The recent damage to a pipeline between Estonia and Finland, and to a telecoms cable between Estonia and Sweden at around the same time, has turned into what might be described as a large locked-room whodunnit.
Estonia said yesterday (Thursday October 19th) that it had added the damage to the telecom cable to its investigation.
On Monday a Norwegian Navy ship shadowed one of the suspects, Chinese container ship NewNew Polar Bear (IMO 9313204), for about 15 hours on Monday October 16th as it sailed northwards along the western coast of Norway. On Tuesday Finnish investigators said they were looking into the Chinese vessel, as well as at Russian-flagged ship Sevmorput (IMO 8729810), plus other any other vessels that were present in the area on October 8th when the Balticconnector pipeline was damaged.
Finland has said that the incident was a result of “outside activity” and that it could have been deliberate sabotage.
The NewNew Polar Bear is a container ship travelling between Europe and China. It had already made headlines by being one of the first non ice-class vessels of this type to travel via the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic from China to Europe (IMN October 11th). The vessel was acquired earlier this year by a new Chinese shipping company, Hainan Yangpu NewNew Shipping Co. It sailed from St. Petersburg to China at the beginning of July and started the return trip in late August, reaching Kaliningrad on October 3rd and spending three days on dock.
On Monday this week it left the Baltic Sea and entered the North Sea to head north along the Norwegian coast.
Norwegian coast guard patrol vessel KV Sortland shadowed the NewNew Polar Bear from Monday 04:00 GMT f until around 19:15 GMT, by which time the vessel was about 70km northwest of Bergen. By Thursday morning it was north of the northern edge of Norway, approaching the short Norway-Russia border, which is only a short hop from Murmansk. Ultimate destination is listed as Tianjin, China, ETA November 16th. That, too, is newsworthy, being a remarkably late trip for a container ship through the Northern Sea Route.
The area covered by the Norwegian Navy shadow operation coincides with the area where most of Norway’s exporting gas pipelines are located, as well as some of its key oil and gas platforms. The KV Sortland followed the NewNew Polar Bear at a distance of 1nm.
Norway is Europe’s largest gas supplier and is understandably concerned about the security of its undersea pipes. It had deployed its Navy after the Nord Stream sabotage to protect its offshore oil and gas platforms, as well as its network of gas pipelines under the North Sea, which spread over 8,000 km.
The other main suspect in this mystery is a nuclear-powered cargo ship, the Russian government-operated LASH carrier Sevmorput (IMO 8729810). It too is a vessel of note, but for a different reason. It is the last operating nuclear-powered cargo vessel in the world.
On Wednesday the Newnew Polar Bear and the Sevmorput were named by Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation as subjects of an inquiry into the cause of the pipeline breach, along with other unnamed ships. Analysis of AIS data suggests that Sevmorput crossed over the pipeline at about 01:12 on October 8th, followed by NewNew Polar Bear a few minutes later.
At roughly the same time a small seismic event (M1.0) was detected in the area by a Finnish monitoring station. That was classed as possibly either an explosion or a large gas release.
A remote operated vehicle (ROV) subsequently investigated. Estonia said that there was evidence of mechanical impact or mechanical destruction of the pipeline.
The NewNew Polar Bear has been under surveillance ever since. In Estonia, Finland and Sweden there are suspicions that the two underwater damage events were probably the result of sabotage rather than an accidental event such as an anchor drag.
Russia had threatened earlier this year to take what it described as military-technical steps in response to Finland joining NATO. However, Atomflot has insisted that it had nothing to do with the event.
2005-built, Hong Kong-flagged, 16,324 gt Newnew Polar Bear is owned and managed by Hainan Xin get Yang Shipping of Haikou, Hainan, China. It is entered with London Club on behalf of Hainan Xin get Yang Shipping Co Ltd. As of October 19th it was travelling east at the northern edge of Norway, near the Russo-Norwegian border, from which it is a short hop to Murmansk. Its destination is listed as Tianjin, China, ETA November 16th.
1988-built, Russia-flagged, 38,226 gt Sevmorput is owned by the Russian government and operated by Atomflot of Murmansk, Russia. As of October 19th the vessel was north of Norway’s northern tip, en route from St Petersburg to Vosochnyy, ETA November 4th.