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"Act of Piracy": Russian Warship Fires Warning Shots at Merchant Ship

Ukraine decries Russian boarding incident as a "crime"

Patrol ship Vasily Bykov (Russian Navy file image)
Patrol ship Vasily Bykov (Russian Navy file image)

Published Aug 13, 2023 7:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a step change for the escalating war risk for shipping in the Black Sea, a Russian patrol ship has fired upon and boarded a foreign-flagged ship on the route from the Bosporus to the Danube, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak has confirmed the attack. 

According to the Kremlin, the Russian Navy patrol vessel Vasily Bykov approached the aging freighter Sukru Okan in the southwestern Black Sea on Sunday morning. Bykov's crew ordered the merchant ship to halt for inspection, according to the ministry's account, and fired warning shots with small arms in order to compel compliance. The Bykov's crew then used a helicopter to deliver a boarding team to the vessel's deck for an inspection, the ministry claimed. 

AIS data provided by Pole Star shows that Sukru Okan got under way from the port of Chalcis, Greece on August 7, bound for the Black Sea. She exited the Bosporus at about 0300 local time on Sunday and headed north, then changed course abruptly westward at 0745. She continued her northbound journey but hugged the coastline of Bulgaria. 

Sukru Okan's trackline on August 13, showing westward course alteration to follow the Bulgarian coast (Pole Star)

In an interview early Sunday, a spokesperson for the Southern Defence Forces of Ukraine cast doubt on whether this interaction had actually happened. 

"They [Russia] are trying their best to denote their dominance in the Black Sea. Allegedly they are able to stop the ship, raise the [helicopter], and they will not be sanctioned for this kind of stop-and-search, but today this version has not been confirmed by anyone else," said Natalia Humeniuk, head of the joint press center for the command. "We must understand that the information war continues as powerfully as the artillery fire."

However, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak confirmed the attack in a social media post later in the day and condemned the Russian interdiction at sea. 

"Today's deliberate attack and forced inspection by Russia of Sukru Okan international civilian bulk carrier, which was en route to the Ukrainian port of Izmail, is a clear violation of international law of the sea, an act of piracy and a crime against civilian vessels of a third country in the waters of other states," posted Podolyak.

Sukru Okan is owned by a Turkish company and flagged in Palau. In international waters, she would be under Palau's exclusive jurisdiction under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Palau's national defense is provided for by the government of the United States under a longstanding treaty relationship

Russia has made extensive efforts to shut down shipping to and from Ukraine, including outbound shipments of grain from Ukraine's Danube region and Black Sea coastline. It has threatened to treat inbound vessels as possible carriers of weaponry. In response, Ukraine has threatened to target shipping along Russia's Black Sea coastline, and its forces have already struck a Russian-flagged tanker near the Kerch Strait.