One of Russia’s most successful and welcomed soft power moves in recent years was to deploy its Navy in the Gulf of Aden, and protect the passage from the growing problem of piracy from Somalia. The Kremlin saw the need to get involved in this lawless area after the pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter carrying 33 T72 battle tanks, but the move may have also been influenced by the strange debacle of the kidnapped “ghost ship” known as the Arctic Sea, which was suspected of carrying arms to Iran after it went off the map in the Baltic Sea, among other theories.
Since the deployment, Russia has successfully prevented a number of piracy attempts, saved and protected various crews from different countries, and made several captures. The latest encounter, however, has turned out to be a little strange. Last week Russian forces engaged in a firefight with a group of Somali pirates aboard an oil tanker, leading to the arrest of 10 individuals. The pirates were brought aboard a Russian destroyer, but when it was determined that they lacked a proper legal venue to prosecute them, the suspects were “released” and then later feared drowned.
President Dmitry Medvedev has saidthat until the international community comes up with a legal mechanismto deal with these crimes, “We’ll have to do what our forefathers didwhen they met the pirates.“
It is normal practice for foreign navies to release the pirates back totheir ships once weapons have been confiscated, though in an unusualtwist, the Russian Navy destroyed their navigation and communicationequipment and left them some 300 miles out to Sea. Not that there ismuch evidence behind the theory that the pirates “were executed bycommandos,” and even less sympathy for these people among internationalobservers, but still, there is a clear message being sent to the otherpirates. There is a new game in the international waters off EastAfrica, and the Russian Navy might be willing to exercise some extrapowers in the absence of any legal regime.
The Somali pirates, for example, who are not without some media muscle, are getting pretty angry about this, and promising that the violence will be revisited back upon Russian servicemen. I’m not sure this guy’s excuse that they board oil tankers to stop them from “overfishing” their waters is going to fly though…