A Wolf in Ship’s Clothing: Russia’s Militarization of Civilian Vessels in the Black Sea

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Alexander Palmer on his commentary with Delaney Duff, Jennifer Jun, and Joseph Bermudez, A Wolf in Ship’s Clothing: Russia’s Militarization of Civilian Vessels in the Black Sea.

Audio file

Recent satellite imagery indicates that Russia is using civilian ships to move arms between Novorossiysk, Russia, and Tartus, Syria. The observed activity undermines recent Russian accusations that Ukraine has unjustifiably attacked Russian civilian ships. Russia is using civilian vessels for a variety of tasks that support its war effort, making them legitimate military targets.

Tracking Sparta IV 

Open-source automatic identification system (AIS) data shows that Sparta IV, a U.S.-sanctioned Russian cargo ship, has been traveling between Russian naval facilities in Novorossiysk, Russia, and Tartus, Syria, since at least September 2022. Between September 2022 and August 2023, the ship has traveled from Russia to Syria and back through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles (known collectively as the Turkish Straits) at least six times. Sparta IV is owned by SC South LLC, a subsidiary of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s shipping company, both of which have been sanctioned by the United States for supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Delaney Duff

Research Intern, Transnational Threats Project
Image
Jennifer Jun
Project Manager and Research Associate (Imagery Analysis), iDeas Lab and Korea Chair
Remote Visualization

Sparta IV’s most recent journey began in late July 2023. Sparta IV departed from Novorossiysk on July 30. On August 2, a Ukrainian uncrewed naval system unsuccessfully attacked Sparta IV’s likely naval escorts in the Black Sea. The vessel then transited the Turkish Straits. On August 3, Sparta IV turned off its AIS transceiver as it left Turkish territorial waters in the Aegean Sea according to Ursa Space Systems, a private U.S. company that provides satellite intelligence. The vessel arrived at Tartus a few days later, as shown by satellite imagery captured on August 7. 

Remote Visualization

Russian civilian vessels Sparta IV and Pizhma in the Novorossiysk naval base on July 10, 2023. Both vessels have been sanctioned by the United States for their use in providing material support to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Copyright © 2023 by Maxar Technologies.

Remote Visualization

Sparta IV in the Russian-controlled pier of the Tartus naval base on August 7, 2023. The facility was established by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and has operated as an official naval base since 2017.

Copyright © 2023 by Planet.

Satellite imagery clearly shows that Sparta IV recently carried a shipment of at least 52 artillery pieces. Images taken July 10 show artillery being loaded onto or unloaded from Sparta IV, but open-source information is insufficient to definitively determine which is occurring. If Sparta IV is being loaded at Novorssiysk, the arms are part of a shipment from Russia to Syria delivered August 7. If it is being unloaded, the arms are part of a shipment from Syria to Russia delivered July 10. In the latter case, the arms visible on July 10 represent just one of at least two shipments. Imagery captured on August 7 shows artillery arrayed alongside Sparta IV in Tartus, Syria. If Russia is using the ship to transfer arms back to Russia, the weapons in the July 10 images and those in the August 7 images represent two different shipments. Regardless of the direction of the transfer, Russia is using a civilian ship to move heavy weapons through the Black Sea.

Maxar imagery from July 10 shows artillery and air defense systems in two areas of Novorossiysk naval base. Eighteen artillery pieces are arrayed in a staging yard that has been previously used for arms transfers, as captured in Maxar imagery on November 14, 2021. Thirty-four artillery pieces are lined up on the dock alongside Sparta IV. 

Remote Visualization

Artillery arrayed in a staging area within the Novorossiysk naval base on July 10, 2023. This staging area has previously been used for arms transfers in 2021 when Russia was building up for its invasion of Ukraine.

Copyright © 2023 by Maxar Technologies.

Artillery observed in the staging ground and the pier alongside Sparta IV include 12 probable 130 mm M-46 field guns, 18 probable 122 mm D-30 howitzers, 12 probable 152 mm howitzers, and 10 probable 57 mm S-60 anti-aircraft guns. These weapons are Soviet-era towed artillery used by many armies across the Middle East, North Africa, and central Asia.

Remote Visualization

Artillery systems arrayed alongside Sparta IV in Novorossiysk naval base on July 10, 2023. Commercially available images of Novorossiysk during mid-July are insufficient to determine whether the equipment is being loaded onto or unloaded from Sparta IV.

Copyright © 2023 by Maxar Technologies.

Planet imagery captured on August 7 shows Sparta IV docked at a Russian naval facility in Tartus with 122 mm and 152 mm howitzers arrayed alongside the ship. It is impossible to determine from open-source information alone whether these artillery systems are the same as those pictured in the July 10 imagery.

Remote Visualization

Artillery systems arrayed alongside Sparta IV in Tartus naval base, Syria on August 7, 2023. The artillery pieces appear to be of the same make as those arrayed alongside Sparta IV in Novorossiysk three weeks earlier, but it is impossible to establish from commercial satellite imagery that they are the same weapons.

Copyright © 2023 by Planet.

Implications for Naval Operations in the Black Sea  

The Black Sea is an increasingly prominent theater of Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Russia has threatened to attack civilian ships approaching Ukraine, banned cargo ships from entering some areas legally considered international waters, and fired warning shots at and boarded a civilian vessel. Ukraine has conducted three uncrewed naval system attacks against Russian ships, possibly includingSparta IV and another ostensibly civilian ship. Although Sparta IV is registered as a civilian vessel, there are clear reasons to believe that its actions constituted a valid military target during one or more of its recent voyages.

Merchant vessels are considered military objectives under several conditions, three of which are relevant to ships like Sparta IV. Militaries can target civilian ships when they are traveling in a convoy with military vessels, making “an effective contribution to military action, e.g., carrying military materials,” or are naval auxiliaries—vessels other than warships “owned by or under the exclusive control of the armed forces of a State and used for the time being on government non-commercial service.” If Sparta IV did indeed come under attack as it transited the Black Sea toward the Turkish Straits, most accounts would indicate that it was traveling under convoy and therefore represented a legal target.

Even if Sparta IV had not been traveling under convoy, it is still being used to carry military materials and is probably contributing directly to military activity. The specific systems and number of weapons pictured suggest that these weapons are unlikely be part of a routine arms sale but rather a transfer intended for the creation, reconstitution, or movement of a major artillery formation—a contribution to military action. 

The most likely users of these artillery pieces are Russian military units. The number of weapons observed in imagery matches the equipment used by Russian artillery units. A prewar Russian artillery battalion employed between 12 and 18 artillery pieces or multiple rocket launchers. The number of artillery pieces in the shipment matches the requirements for three Russian artillery battalions and one antiaircraft battalion, assuming that two antiaircraft systems are being shipped but not visible in imagery. The Russian military prefers to use self-propelled artillery rather than towed, but continues to use towed artillery in Ukraine and Syria.

The second most likely users are Syrian military units. Prewar Syrian artillery regiments consisted of three battalions employing approximately 15 howitzers each, although the Syrian military may have moved toward a force structure more closely resembling Russia’s over the past eight years of close military cooperation.

According to International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2023, four other governments in the Middle East and Africa already possess all four systems and, therefore, have personnel capable of using them: Iran, Mozambique, the Republic of the Congo, and Angola. None are likely candidates to receive this shipment. Iran already produces its own variant of the D-30 and is, therefore, an extremely unlikely recipient; Mozambique and the Republic of Congo probably lack the capacity to absorb such a large transfer into their armed forces; and Angola is seeking to replace its Soviet equipment with U.S. equipment.

A Pattern of Russian Deception

Implications for Ukraine’s naval operations go well beyond one ship on one voyage. Sparta IV is not the only ship engaged in deceptive behavior that may render it a valid military objective. Open-source AIS data indicates that another Russian-flagged, U.S.-sanctioned SC South vessel, Pizhma, made a trip from Novorossiysk to Alexandria, Egypt, between May 31 and June 7. The vessel apparently departed Alexandria two days later, on June 9, and returned to Novorossiysk some time before June 15. However, satellite imagery of the Novorossiysk naval base shows Pizhma being loaded with unknown cargo in Novorossiysk between June 8 and June 11, indicating an example of AIS spoofing—a common tactic for vessels involved in illegitimate activity. 

Remote Visualization

Sanctioned Russian civilian ship Pizhma docked in Novorossiysk naval base when AIS data indicated that it was in Egypt. A staging yard that has been repeatedly used for arms transfers has three large trucks in it, but satellite imagery is insufficient to determine the exact nature of the trucks or their cargo.

Copyright © 2023 by Planet.

Remote Visualization

Sanctioned Russian civilian ship Pizhma being loaded in Novorossiysk naval base when AIS data indicated that it was in Egypt. It is impossible to tell what is in the containers with which it is being loaded from satellite imagery alone.

Copyright © 2023 by Planet.

Although imagery does not show what is inside the containers, the vessel’s presence in a Russian naval facility, the spoofing used to obscure its presence, and the fact that it received a naval escort during its subsequent trip to Tartus all suggest that it is being used for military purposes or other activities that Moscow would like to obscure.

There are probably many more supposedly civilian vessels that are providing direct support to Russia’s military. The U.S. government has sanctioned 69 civilian vessels owned by companies involved in transporting weapons and other military equipment for the Russian government. However, the lack of open-source information on the shipments makes it difficult to discern when these ships are acting in support of the Russian military and when they are engaged in legitimate civilian activities.

These military activities represent only a fraction of Russian vessels engaged in deceptive activities in support of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Russian ships have long turned off their transponders or spoofed AIS data to hide their movements and export commodities to markets where they are not subject to sanctions. For example, in February 2023, three Russian oil tankers purportedly in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) were hundreds of miles away at the Russian port Kozmino, transporting around $1 billion worth of oil to China.

Russia is also probably smuggling hundreds of thousands of tons of looted grain out of Ukraine using a complex network of sanctioned ships using AIS manipulation and falsified documents. Ships turn off their tracking signals to mask movements into sanctioned ports such as Sevastopol, Crimea, which is reporting unusually high traffic. These smaller vessels are filled with grain, transferring it to larger ships further out at sea. These ships often then stop transmitting AIS signals again until they reach their destination. Companies also forge documentation to obscure their ports of origin, but investigators note that these ports are often not deep enough to accommodate the cargo ships supposedly visiting them. It is impossible to distinguish grain stolen from Ukraine and farmed legitimately in Russia, but experts estimate that Russia has shipped at least $530 million of looted grain to countries including Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Libya.

Considerations for Ukraine

The examples of Sparta IV and Pizhma demonstrate that Russia is continuing a pattern of deception regarding a wide variety of its maritime activities. Moscow is using civilian ships to support its military efforts while threatening merchant vessels engaged in legitimate commercial activity in the Black Sea.

Not all of Russia’s ships are equally legitimate or valuable targets. Ships carrying arms or acting as troop transports are potential targets, but they are difficult to distinguish from ships carrying oil, grain, or other consumer goods, especially because the same ship might be carrying different types of goods on different (or even the same) voyage. Nor are all of Russia’s arms shipments equally important to Ukraine. Disrupting arms flows to Syria is much less valuable to Kyiv than sinking ships bringing them to Russia, where they will be sent to the battlefield in Ukraine.

If Ukraine is to continue or expand its strikes against Russian ships in the Black Sea, it should expect Russia to claim that Kyiv’s actions represented illegal targeting of civilian shipping. Ukraine and its supporters should be ready to weather such a disinformation campaign. It is Russia, not Ukraine, that is militarizing the Black Sea.

Alexander Palmer is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Delaney Duff is a research intern with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Jennifer Jun is a project manager and research associate for satellite imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is senior fellow for imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS.  

Special thanks to Ursa Space Systems, Hawkeye 360, and Janes for their support in tracking Sparta IV.  

Special thanks to Katherine Stark, Jeeah Lee, Leena Marte, and Marla Hiller for publication support, editing, visualization, and audio brief.