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As Russia’s ghost fleet threatens Sweden, here’s how the EU could help

Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, author of the award-winning “Goodbye Globalization” and a regular columnist for POLITICO..

A growing headache: The Russian ghost fleet, which operates outside the official maritime sector and whose owners are obscure and insurance virtually non-existent, now threatens Gotland – and therefore Sweden.

Since these ships are not part of any armed forces, there is little NATO can do about them. And although Sweden now hopes that EU sanctions might do the trick, this solution will take time. So, what to do in the meantime?

To reach their destinations, which are often Indian and Chinese ports, Russian ghost ships must pass through the waters of some NATO countries, as much of Russia’s oil leaves via its Baltic Sea ports. But the journey of these rickety and de facto uninsured tankers across the Baltic Sea poses an environmental risk for NATO members there – and that risk is exacerbated by the fact that the ghost ships are in poor condition. Worse still, many of them refuse pilotage as they navigate the narrow and tricky Danish Great Belt.

Adding to this environmental threat, these ghost tankers have also recently begun loitering outside Gotland’s eastern coast, where they have engaged in risky ship-to-ship oil transfers. They do so just outside the 12 nautical mile limit that demarcates a country’s territorial waters – meaning that even if the ghost ships are within Sweden’s exclusive economic zone, the country can almost do nothing to stop them from entering.

This is important not only because their presence is provocative and could cause massive environmental damage, but – as the Swedish Navy reported in late April – these tankers also carry communications equipment that is not required on any merchant ship. They also appear to serve as listening stations.

None of this surprises Solveig Artsman, a longtime resident of Gotland. In fact, quite the opposite. Artsman recalls that in 2016, a car transporter from St. Petersburg began to regularly show up at the Visby port and simply loiter there, even though his cars were not bound for Visby. “It came extremely regularly and always stayed for a long time,” she told me. “And it was always going back and forth to St. Petersburg. . . This car transporter reminded me of when the ghost ships started showing up here. If you live in Gotland, you get used to strange things.

Later, I looked up the car transporter Artsman mentioned: It’s still in business. Its presence off the Visby harbor may have had a logical explanation, of course, but in Gotland you never know. After all, it is the most strategic island in the Baltic Sea – and now in NATO.

And exceptional things happened in Gotland long before the current confrontation with Russia.

One day in April 1961, the keeper of the När lighthouse on the southeast coast of the island noticed an emergency SOS from a nearby ship. He immediately called the coast guard, while a visiting lighthouse keeper responded to the SOS signal. The two men, however, noticed that the ship appeared to have dropped anchor and was not in danger.

About 30 minutes later, two Soviet naval officers – the ship’s captain and a subordinate – headed towards the lighthouse, having reached the shore in a lifeboat. The young sailor quickly changed his mind and returned to the ship, but the captain remained and it seemed he had something to communicate. Later, when the Coast Guard arrived and called the police, the mysterious captain turned out to be a Lithuanian-Soviet citizen named Jonas Pleskys, who wanted to defect to the West. Yes, it was Jonas Pleskys who was later immortalized in the film “The Hunt for Red October”.

And in 2007, a majority Russian company showed up in Gotland, asking for permission to exclusively lease the eastern port of Slite for several months. Artsman, at the time a member of the island council, objected to the company getting it, but lost and was denounced as Russophobic. Today, however, it is clear that hosting this company might not have been the best idea: the company was called Nord Stream.

As Artsman said, unusual things actually happen in Gotland. And espionage on the island is even greater now that Gotland is part of NATO. “The other day, two busloads of NATO officials were at Slite and took pictures of each other before leaving,” Artsman told me. And of course Russia wants to know what Sweden and NATO are doing on the largest island in the Baltic Sea.

Gotland is the most strategic island in the Baltic Sea – and now in NATO. | Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

So what should we do about today’s ghost fleet and its dual threats of environmental catastrophe and constant espionage?

According to Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström, the European Commission has agreed to tackle the ghost fleet in the next round of EU sanctions. But while sanctions against this dangerous fleet are undoubtedly better than no sanctions, this process will take a long time: the fleet is estimated to include more than 1,400 vessels that need to be identified and studied, and their owners found. Additionally, for every sanctioned ship, at least one more is likely to join the fleet. The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control already imposes such sanctions, which is laborious and tedious work.

In the meantime, however, EU countries could take two steps that would have a rapid effect on the Dark Fleet: First, through the European Defense Agency’s Maritime Surveillance Project (MARSUR), the EU could identify and investigate all suspected ghost ships sailing in the waters of its member countries.

The EU could then also use the Baltic Sea Action Plan. This intergovernmental agreement, which Russia also signed (as did the EU), is a “strategic program of measures and actions aimed at achieving a good ecological state of the sea, ultimately leading to a Baltic Sea in a state healthy “. Since ship-to-ship transfers of oil are certainly not consistent with the agreement, other signatories would be within their rights to try to intervene when such transfers occur.

These two measures would not block the ghost fleet – indeed, it is not possible to block this subversive armada. They would, however, make the fleet a little less dangerous to Gotland, even if mysterious events continue to occur on and around the island. It’s just the nature of being located right between the West and Russia.


Sara Adm

Aimant les mots, Sara Smith a commencé à écrire dès son plus jeune âge. En tant qu'éditeur en chef de son journal scolaire, il met en valeur ses compétences en racontant des récits impactants. Smith a ensuite étudié le journalisme à l'université Columbia, où il est diplômé en tête de sa classe.Après avoir étudié au New York Times, Sara décroche un poste de journaliste de nouvelles. Depuis dix ans, il a couvert des événements majeurs tels que les élections présidentielles et les catastrophes naturelles. Il a été acclamé pour sa capacité à créer des récits captivants qui capturent l'expérience humaine.
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