Syrian Express Study
Everything related to Russian military campaign in Syria, including sea transportation, attracts a lot of public attention, which is quite understandable. Russian shipping traffic to Syria was already nicknamed “Syrian Express”, and Reuters took the lead in analysis of this new shipping surge in the area. Reuters analysis, though, is too broad to come to any decisive figures, which may be applied in measuring the scope of the traffic, and roughly, its’ costs.
An observer has to, first of all, figure out, what type of vessels and what ports of loading he’s going to monitor.
More than 100 cargo vessels have reached Syria in the past few weeks, in the biggest buildup in shipping for over a year as Russia steps up its support for ally President Bashar al-Assad.
The ships have arrived directly from Russia, Black Sea ports such as Constantza in Romania as well as from Lebanon and Egypt, according to shipping data, maritime intelligence and international trade sources.
They say the cargo includes supplies to bolster the offensive as well as grain and sugar to feed those involved in the deepening conflict. Reuters was not able to independently confirm what was in the ships.
Obviously, bulk carriers, oil tankers or live stock carriers, can’t be of much interest for the observer, who’s trying to estimate the volumes of military cargo transportation. No doubt, some of the abovementioned vessels are related to the support of military operation, but not directly. There are certain types of ships, though, which may be considered as directly involved in bolstering the offensive, as most suitable, as a natural choice. The same goes with ports of loading.
Logistics of such character and scale require restricted number of ports, the fewer ports the better, taking into account all considerations and risks, from the costs to the need of secrecy. Crimea is no choice, because using Crimean ports means double transshipment and double costs, simply because Crimea has only sea communications. The only logical choice is Novorossiysk, though not the only one, Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk (well known for handling military cargoes, including Russian arms exports) seems to be involved, too, notwithstanding the undeclared war which is still going on between Russia and Ukraine. Business as usual, you know.
Quite naturally, two types of merchant marine vessels became favourites with military, one is ro-ro type, able to take vehicles inside and general cargoes above, on upper deck; another one is good old tweendecker, classic general cargo vessel, geared with cranes and having two decks in cargo holds, main workhorse of coastal and regional shipping. Most popular ro-ro vessels in the region, especially in Black Sea – eastern Mediterranean region, are vessels similar to now famous mv Aleksandr Tkachenko (IMO 8716954), or another used (or already bought) by Russian Ministry of Defence, mv Novorossiysk (IMO 7822160), in 7,000-15,000 tons range, of rather considerable age, as a rule.
As naturally, military soon came to understanding, that the best and most convenient way to support Syrian Express, is ownership of the vessels. It’s cheaper, and it allows to provide maximum security and fullest possible concealment of vessels’ movements.
I figured out 16 vessels, general cargo and ro-ro types, engaged in Syrian Express, sporadically or on a constant basis. I believe, I can hound down more, but I have other things to do to earn my living.
According to unconfirmed rumors, Russian Ministry of Defence already bought 10 cargo vessels. I strongly believe those rumors to be true. Confirmed are 3 vessels. Here they are:
General cargo vessel Alican Deval (IMO 7500578), dwt 6421, built 1985, now is Dvinitsa-50.
General cargo vessel Dadali (IMO 8220759), dwt 7250, built 1985, now it’s Vologda-50. This one is said to be bought notwithstanding its’ awful condition. Ship repair yard in Sevastopol wasn’t able to make it shipshape.
Cargo traffic to Russian military bases in Syria definitely is becoming more diversified, hence buying of refrigerated cargo – general cargo vessel Georgiy Agafonov (IMO 8805494), now Kazan-60.
Russian Navy relocated to Med-Black sea region at least two its’ auxiliary transport ships, transport Yauza (MMSI 273547820) of famous in days of Cold War “Amguema” type, from Northern Fleet, Murmansk, and transport Sayany, both are shuttling now between Novorossiysk and Tartous.
Let’s estimate the costs.
If Russian Navy bought or is in the process of buying, 10 freighters, then the total cost of this new naval fleet is around $15 million. The cost of tween deckers of 5K-8K deadweight, geared, aged, is anything between $1 - $2 million, roughly $1.5 million. Is it paying off? It depends.
Freight rate from northern Black Sea ports to eastern Med is presently around mid-20 USD per ton. If talking about military cargoes destined for Syria, freight rate will be $30 or more, meaning that the delivery of 5,000 ton shipment will cost at least $150,000. It seems like buying the fleet is making more sense from economical point of view, than chartering different vessels from different, often foreign, vessels, especially if take into consideration other factors. For example, an ordinary freighter registered under flag of convenience may be detained at high seas for inspection. And of course, Russian authorities want to keep a low profile, avoiding publicity and undesirable attention. So buying the vessels, instead of chartering them, is only logical.
Of course if we buy a ship, it doesn’t mean that from now on it goes free of expenses. Operational costs of freighters of types described above are nowadays in $2,000 daily region, without fuel cost, dues and tariffs. The cost of fuel, plus dues and tariffs with regards to route we’re observing, Black Sea – eastern Med, may be roughly estimated as some $2,000 daily. Summarizing it all, we’ll come to a figure of some $4,000 daily expenses, or $40,000 for 10 vessels fleet.
Total cost is a derivative of the main factors – duration of the campaign, and its’ scale. Russian authorities are sure they’ll finish campaign by the end of the year, Syrian officials (Assad regime, that is) believe campaign will last for at least a year. If we assume duration to be 6 months, then total cost will be $7.2 million, plus the cost of the vessels, around $15 million. Vessels may be sold, at a scrap price, hardly more, and that will return to Russian budget some $3-6 million, depending on scrap price and demolition site. Taking it all around, Syrian Express cost will be some $18 million, providing campaign will last 6 months. Peanuts.
In comparison, a villa or castle in oriental style, in Moscow most expensive suburbs, which belongs to Russian Defence Minister Mr. Sergey Shoygu (to his 18-year old daughter, to be exact), is worth same $18 million, and that’s only part of his properties. How did he manage to earn $18 million (let alone his daughter), being civil servant all his adult life, is nobody’s business. That’s what makes life of top Russian officials so exciting. Villas, wealth and most extravagant luxuries come to Russian high ranks just like that, naturally, with no question asked, no eyebrows raised. Mister Shoygu, after all, is most decorated person among top ranks in Russia. All his medals divided between a platoon of paratroopers will make the platoon look like Christmas tree.
Of course the above calculations don’t cover all the logistics costs of campaign in Syria. Let’s not forget Navy landing craft ships, heavy cargo planes and quite a number of charters that went through and are going through, remaining unknown. Let’s not forget naval transport Yauza and Sayany, wearing themselves out on Novorossiysk – Tartous route. It’s not all, though. We’re obsessed with one route only, from Novorossiysk. What about other routes? An example:
A brand new general cargo vessel UCF6 (built in China in 2014, IMO 9481934), belonging to a Moscow-based company United Fleet, is anchored off Tartous since August, vessel arrived from Far East (from China, according to AIS). What is she doing in there, and what she brought to Syria, is of course, unknown. A more strict scrutiny of Syrian maritime traffic surely will bring more surprises, more names and more routes.
There are some aspects of Syrian Express, which are beyond my understanding.
First is the scale of the cargo traffic, its’ possible volumes. I am not a military expert or anything military (except being a reserve Navy officer), so maybe I just don’t know, but still, I can’t see why maintenance of not all that big airbase, with several mission flights daily, demands such a big cargo flow. They say there are some 50-60 Russian military jets in Syria, plus airbase itself, plus personnel, guards, etc., but still, does logistics of it all require at least 10 freighters, plus naval ships, plus Navy landing craft ships, shuttling to and fro on scheduled trips?
Second is the secrecy. Vessels engaged in Syrian Express are actively hiding from possible observation. Here are examples of what I mean:
Let’s look at the ways they’re trying to hide their true sailings.
General cargo vessel Kareem R (IMO 7741251) arrived to Alexandria Egypt on Oct 22 from Novorossiysk, left Alexandria on the same day and disappeared. Freighter resurfaced on Oct 31 near Karpathos island, all innocence, en route to, surprise-surprise, Novorossiysk. Where she was during 8 days? My guess is, she was in Syria, with AIS off, using Alexandria call as a camouflage. On Nov 3 vessel was in Aegean Sea, approaching Dardanelles.
Container – general cargo vessel Atlantic Prodigy (IMO 9167083), already highlighted as engaged in Syrian Express, arrived to Damietta on Oct 22 after a very complicated trip webbed in port calls, including of course, Novorossiysk, Syrian and Turkish ports. Vessel reportedly left Damietta on Oct 23, and disappeared. As of morning Nov 3, no trace yet.
Ro-ro Alexandr Tkachenko (IMO 8716954), whose photo in Bosphorus, with military trucks on upper deck, became a symbol of Syrian Express, left Novorossiysk on Oct 29, destination unknown, vessel marked as “to order”, i.e. under waiting somewhere, expecting order nominating exact destination. Vessel passed Turkish Straits and on Nov 3 was creeping at reduced speed in Med west of western tip of Cyprus, in southeast direction, still unsure of its’ final destination.
General cargo vessel Transfair (IMO 7627302), spotted before in sailings between ports Oktyabrskiy and Novorossiysk, and Tartous, on Oct 22 disappeared in Black sea after transiting Bosphorus, allegedly en route to Constanta Romania. No records of Constanta call, instead vessel reappeared in Oktyabrskiy. Vessel left Oktyabrskiy on Oct 29, bound for Damietta Egypt. On Nov 3 vessel was under way in Med, still on the surface, still claiming Damietta as port of destination, but strangely, heading southeast, being west of Cyprus, near Alexandr Tkachenko.
So on and so forth, I believe I can tell a story about any vessel, suspect in being part of Syrian Express, and I don’t need for that a watchstander in Istanbul, monitoring Bosphorus traffic, I can do it sitting at home. It’s not simple, though, it requires some professional skills and a number of other things, but it’s possible. All vessels engaged in Syrian Express can be tracked down, no matter how hard Russian authorities are trying to camouflage them.
All the logistics of Russian military campaign seem to be an improvisation, or else there wouldn’t be such a rush on freight and secondhand sales markets in the region.
According to sources in shipowners and brokers circles, Russians in charge of Syrian Express (whoever they may be), are not restricted in budget, splashing money around in most extravagant manner.
Public can’t control or audit, all the spendings on Syrian campaign, nor will it be able to demand from authorities accountings later, after campaign hopefully, will be over. With present regime, it’s out of question. It’s a State secret, of course.
Nov 3 2015
Now famous ro-ro Alexandr Tkachenko, a trademark of Syrian Express.
“Amguema” project, Northern Navy Fleet auxiliary transport Yauza (by the way, there was a technical project of converting ships of this type into camouflaged nuclear missile carriers).
Another Navy auxiliary transport Sayany, from Russian Far East Navy Fleet, converted from timber carrier.
Kazan-60, ex Georgiy Agafonov
Vologda-50, ex Alican Deval
A humble hut of Russian Minister of Defence, Mr. Shoygy, and he himself, an epitome of patriotism in nowadays Russia.