By Anna Babinets
On September 12, the Russian destroyer Smetlivy was stopped on its way to the Mediterranean Sea in the port of Sevastopol by Ukraine’s border guards, who spent more than three hours checking the vessel’s documents. Ukraine’s border guard service is allowed to check all Russian ships of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) leaving Ukrainian borders because of the BSF’s basing on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The procedure, codified via an agreement between the two countries, represents the only way by which Ukraine is able to create an obstacle for Russian warships leaving Sevastopol to head to regional hotspots. Yet, according to recent Western reports, rather than standing in the way of Russia’s assistance to the embattled Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Ukraine has been actively involved in arms and supply shipments to the Syrian government—a claim that Kyiv vociferously denies.
At the beginning of this month, a Washington, DC-based analytical firm, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), which investigates transnational crime, conflict and security, conflict resolution, as well as arms trafficking, released a report entitled, “The Odessa Network: Mapping Facilitators of Russian and Ukrainian Arms Transfers[link is a PDF],” written by its analysts Tom Wallace and Farley Mesko. The report asserts that over the past year and a half, a heavy volume of shipping traffic could be observed traveling from Oktyabrsk port (southern Ukraine) to Syria’s coast. Wallace and Mesko used data from the ships’ onboard transponders to track these vessels. They noticed that ships that had left the Ukrainian port sometimes suspiciously disappeared.
“By obtaining AIS transponder records for all ports in Syria, Ukraine, and Russia between 1 January 2012 and 30 June 2013 we constructed a near-complete log of commercial maritime traffic entering or exiting ports in these countries over the given timeframe, complete with exact date, time, and location,” the authors say.
At least two large Ukrainian companies—Kaalbye Shipping and Phoenix Trans-Servis—delivered Russian and Ukrainian weapons to Syria, the “Odessa Network” report notes. “This pattern of Kaalbye ships docking at Oktyabrsk, entering the Mediterranean, then disappearing from AIS coverage has been most prevalent during periods of heavy Russian military aid to Syria.”
According to Wallace and Mesko’s research, these companies were linked with Igor Urbansky, the former Ukrainian deputy minister of transportation, and Vadim Alperin, a well-known Ukrainian businessman. Oktyabrsk port is itself controlled by the Russian-Ukrainian oligarch Vadim Novinsky. Furthermore, the C4ADS analysts suggest in their study that Ukrainian and Russian government officials cooperated with these companies on the arms shipments.
A September 7 article in the Washington Post publicized the “Odessa Network” report and caused particular controversy in Ukraine. Rejecting the accusations, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared on September 10 that there was no supply or transit of military goods from Russia through Ukraine to Syria in 2012–2013. Ukraine had stopped military and technical cooperation with Syria as of May 2011, according to the foreign ministry. A parallel announcement was published by Ukraine’s state service of export control, which regulates all Ukrainian export and international transfers—in particular, military goods and dual-use goods. The state export control service alleged that it had not given out any permits for the transit of military goods from Russia through Ukraine to Syria.
Similarly, in a live TV interview on September 13, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Viacheslav Kyrylenko called the arms shipments report a “provocation” aimed at derailing Kyiv’s planned signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union.
Oktyabrsk port manager Andriy Yegorov, whom the Wallace and Mesko report referred to as “a tool of the Russian-Ukrainian oligarch Vadim Novinsky,” also repudiated the arms shipment study. According to Yegorov, the Oktyabrsk port had not provided military cargoes for Syria for the past two years.
Whether or not one believes the denials by Ukrainian authorities about the arms shipments through Ukraine to Syria, a careful reading of the C4ADS report nevertheless reveals a number of serious mistakes. For example, the authors say that one of the main individuals identified as a part of the “Odessa network,” Igor Urbansky, is still a member of the Ukrainian parliament. This is incorrect. He left the parliament in 2007, and he is extremely difficult to contact. It would be an enormous scandal if a member of the Ukrainian parliament were linked to illegal arms trading and Russian oligarchs, as outlined in the C4ADS report.
Furthermore, in their report, Wallace and Mesko identify Vasilii Tsushko as Ukraine’s minister of defense and allege that he assisted Urbansky with carrying out the weapons deals. This claim is false and improbable. Vasiliy Tsushko was never defense minister but instead was an interior minister in 2007. As chief of Ukrainian police, he would have been able to perhaps sell Syria police uniforms, but certainly not cruise missiles, as the authors of the report claim.
Ukrainian experts are also skeptical about Wallace and Mesko’s report. In an interview with the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Crimean analyst and founder of the BlackSeaNews portal Andriy Klymenko called the claims extremely doubtful. He does not believe Ukraine would have helped Russia with arms shipments to Syria. Rather, Klymenko guesses that the article masks the real route Russian weapons take to Syria—from the Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Syrian port of Tartus.