Tag Archives: Russia

The Odessa Network

Unlike the Odessa File, there are no Nazis in the Odessa Network
Unlike the Odessa File, there are no Nazis in the Odessa Network

The think-tank C4ADS recently published a new study, The Odessa Network: Mapping Facilitators of Russian and Ukrainian Arms Transfers, which analyzed commercial maritime networks linked to the Russian state and their involvement in arms shipments, particularly those to Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria fighting in that ongoing Civil War.

The report received some additional publicity when it formed the meat of a 7 September Washington Post story, with discussion especially devoted towards the report’s analysis of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, claiming that vessels likely carrying arms from the Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk were turning off AIS when traveling to Syria.

The analysis conducted by Tom Wallace and Farley Mesko is certainly interesting and provides an in-depth look at commercial maritime networks and practices not generally seen outside of specialist literature on the shipping industry.  The work does leave some questions unanswered and makes unwarranted conclusions based on the available data, however:

  • The piece goes into great detail to lay out the various networks that Russia uses to ship arms, composed of interlocking companies headed and/or controlled by individuals with links to the state.  What’s unclear is why that should be considered unusual or bad.  Shell companies, convoluted ownership, and Flags of Convenience are commonplace for a variety reasons (many business-related) in the maritime industry.  It is not much of a “So What” to reveal that cronies in the maritime industry would be the facilitators used by Putin’s Russia to ship weapons to a pariah state. (Of note for those interested in topics like Flags of Convenience, Rodney Carlisle’s Sovereignty for Sale is a good read which explains the creation of the famous Panamanian and Liberian registries and provides context on why ship “ownership” is rarely straightforward in the maritime industry).
  • Russian arms shipments to Assad’s forces in Syria are clearly “bad,” but the implication in the Odessa Network study is that not only is Russia doing something bad, but that they are also doing it in a particularly devious and underhanded way.  The data provided by Wallace and Mesko only proves, however, that Russia is choosing to use “discreet” means to ship weapons to Syria.  It’s not clear that the Odessa Network’s ties to the Russian state or its business practices are that particularly egregious or unusual within the maritime industry.
  • The authors look at both publicly available data regarding Russian arms shipments as well as AIS data.  According to available data for ships/shipments, they note that “publicly known maritime weapons shipments from Russia to Syria” departed from “northern Russian ports of St. Petersburg or Kaliningrad.”  They then claim, however, based on the curious absence of AIS data for Russian ships in the eastern Mediterranean originating in Oktyabrsk, that there is “a strong circumstantial case that these ships and companies are moving weapons or other sensitive cargo to the Assad regime.”  The argument is inconsistent.  On one hand they make a case that operational security concerns or potential EU pressure on the Ukrainian government is stopping the use of Oktyabrsk as a transshipment site for Syria-bound arms, while on the other hand claiming that nefarious Russian intent is demonstrated by ships originating in Oktyabrsk deliberately not broadcasting AIS data when traveling to Syria.  Can both these assertions be true at the same time?
  • While certainly suspicious, is it actually illegal to turn off AIS as these Russia ships have allegedly done? The authors point out that there is the possibility that data may not be available in certain locations due to a lack of receivers, but also note that the eastern Mediterranean is not exactly an isolated area, and that AIS on these ships seems to work quite well everywhere else in the world.  According to the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO), “all ships of 300 gross tonnage and upwards engaged on international voyages, cargo ships of 500 gross tonnage and upwards not engaged on international voyages and all passenger ships irrespective of size” shall “maintain AIS in operation at all times except where international agreements, rules or standards provide for the protection of navigational information.”  These rules were implemented as part of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, as part of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).  Although there is no real chance that these rules could be enforced against Russian ships since they are adopted and enforced by IMO member states themselves, are these ships doing something illegal by not using AIS properly?  Could operators of these vessels be subject to penalties?  Could enforcement of these rules be a round-about way to stop Russian arms shipments to Syria?

Despite my minor criticism above, this sort of analysis is welcome and could be applied to a variety of other maritime issues.  More publicly available detailed network analysis of the commercial networks benefiting from oil theft in West Africa or Somali piracy  could provide new, non-kinetic policy or law enforcement options in the fight against these illicit activities afloat.  Similarly, the methods toward which Iran has been driven by sanctions to facilitate its oil exports could be a useful subject of interest to analysts and policy-makers alike.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2).  The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

Russia’s Rusting Task Force

Much has been made in the media of the Russian naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. With tensions rising over the Syrian conflict, the notion that Russian forces are staring down their American and British counterparts at sea fits the popular narrative of mutual antagonism. But is the Russian Navy’s Mediterranean task force all that unusual? Does it present a challenge or even a threat to the United States’ interests in the region, as some reports would suggest?

First of all, it is important to note that a Russian naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean is not unprecedented. From 1967 until its collapse, the Soviet Union maintained a task force of considerable size in the region, consisting of some 30 warships and an undetermined number of additional support vessels. Furthermore, Russia’s naval facility in Tartus, Syria was established in 1971, regularly providing repairs and maintenance for Soviet and later Russian ships.

Udaloy-class Russian Destroyer
Udaloy-class Russian Destroyer

In contrast, the Russian presence newly formed in the eastern Mediterranean is quite limited in its size and capabilities. The task force currently consists of twelve vessels: two destroyers, one frigate, two amphibious assault ships, three salvage tugs, a repair ship, and three re-fueling tankers. The long-term presence envisioned by the Russian defence ministry consists of no more than ten vessels. This is a dramatically reduced presence to the one put forward by the Soviet Union. The Priazovye, a reconnaissance ship deployed to the eastern Mediterranean by the Russian Navy in September 2013, will operate separately from the existing task force and is intended only for the short-term surveillance of the situation in Syria.

Despite the relatively small size of the Mediterranean task force, the Russian Navy reportedly struggled to find the resources to deploy a task force at all. When the United States Navy has deployed task forces on various operations, the vessels employed are usually drawn from the same fleet. But the Russian Navy’s Mediterranean task force is drawn from four of the country’s five fleets: Baltic, Northern, Black Sea, and Pacific. Only the Caspian Flotilla – a small contingent itself – did not contribute to the Mediterranean force. Had the Russian Navy followed the American practice of drawing from a single fleet, it would have left one of its fleets dangerously under-strength. This is a testament to how limited Russia’s naval capabilities have become in recent years.

Ropucha Class large landing craft.
Ropucha Class large landing craft.

Another important point regarding the Mediterranean task force is how dated some of the vessels are. The two Ropucha-class landing ships provided by the Baltic Fleet were originally commissioned for the Soviet Navy in 1975. An ambitious procurement project, intended to replace some of the aging Ropucha-class vessels with several of France’s Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, had its launch recently postponed until 2016. If the project eventually comes to fruition, the Mistral-class ships will be deployed with the Pacific Fleet. In short, while the technology in the eastern Mediterranean task force is seriously behind the times, there are no substantive plans on the part of Russian policymakers to update the force.

Rather than seeking to intimidate ‘the West’, the deployment of the eastern Mediterranean task force seems to be more a gesture for domestic audiences in Russia. In 2011, the authorities released some highly optimistic plans for the expansion and modernization of the Russian Navy, envisioning almost a complete overhaul of this military branch by 2020. The implementation of these plans has been lacklustre thus far, as demonstrated by the aforementioned difficulties with only the partial replacement of the Ropucha-class landing ships. The formation of a new task force allows Russian policymakers to feign progress on this front and assert that Russia is reclaiming ‘past glories’, deflecting criticism from the government’s procurement problems. But this fresh coat of paint won’t long conceal all that rust. A more realistic plan for the development of the Russian Navy is desperately needed.

This was originally published 12 SEP 13 at the Atlantic Council of Canada.

Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities in both Canada and Estonia, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. His research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

Assad’s Deadman Switch

Russia has saved the world from loose WMD before; in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia arranged the Lisbon Protocols with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to systematically destroy or return massive nuclear stockpiles. If only Syria had the stability of post-Soviet chaos. If the Syrian “Lisbon Protocol” fails and the regime collapses, the presence of WMD is a guarantor of intervention, most likely by the US.

Yeah, these are some nice WMD. It would be a shame if, let's say, my guards disappeared and someone stole them.
Yeah, these are some nice WMD. It would be a shame if, let’s say, my guards disappeared and someone stole them.

The Russian arrangement is not yet official and may be Assad’s play for time. The chemical weapons are potentially more powerful against the US than rebels. Likely, a reality causing Secretaries Kerry and Hagel to eschew the term “regime change” is that the danger of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) to the US increases as Assad teeters. Though rightfully loathed, Assad and his men secure their CW and have so far resisted handing party favors to associates.

As the regime crumbles, CW facilities may find themselves overwhelmed or guards shifted to critical fronts, doors open to terrorists or unscrupulous brokers.  Though some argue we do not have a dog in Syria’s fight, a whole henhouse is under threat if those dogs break loose. There are only three likely solutions if a Russian deal fails:

  1. "Kill yourself" is my final offer.
    This can work for both of us. “Kill yourself,” is my final offer.
    Can you work with, "Go to hell"?
    We understand your position. Meet us halfway at, “die and go to hell.”

    Political Agreement: If only all parties could agree to a two-part plan to stop murdering one another and share power. Guards stay on post, conflict ends, and world moves on after the noble work of aiding refugees. The rump of Assad’s regime keeps its pulse and constant pressure to the switch. Unfortunately, with parties whose non-negotiable point is that the opponent “die”, and multiple Al-Qaeda (AQ) militias, this seems nigh impossible.

  2. Who needs norms, human rights, or excuses when you have machiavelli and a hand cannon?
    Who needs norms, human rights, or excuses when you have Machiavelli and a hand cannon?

    Russian Military Operations: Russia is a big fan of Syria. Russia has a naval presence in the country and a large portion legitimacy and energy policy invested in the management of the regime. Russia would like to keep Syria’s CW from groups connected to their own domestic extremistss. Most cynically, with very public domestic problems, military operations to save the world from CW seem a likely move for President Putin. In the words of Orwell, “War is Peace.”

    Russia has particular advantages in their contact with Assad’s regime. They likely could access exact locations for the regime’s CW in a pinch. The world has no high standard for Russian intervention, so a sting operation to grab or destroy the vast stores of CW without any follow-on reconstruction would not be shocking to the global community. This also serves as a guise for direct military support for regime survival.

    That said, Russia has managed the Syria narrative well and knows the US could not abide Assad’s weapons falling to extremists. Russia has enjoyed the umbrella of security provided by primarily US operations against extremists in the Middle East and likely has no desire to get bogged down or gain unwanted attentions. Russia is still just “a” rather than “the” “Great Satan.” It would likely leave the mess to the final and least pleasant option:

  1. It's getting very... VERY old.
    It’s getting very… VERY old.

    American Intervention: In a conflict with too many “thems” and not enough “us’s”, the fog of Syria’s war is thick. Unfortunately, nothing is unclear about the peril of loose CW or the peril of a necessary US military response.

    Boots: The number and location of all weapon sites remains a mystery, requiring resources spent in the search phase of “seek and destroy” operations. The time or scale necessary also removes the critical element of surprise. A lengthy chain of smaller operations warns enemies to secure weapons at un-sanitized sites while they still can. A massive simultaneous operation would strain an already creaking military budget and drop the US fully into the war, leaving the US in control of large swaths of territory and people it  could not just leave to extremists.

    Strikes: Dead suffocated civilians, lack of verification, and PR for terrorists lies at the end of an aerial campaign. Though the US has invested in weapons that can neutralize chemical weapon stockpiles, most leave a large margin of error or have almost as toxic byproducts. The explicit refusal to consider striking Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles should be evidence enough of the unsavoriness of such an operation.

    Unfortunately, loose CW is not an option in a war-torn hellscape crawling with groups who have plotted against US interests and citizens for over two decades.

Ghost of Christmas Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.
Ghost of Christmas Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.

Though an embarrassing stolen march, the Russian deal is the US’s best chance is to avoid Syria. Nonetheless, US policymakers must plan for the worst while stumbling upon the best. The US must accept the real-world possibility of Assad’s collapse and subsequent unlocking of Pandora’s Chemical Box; many rightly desire to have nothing to do with the conflict, but while we may not be interested in Syria, Syria is very interested in us.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Unmanned Naval Helicopters Take Off in 2013

Manned (SH-60B) and unmanned (MQ-8B) helicopters working together on USS Halyburton (FFG 40)
Manned (SH-60B) and unmanned (MQ-8B) helicopters working together on USS Halyburton (FFG 40)

The carrier take-off and arrested landings of the U.S. Navy’s X-47B demonstrator have garnered significant press attention this year.  Less noticed however, is the rapid development of rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicles in the world’s navies.  Recent operational successes of Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8B Fire Scout aboard U.S. Navy frigates have led to many countries recognizing the value of vertical take-off and landing UAVs for maritime use.

International navies see the versatility and cost savings that unmanned rotary wing platforms can bring to maritime operations.  Like their manned counter-parts, these UAVs conduct a variety of missions including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); cargo resupply/vertical replenishment; and in some future conflict will perform armed interdiction at sea.  However, unlike the two- or three-hour endurance of manned helicopter missions, some of these UAVs can fly 12-hour sorties or longer.  Other benefits include the ability for some models to land on smaller decks than manned aircraft, a much lower cost per flying hour, and importantly, limited risk to human aviators.  Several international VTOL UAV projects have been recently unveiled or are under development, many of them based on proven light manned helicopter designs.  Starting with a known helicopter design reduces cost and technical risks and allows navies to pilot the aircraft in no-fail situations involving human passengers such as medical evacuations.

Poland has two designs in the works, the optionally manned SW-4 SOLO and the smaller composite ILX-27, which will carry up to 300 kg in external armament.  In July, the Spanish Navy announced  a contract with Saab to deploy the Skeldar V-200 unmanned air system aboard its ships for counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

Russia’s Berkut Aero design bureau, in collaboration with the United Arab Emirate’s Adcom Systems have announced plans to develop an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) based on Russia’s two-seat coaxial Berkut VL helicopter.

One of Schiebel’s rapidly proliferating S-100s mysteriously crashed in al-Shabaab-held Southern Somalia earlier this year, but in a successful turn-around, Camcopter S-100 conducted at-sea trials with a Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic later this summer.

Back on the American front, in July, Northrop Grumman delivered the Navy’s first improved MQ-8C, a platform largely driven by U.S. Special Operations Command’s requirements for a longer endurance ship-launched aircraft capable of carrying heavier payloads including armament.  The Marine Corps’ operational experimentation in Afghanistan with two of Lockheed Martin/Kaman’s K-MAX unmanned cargo-resupply helicopters from 2011 until earlier this year was largely successful, but suspended in June when one of the aircraft crashed while delivering supplies to Camp Leatherneck in autonomous mode.  Because of this setback, Lockheed has improved K-MAX’s autonomous capabilities, and added a high-definition video feed to provide the operator greater situational awareness.  Kaman has also begun to market the aircraft to foreign buyers.  Finally, a Navy Research Laboratory platform, the SA-400 Jackal, took its first flight this summer.

There are minimal barriers to VTOL UAVs wider introduction into the world’s naval fleets over the next few years.  How much longer will it take for their numbers to exceed manned helicopters at sea?

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.