The ship’s voyage to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk underscores the Kremlin’s efforts to harness resources for the invasion now in its sixth month, as supply lines strain under the pressure of the latest military campaign. Europe’s largest since World War II.
While Ukraine has received billions of dollars worth of arms from the United States and Europe for its defense, Russia must rely on its own resources to support frontline forces amid reports of heavy losses. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded and thousands of armored vehicles have been destroyed, according to US estimates.
An official familiar with the matter said the United States believes Russia has been using merchant ships to transport military cargo to the Black Sea, echoing European intelligence reports. The official asked not to be identified because the matter was confidential.
The Sparta II almost certainly brought military vehicles from Syria’s Tartus port that is used by Russia, according to intelligence officials and July 17-25 satellite images seen by Bloomberg. They said the exact nature of the vehicles was unclear. The ship was detected in Syria with vehicles in her hold, seen crossing the Bosporus Strait, and later identified in Novorossiysk with at least 11 vehicles that she was likely unloading.
Maritime tracking data shows the ship owned by a company sanctioned by the United States in May and controlled by the Russian Defense Ministry made the journey on those dates, apparently unimpeded by NATO member Turkey.
Ankara invoked the Montreux Convention to close the strait to warships shortly after Putin’s invasion on February 24, though it allowed commercial ships to pass. Russia used cargo ships from the Oboronlogistika OOO company on the same route on other occasions this year, according to the people. It has transported military cargo several times from Russia to Syria in the past.
A US State Department spokesman referred inquiries on the matter to the Turkish government. A Turkish official familiar with the matter said a merchant ship would only be examined if there was a tip or suspicion of irregularities. A White House spokesman declined to comment on whether the United States has spoken with Turkish officials about the situation. The Kremlin and Oboronlogistika did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Russia undoubtedly built up massive weapons stockpiles during a decade-long modernization program overseen by Putin, and Kremlin officials deny any resupply problems. Still, US and European officials say the loss of a large number of tanks and armored personnel carriers is forcing Moscow to turn to older equipment, including decades-old T-62 tanks.
Like Russia, Ukraine has not disclosed the scale of its military losses, though it has faced logistical challenges against a much larger enemy, particularly early in the war. President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a July 22 interview with the Wall Street Journal that battlefield casualties had dropped to about 30 a day from a peak of 100-200 a day in May-June, a number not has been independently verified.
Putin has kept troops in Syria since he ordered an operation in 2015 to back his embattled president Bashar al-Assad. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in 2017 that the military had tested more than 160 types of advanced weaponry there, including fighter jets, laser-guided missiles, tanks, electronic warfare methods and air defense systems.
There are signs that the Kremlin has also looked elsewhere for additional resources.
Tensions have flared between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in recent weeks amid reports Russia has cut a peacekeeping force of up to 2,000 troops to send to Ukraine, which Moscow denies. The United States said in March that Russia had diverted some troops to Ukraine from Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, where it has kept thousands of soldiers since fighting a war in 2008.
Russia is turning to Iran to try to buy armed drones, CIA Director William Burns told a US security forum last month, adding that he realized “the shortcomings of the Russian defense industry today and the difficulties they are having after significant losses”.
North Korea may become an unlikely new source of artillery as it has good-quality systems and last month recognized the Kremlin-controlled people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine as independent, according to a report. person with knowledge of Russian defense policy, who asked not to be identified because of sensitive issues.
The Pentagon says it has provided $9.1 billion in defense assistance to Ukraine since February, including $1 billion announced Monday to boost supplies of long-range artillery ammunition, anti-tank weapons and medical vehicles. The kyiv government has also received billions more in arms from the UK and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
”Western arms shipments are allowing Ukraine to attack bridges, complicating logistics and suppliessaid Igor Korotchenko, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of the Global Arms Trade. “Still, artillery and attack aircraft are the key weapons in our current offensive and we have no shortage of either.”
As many as 80,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the war, US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said at a regular Pentagon briefing on Monday. The US assessment was also that Russia had used a significant percentage of its precision-guided munitions, including air- and sea-launched missiles, and lost as many as 4,000 tanks and other armored vehicles, he said.
”A lot of that is down to anti-armor systems like Javelin, like the AT4, but also, frankly, creativity and ingenuity in how the Ukrainians have used those systems.“, said.
Putin has not sought to bolster his military by ordering a massive mobilization, probably because that could force the Russian public to bear the costs of a war it has so far kept at arm’s length. But regional officials have offered cash incentives to encourage people to volunteer on short-term contracts, while the lower house of parliament in May abolished an upper age limit for military service.
The Russian government also moved last month to boost weapons production by seeking powers to ease labor regulations at defense companies, citing the “increased short-term need to repair weapons and military equipment”.