PUBLISHED AUG 13, 2023 7:40 PM BY THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE
In a step change for the escalating war risk for shipping in the Black Sea, a Russian patrol ship has fired upon and boarded a foreign-flagged ship on the route from the Bosporus to the Danube, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. The claim has not been verified, and Ukraine’s government has cast doubt on the Russian account of the run-in.
According to the Kremlin, the Russian Navy patrol vessel Vasily Bykov approached the aging freighter Sukru Okan in the southwestern Black Sea on Sunday morning. Bykov’s crew ordered the merchant ship to halt for inspection, according to the ministry’s account, and fired warning shots with small arms in order to compel compliance. The Bykov’s crew then used a helicopter to deliver a boarding team to the vessel’s deck for an inspection, the ministry claimed.
AIS data provided by Pole Star shows that Sukru Okan got under way from the port of Chalcis, Greece on August 7, bound for the Black Sea. She exited the Bosporus at about 0300 local time on Sunday and headed north, then changed course abruptly westward at 0745. She continued her northbound journey but hugged the coastline of Bulgaria.
Sukru Okan’s trackline on August 13, showing westward course alteration to follow the Bulgarian coast (Pole Star)
At no point in the AIS record did she slow down for an extended period, as might be expected for a conventional boarding. As of Sunday night, she was still headed northbound along the coast of Romania.
In an interview, a spokesperson for the Southern Defence Forces of Ukraine cast doubt on whether this interaction had actually happened.
“They [Russia] are trying their best to denote their dominance in the Black Sea. Allegedly they are able to stop the ship, raise the [helicopter], and they will not be sanctioned for this kind of stop-and-search, but today this version has not been confirmed by anyone else,” said Natalia Humeniuk, head of the joint press center for the command. “We must understand that the information war continues as powerfully as the artillery fire.”
Sukru Okan is owned by a Turkish company and flagged in Palau. In international waters, she would be under Palau’s exclusive jurisdiction and control under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The selection of a Palau-flagged vessel could be viewed as a message: a flag state often takes on the responsibility of ensuring the security of its sovereign fleet, but Palau does not have significant provisions for defense. That role falls solely to the government of the United States, which once governed Palau and still has exclusive responsibility for Palau’s defense under treaty.
Russia has made extensive efforts to shut down shipping to and from Ukraine, including outbound shipments of grain from Ukraine’s Danube region and Black Sea coastline. It has threatened to treat inbound vessels as possible carriers of weaponry. In response, Ukraine has threatened to target shipping along Russia’s Black Sea coastline, and its forces have already struck a Russian-flagged tanker near the Kerch Strait.