Video Shows Russians Boarding Neutral Freighter in the Black Sea

Crew of the Sukru Okan seated on deck as Russian boarding team departs
Crew of the Sukru Okan seated on deck as Russian boarding team departs (Telegram)

Published Aug 14, 2023 6:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

A new video from the freighter Sukro Okan appears to show the moment that a Russian boarding team flew onto the ship by helicopter. 

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 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.

Video from the scene shows that eight members of the ship's crew were seated close together on a cargo hatch amidships. This behavior is unusual and would likely require an order to carry out. In the background, a Russian Ka-52 helicopter is conducting a high-risk close quarters maneuver above the forward hold, hovering just feet above the pitching deck to extract an armed Russian boarding team. Instead of landing on the ship or hoisting the soldiers aboard by winch, the helicopter aircrew attempted to hold position without making contact with nearby railings or with the foremast. Several tries were needed to extract the whole five-member team. 

The Sukru Okan is owned in Turkey and flagged in Palau, and the boarding represents a sharp escalation of maritime security risk in the southwestern Black Sea. In a statement, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak described the incident as "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."

Media and independent open-source intelligence groups have speculated that the attack may have occurred inside of Turkish waters, but Ankara has not confirmed whether this is the case. It would be a politically-sensitive development if true, as Turkey maintains close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia. 

The run-in is just the latest in a series of serious security developments in the Black Sea. Russia has threatened to treat Ukraine-bound ships as possible weapons carriers, and has warned cryptically of the risk of sea mines. On Monday, the government of Romania said that it has dispatched mine countermeasures and maritime surveillance assets to survey its waters for the risk of drifting sea mines, which have been a persistent threat over the course of the past year. UK intelligence believes that Russia has recently resumed mining the waters outside of Ukraine's Black Sea ports to prevent merchant ship transits. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine has declared the region around Novorossyisk and the Kerch Strait as a navigational danger zone, and recently attacked a Russian-flagged tanker in a drone strike. 

All of these developments are having an effect on the outlook of marine insurers and shipowners. According to leading underwriter Gard, Ukraine's Black Sea ports are effectively blockaded and uninsurable. Seven-day war risk policies for other Black Sea transits are running in the five figures per ship per voyage, industry sources told Reuters. About 60 vessels remain stuck in Ukraine, awaiting progress on a planned "humanitarian" corridor for departure.