Russian newspaper deletes article by defense analyst who accused Moscow of sabotaging long-range missile shipment to China
Last week, Meduza summarized a column by Pavel Felgenhauer that appeared in Novaya Gazeta on February 21 where the defense analyst accused Moscow of sabotaging a shipment to China of 40N6 very-long-range missiles for the S-400 air-defense system. (Felgenhauer believes the weapons aren’t ready yet.) That text has since disappeared without explanation from the newspaper, though it’s been republished at several other websites. (You can still read it here, for example, but the original hyperlink leads to a “404 Not Found” error, and Novaya Gazeta’s most recent published article by Felgenhauer is currently from February 9.)
In her weekly radio show on Ekho Moskvy, fellow Novaya Gazeta columnist Yulia Latynina expressed similar doubts about the bungled missile delivery, though she didn’t mention Felgenhauer’s article or say outright that the Russian authorities deliberately damaged the cargo.
Follow the ships
On February 20, the website Fontanka reported that the S-400 system components were apparently shipped to China on at least three vessels, and two of these ships traveled routes that show signs of “bizarre tampering.” All three ships left from Ust-Luga, situated on the coast of the Gulf of Finland. The first ship, “Ocean Lord,” left on December 19, 2017, and reached Tianjin, China, on February 9, 2018. Next up was the “Nikifor Begichev,” which left on December 30 and hit a storm in the English Channel on January 3, before returning to Ust-Luga on January 9. This is reportedly how China’s 40N6 missiles were damaged beyond repair.
A third ship called “Ocean Power” left Ust-Luga on January 5, but then returned to port almost immediately, probably because of the storm. On January 26, the Ocean Power’s registration was changed from Liberian to Russian and renamed “Adler.” Four days later, it set out for Greece, but on February 12 it changed course for the Suez Canal and eventually reached Tianjin. In March, the Nikifor Begichev followed the same route, passing through the Suez Canal on April 20 and reaching Tianjin on May 16, 2018.
These shipments are apparently what triggered U.S. sanctions on September 20, 2018, against the Chinese entity Equipment Development Department and its director, Li Shangfu, “for engaging in significant transactions” involving “S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment.”
Follow the money
According to Fontanka, the two ships that weren’t caught in the February 2018 storm (Ocean Lord, now called “World Carrier,” and Adler) are operated by the “Baltic Trans-Port” company, whose co-owner and CEO, Alexander Malakhov, is also head of the “Eladi” company, which belongs to an offshore business that is owned by Rostec. Malakhov was removed as head of Eladi on February 14, 2019, just days before Rostec head Sergey Chemezov revealed at a defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi that China’s shipment of 40N6 missiles was damaged and replacements wouldn’t be delivered until late 2020. (Moscow and Beijing signed the S-400 arms deal back in 2014.)
For years, unverified rumors have circulated in Russia that Chemezov secretly funds and keeps afloat Novaya Gazeta. In May 2017, then chief editor Dmitry Muratov flatly denied that his newspaper received any money from either Rostec or Chemezov.
Fontanka speculates that the Baltic Trans-Port company chartered the Nikifor Begichev at the request of Rosoboronexport, Russia's state arms exporter.
On February 20, 2019, Russia’s state media reported that the arms manufacturer Almaz-Antey has started receiving insurance compensation for the missiles damaged aboard the Nikifor Begichev. A month earlier, the Moscow Arbitration Court registered two lawsuits by Rosoboronexport against Baltic Trans-Port for a combined $166.6 million in damaged freight. The hearings are closed to the public. The defense-industry insurer “Independent Insurance Group” (NSG) is seeking an additional 31.7 million rubles ($485,775) from Baltic Trans-Port in a St. Petersburg court. NSG is also suing another company called “Neva-Transport-Trading” (NTT) for an identical sum of money. Rosoboronexport is trying to sue NTT, as well, for $86 million, but the Moscow Arbitration Court hasn’t yet accepted the case. NTT’s founder, Sergey Morozov, is reportedly close with Georgy Poltavchenko, St. Petersburg’s former governor.