Russia fires warning shots and boards cargo ship in Black Sea

By Darya Tarasova, Gul Tuysuz and Lauren Kent, CNN

CNN  —  A Russian warship fired warning shots and boarded a cargo ship it claims was headed to Ukraine in the Black Sea on Sunday, according to Russia’s defense ministry.

Russia pulled out of a UN and Turkish-brokered deal in July that allowed Ukraine to move its grain via the Black Sea and warned that any ships headed to Ukraine would be treated as potentially carrying weapons. Ukraine made a similar threat to ships traveling to Russian ports.

Russia said the warship fired warning shots when the captain of the Palau-flagged dry cargo ship failed to respond to a request to stop for an inspection.

“The Russian warship opened warning fire from automatic small arms fire to forcefully stop the vessel,” the statement said.

The ministry claimed the ship – named Sukru Okan – was headed to the Ukrainian port of Izmail. Marine traffic websites currently shows the cargo vessel’s destination as the Romanian port of Sulina which is close to Izmail.

“In order to inspect the bulk cargo ship, a Ka-29 helicopter with a group of Russian servicemen was hoisted from the patrol ship Vasily Bykov,” the ministry said. “Following radio conversations, the ship stopped its course and the boarding team landed on the bulk cargo ship,” the statement said.

‘Routine’ journey

An official of the Turkish shipping company that owns the cargo ship told CNN that the barge was empty at the time of the inspection, in what was a “routine” journey to pick up grain from Danube ports to carry to European and Turkish docks.

The 12-person Turkish crew was radioed by the Russian warship on Sunday as it was en route to Izmail, at which point the vessel tried to turn back to Turkish waters in order to get in touch with the country’s Coast Guard and other officials, the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.

A helicopter took off from the Russian warship and more warning shots were fired. The crew lay down and waited, and Russian servicemen boarded the ship. A video captured by the Sukru Okan crew shows several crew members sitting on the ship deck as a Russian helicopter hovers over them.

Russian soldiers questioned the captain about why he did not stop the vessel, and he told them he was in international waters, adding that “in order to notify officials, we turned our direction.”

The Russian soldiers then searched the cabins of the ship with the captain for about an hour, and also looked through the documents and passports of all the crew members, according to the official of the shipping company, who was not on board at the time of the incident.

The company official said he believes the Russians were pleased that everyone in the crew was Turkish, adding that once the Russians were onboard they don’t make any threats or take negative actions against the crew.

The Russian soldiers made the captain of the Sukru Okan sign a document in Russian, which the shipping company official believes was a statement certifying that there was “no injury or damage” onboard.

“Since there were no negative outcomes, and the ship was not seized, we decided it should continue on its path,” the official told CNN.

“For the last year, we have been going routine back and forth to those ports,” said the official, who noted that the shipping company purchased the vessel in 2021 and registered it under the flag of Palau due to restrictions on Turkish-flagged vessels.

Regarding Russia’s previous announcement that it would consider ships going to Ukrainian ports as suspicious of carrying ammunition, he told CNN, “I guess we are the first,” adding, “but I foresee these types of things becoming more common.”

Unchartered waters

This week Ukraine announced that it would open up a temporary humanitarian corridor for ships to sail to and from its ports and has opened up registration for merchant vessels to use the sea route.

Both Russia and Ukraine are major grain producers and their deal – a rare point of agreement in the middle of a war – did much to stabilize prices.

Kyiv argues that Russia’s withdrawal amounts to a blockade of Ukrainian products. Russia long complained that it had been unable to export its own foodstuffs.

A Ukrainian Navy spokesperson, Dmytro Pletenchuk, said the temporary routes aim to overcome the global food security crisis and added that they would allow shipowners and companies to “finally take back their merchant vessels that are in humanitarian captivity due to the constant threats of Russians at sea.”

Pletenchuk said ship owners and captains have been warned of the existing danger and said Ukrainian Armed Forces will help to ensure the security of the merchant ships sailing through the corridors, with the Navy “doing everything we can to ensure security.”

It remains unclear when ships might use the route given the potential dangers there.

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