is evidence that Russia supplies arms to Syria, including through the Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk. Some sources claim that the detention of the vessel indicates that somebody had given information about its cargo to the Greek authorities.
After the detention of the vessel by the Greek coastguard, foreign media have actively supported the hypothesis that the vessel was bound for a Turkish port on the border with Syria, or for a port in Syria. The first to report this were the news agencies of Greece (ANA) and Lebanon (Al-Sharq al-Jadid). The Athenian news agency stated that the final destination was set as Tartus (Syria) in the maritime transport system, which is contrary to the documents carried by the vessel, and to open information databases. Moreover, the information systems, which the Greek media cite, warn that their data is not official, and cannot be used for commercial or navigation purposes, and thus may be inaccurate or erroneous.
In addition, the ship’s captain provided the Greek authorities with the documents that showed that the cargo was supplied in accordance with the FOB terms, which means that it ceased to belong to the Ukraine immediately after leaving the port. The end-user certificates issued by the Ministry of Defence of Libya were attached to the documents, which would eliminate any questions regarding the destination country.
However, the supply of arms to Libya from Ukraine is contrary to the interests of the Kremlin in the region. On September 2, 2013, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, said that the illegal flow of small arms into the hot spots in the Middle East from Libya was reported, and 12 countries are involved. However, on September 10, 2013, Lavrov said that Russia intends to actively cooperate with Libya in the supply of arms, training of personnel and protection of its borders.
“We see good prospects in developing military and technical co-operation, including supply of arms and necessary equipment, as well as training of personnel for the Libyan army and police. We have also discussed possible projects that will help our Libyan friends to strengthen border security,” he said after meeting his Libyan counterpart, Mohamed Abdelaziz. So, the Libyan arms market is returning to the area of interest of the Kremlin, which will try to squeeze competitors out of the market.
It should be noted that the detention of the vessel by the Greek coastguard coincided with the following events: A visit by Ukraine’s president, Victor Yanukovych, to Russia, the signing of the European Union Association Agreement in Vilnius on November 28, the transfer of the first five T-84 Oplot main battle tanks to the Royal Thai Army and the success of the delegation of Ukroboronprom in promotion of its production in Uruguay (late October 2013).
This may indicate that the staged arms smuggling into the conflict zone could be part of a planned action against Ukraine, and could be aimed at discrediting the nation’s leadership, and the state as an active participant in the global arms market, which would form an unfavourable international image to prevent the signing of the European Union Association Agreement.
So today there are three versions of the scandal’s causes. Version one: The events involving the Nour M vessel may be indicative of a special operation against Ukraine to cover a large supply of weapons from Russia to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria diverting the world’s attention from the legitimate cargo intended for the Government of Libya. According to some estimates, at the time of transportation of the cargo by the Nour M vessel, the Kremlin could ship large quantities of weapons to Damascus, and the detention of the Nour M vessel by the Greek coastguard and the subsequent scandal were aimed to divert attention from that.
So, Moscow, accused of supplying weapons to Syria, is interested in linking the port of Oktyabrsk to the supply of Ukrainian weapons and distancing itself from the use of this port. In addition, the scandal with an accusation of Ukraine of supplying weapons to the area of civil war in Syria would divert attention from similar accusations brought earlier against the Kremlin. Also, such action would undermine the position of Ukraine on the world arms market, disrupt the planned contracts, and squeeze Ukrainian exporters out of markets where Russia has interest.
Version two: The cargo from Ukraine can be labelled as intended for the Syrian rebels (for instance, Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda associate), which will allow the Kremlin to maintain its position on the supply of arms to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Version three: Defamation of Ukraine before the third Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. Although the vessel was detained on November 8, the opening of containers did not begin until November 11. If the investigation continues at such a slow pace, it can drag on until the Summit in Vilnius. Launching a media campaign to accuse Ukraine of illegal arms sales is also possible.
There is a high probability that the situation surrounding the detention of Nour M is the solution of several problems and the above versions are interrelated. The effectiveness of using arms to influence the geopolitical and domestic political landscapes, and to drive the competition out of the arms market was demonstrated during the notorious ‘Kolchuga (an ESM system) scandal.’ Given the extremely tense situation around Ukraine, the instigators of the scandal may pursue not one but several goals. If it is true, a large-scale campaign to discredit Ukraine using special methods lies ahead.