LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Earlier this year, an old refrigerator ship called the Georgiy Agafonov, built to transport fruit and vegetables for the Soviet Union, was quietly gathering rust in the Ukrainian port of Izmail where the Danube flows into the Black Sea.
Its owners, a Ukrainian state company, assumed it would never sail again. When a Turkish company offered to buy it for $300,000, they watched as the hulk was towed away, presumably for scrap.
Nine months later the ship is back at sea, renamed Kazan-60, reflagged as part of Russia’s naval auxiliary fleet, and repurposed as an unlikely part of Moscow’s biggest military operation outside the old Soviet boundaries since the Cold War.
“It had not been used as a vessel for many years,” said Dmitri Barinov, board chairman of Ukraine’s Danube Shipping Company, surprised that the ship, which his company sold to Turkish firm 2 E Denizcilik, was sailing again.
Photos of the ship, now flying the Russian flag, have appeared on blogs of Russian military enthusiasts. Barinov confirmed they look like the ship his company sold nine months ago.
According to shipping industry sources, publicly available data and photos collected by bloggers, Moscow has acquired at least four nearly obsolete cargo vessels from Turkish firms since around late September when it began air strikes in Syria.
The ships have been given new Russian names and enlisted in Moscow’s naval auxiliary, a logistics fleet which Russia, like other maritime powers, maintains separate from its regular navy.
“It has become part of what is known as the Syria Express,” one shipping source said. “These types of vessels are supplying Russian troops with food, fuel, ammunition and small arms and other logistics.”
A second shipping source, from Turkey, said: “Russian companies approached the market in September and bought six to seven ships in total.”
In addition to the Kazan-60, the newly acquired Russian ships include at least three previously operated by Turkish companies, now sporting new Russian names painted onto their hulls: the Dvinitsa-50, the Kyzyl-60 and the Vologda-50.
Although previous owners reached by Reuters said they had no idea the ships would end up as part of Russia’s war effort, Moscow’s need to buy vessels from Turkey illustrates one of the vulnerabilities of its campaign in an eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea region in which it now has few friends.
Turkey strongly opposes Russia’s Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow acquired the ships before its relations with Ankara sharply deteriorated in November, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet.
An official at 2 E Denizcilik, the Turkish company which bought the Georgiy Agafonov from Ukraine in March, said it sold the ship to another company and learned only from media inquiries that it was later used to transport Russian military supplies.
“An offshore company bought the ship, which we understand was then sold to Russians. Later, we learned from the press that it was used by the military.”
An official at Troy Denizcilik, the Turkish firm which once owned the ship Smyrna, now renamed Kyzyl-60, said it had not been aware the vessel would be subsequently operated by the Russian military.
“This was a ship we owned and used but decided to sell. A buyer approached us. It was a normal transaction and we sold it in early October,” the official said, declining further comment.
According to the Equasis database used by the shipping industry, the Dvinitsa-50 was previously named the Alican Deval and the Vologda-50 was called the Dadali. Their last owners were listed as Istanbul-based firms Deval Deniz Tasimaciligi and Kuris Denizcilik. Reuters was not able to reach either firm for comment.
Public ship tracking transponder data, which is available from Thomson Reuters, parent company of Reuters, shows all four vessels visited Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk in the first three weeks of October, as the Russian air strikes on Syrian targets gathered force.
The first shipping industry source said the vessels made deliveries from Novorossiysk to Syrian ports including Tartous, where Moscow leases its only naval base in the Mediterranean.
An employee at Novorossiysk port confirmed the Kazan-60 had called there.
“It was here once and since then that’s been it. It’s clear it is auxiliary fleet but I don’t know where it went,” he said.
Russian defense ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The need for the extra cargo ships arose because Russia’s warships did not by themselves have enough capacity to supply the mission, said Vasily Kashin, senior research fellow at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
“Before we had to use amphibious landing ships to carry supplies to Syria. But now they are not sufficient and we are creating a new class of military transports which are part of the navy but in fact are pure cargo ships,” he said.
An icebreaker called the Yauza was also sent to the Mediterranean from the Arctic to beef up Moscow’s logistics. According to publicly available shipping data, it made two trips to Syria in October and November.
Buying old cargo ships gives Moscow more control than contracting out its transport to commercial carriers, said Gerry Northwood, chief operations officer with British maritime security firm MAST.
“By expanding their merchant fleet, the Russians are possibly seeking to bring the heavy lift of armaments and other equipment destined for Syria under direct government control,” he said.
“It does afford a bit of protection - they are Russian flagged. It is likely they will put armed personnel on board and will be robust about their immediate security,” said Northwood, a former Royal Navy captain with experience commanding British warships.
At the same time, the auxiliary ships can still be used for commercial business, and do not have to operate under the same restrictions as fully-fledged warships in foreign ports.
“Not being military will allow the vessels greater freedom of movement. It will not always be necessary for them to seek diplomatic clearance for them to enter foreign ports,” Northwood said.
Additional reporting by Jason Bush and Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow and Can Sezer in Istanbul; Editing by Christian Lowe and Peter Graff