The war in Ukraine has turned the Black Sea into a zone rife with conflict. Ships transporting grain from Ukraine risk being caught in the crossfire. Since the invasion, there have been 24 reported incidents of civilian vessels involved in maritime incidents in the Black Sea.
The story of the MV Helt exemplifies a worst case scenario situation for ships attempting to navigate the Black Sea. On March 2, 2022, the Estonian-owned, Panama-flagged ship was navigating the Black Sea carrying no cargo when the Russian Black Sea Fleet forced the ship to serve as a “human shield.” The Russian Navy was able to use the ship to get cover from Ukrainian fire as well as using its AIS systems to dupe their own locations as it forced the ship into unsafe waters near Odessa. AIS systems are instruments that report the location and trajectory of vessels at sea. Spoofing locations or turning off AIS systems is illegal according to the International Maritime Organization and is often associated with breaking sanctions and other illegal activity. The Russian Navy were using civilian ships to mask their movements in order to prepare for an amphibious assault on Odessa.
On March 3, 2022, the Helt sank after a mysterious explosion caused critical damage. The exact cause of the explosion remains unknown, although reports seem to indicate that the vessel was struck by a naval mine. Luckily, all six of the crew members were saved by a Ukrainian rescue service. Further substantiating the theory that Russia was using the ship to spoof their locations, the AIS system was still intact and reporting its location for four days after the ship had sunk.
Read the rest of the story from AEI here.