Russian 'ghost ships' linked to Syrian arm shipments dodge Ukrainian attacks

A new report highlights how Kyiv's drones are forcing civilian ships to try to hide their positions

The Sparta IV ship in a Russian port with possible military equipment on the quayside. Photo: Maxar Technologies and RUSI Open Source Intelligence and Analysis
Powered by automated translation

Russian civilian ships which have been accused of transporting arms from Syria are being forced into increased evasive action by Ukrainian attacks, experts have said.

The new report from the Royal United Services Institute outlines how Russia defies sanctions and the cat-and-mouse game it’s playing with the Ukrainians in the Black Sea.

Kyiv’s forces have been widely suspected of using drones in a bid to sink the vessels but the new report, entitled Ghost Ship – Russia’s secret naval fleet, outlines the Russian response and counter moves by this threat.

“This would suggest the Ukrainians are tracking their movements and pattern of activity,” one of its authors, Nick Loxton, told The National.

“They understand the strategic benefit to Russia of these ghost ships and they’re trying either to destroy them or to inhibit them and make enough friction not to make the route viable.”

The report describes what it calls a Russian “ghost fleet”, comprising modern vessels that have been able to move military cargo undetected through the Bosporus since the start of the war.

It focuses on the activity of a ship called the Sparta IV, which has been sailing from the Russian port of Novorossiysk and Tartus in Syria since 2019.

The ship’s owner, Oboronlogistics, is a state company with close ties to the Russian defence sector and it has been sanctioned by the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and Ukraine for providing logistical support to Russia’s 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine.

The RUSI report presents evidence that the Sparta IV, which has itself been sanctioned by the US, “serves as an auxiliary vessel for the Russian military”.

Given the vessel’s use as a “military ship”, the Russians would appear to be defying the Montreux Convention, an international agreement which regulates the movement of warships through the Bosporus, says the report.

The RUSI study details the efforts of the Sparta IV to sail undetected by turning off its AIS transponder, which alerts a ship’s location to other vessels and the maritime authorities.

Previously, the Sparta IV would typically turn off its AIS before entering Syrian waters, but it has now increased in frequency to other areas, including when it crosses the Black Sea.

Mr Loxton, the head of intelligence delivery at Geollect, attributes this behaviour to reported attacks by the Ukrainians using drones on the Sparta IV and its sister ship the Ursa Major.

He said the ship engaged in “tradecraft”, an intelligence term for avoiding detection, as well as other surveillance and espionage skills.

Satellite images from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies appear to show a large number of artillery pieces being loaded on to the ship when docked at Tartus. Air defence systems, along with artillery, were also reportedly seen in two areas of Novorossiysk.

Mr Loxton said that the vessel turning off its transponder before it got into Syrian waters and docked at the naval base in Tatrus “was a fairly clear indicator that it was moving Russian weapons to Syria to support the Assad regime and its brutal war”.

“It is likely that Russian demand for military equipment in Ukraine is necessitating the withdrawal of some equipment from Syria,” he said.

“Ukraine needs to only get one of the uncrewed maritime drones through the naval escort and successfully target the Sparta IV for Russia to lose possibly up to a regiment’s worth of artillery pieces or some other high-value military cargo coming from Tartus, making it well worth the risk.”

The vessel turned off its AIS for 292 hours off in the Aegean Sea from, 3 to 15 August this year.

“It could be the Russians trying to tighten up their tradecraft, possibly due to a concern that Ukraine may look to target the Sparta IV in areas where Russia is unable to provide a military escort,” Mr Loxton said.

“If somebody is trying to track the vessel using AIS, keeping it offline until the northern tip of the Aegean means that they've only got a couple of hours before it re-enters the Black Sea to find and target the vessel.”

He said Ukraine’s ability to develop cheap maritime drones means it is now “challenging Russian supremacy in the Black Sea theatre”.

“So now that they are at war, and they have some kind of ability to compete using these drones, I think Ukraine is increasingly confident about its ability to project maritime force right within the Black Sea.

“Using these drones, if they lose five of them, it doesn't really mean that much. Whereas if Russia loses one destroyer or one of its Ghost fleet, that's a significant impact on their capability within the Black Sea.”

Report co-author Jack Crawford, an open-source intelligence and analysis researcher at RUSI, said greater scrutiny of Russian activity, including the Sparta IV and its sister ships, was forcing behaviour changes.

“It seems like it was easier for these vessels to get away with this illicit behaviour before people started to look into what was going on and talking about it, but now that’s obviously starting to change, and not a moment too soon,” he told The National.

“It’s incredibly important for the international community, and especially allies of Ukraine, to co-operate in denouncing this behaviour and supporting diplomatic efforts to address yet another case of Russia's disregard for international law.”

Russia and other countries who have been subject to sanctions share evasion techniques.

“When it comes to North Korea, Iran and Russia, there are often shared patterns of behaviour when it comes to sanctions evasion,” he said.

“I would imagine that they're aware of what other countries are doing and are able to see what's successful versus what's detected by the international community.”

Updated: October 31, 2023, 3:25 PM