CHARLES KONG SOO
A Russian intelligence-gathering ship Yantar (Amber) recently entered T&T waters. Unlike three previous visits in 2018 by another Russian vessel, the Viktor Leonov, which docked in Point Lisas in March and near the Hyatt Regency Port-of-Spain, in January and February, the ship was anchored out at sea from the Port of Port-of-Spain.
The ship-tracking site MarineTraffic.com listed the Yantar arriving at the Port-of- Spain port on November 8th at 4.19 pm and anchoring six kilometres south-east of the Point Baleine lighthouse, one of the farthest points among the ships that were anchored far away from the public’s eyes.
Guardian Media contacted via email, Canadian OSINT (Open-source intelligence) research consultant Steffan Watkins, who began tracking the Yantar after the US military voiced concern about Russian activity around undersea cables, raising fears they could attempt to tap into or sever the lines, to ask him what was the purpose of the vessel in T&T and it’s capabilities.
Watkins said: “I believe Yantar left Murmansk, Russia in early October, and hadn’t been spotted (by anyone that I’m aware of yet) elsewhere in the Atlantic before arriving from the North East to Trinidad waters on Friday.
“Russian media sources have suggested it was monitored by NATO vessels during its transit from the Northern Fleet, including the guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, based out of Rota, Spain, but there have been no statements from NORAD (The North American Aerospace Defense Command) or the US Navy about that yet.
“As of Friday night, the ship was at anchor beside a Panamanian-flagged tanker, Lorena B (IMO:9438212), at the Port-of- Spain anchorage.
“Lorena B has been regularly providing fuel from Pointe-a-Pierre to many ships that stop in Port-of-Spain, from reviewing the past month of traffic.
“The anchorage acts as a holding area before coming into port, like a parking lot, but there’s no way for me to tell if it will enter port, or just leave, now that it had presumably taken on fuel.”
He said unlike Yantar’s previous trip in the North Atlantic and Arctic in 2016, which allowed it to be tracked with sufficient detail to identify several of the objects it stopped over, including the sunken Soviet Navy Mike-Class Submarine K-278 Komsomolets, this time the vessel sailed with its AIS satellite transponder off until just before it anchored off Trinidad, so he had been “blind” to where they had stopped along the way.
Watkins said the ship’s trip coincided with reports of a large Russian Navy submarine exercise in the Atlantic.
Asked if Trinidad was a favourable port for such vessels, Watkins said the Viktor Leonov was in Jamaica from February 1st-4th in 2017, where it restocked before conducting operations off the US east coast for about two months, but he was unclear why Russian navy ships hadn’t been frequent visitors since. He said Cuba didn’t have a lot of extra petroleum, so for fuel at least they might be better served elsewhere.
Watkins said while Russian ships do stop in Cuba, he didn’t believe the country had all the facilities needed to fully restock Yantar.
The 354-foot Yantar is officially an oceanographic research vessel, reportedly with a crew of about 60 but also has surveillance equipment and has acted as the mother ship for manned and unmanned deep-sea submersibles and mini-subs.
These vessels are operated by the Russian Navy Main Directorate of Underwater Research (GUGI), the equivalent of the US National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (NURO), the same directorate that operated the Russian Navy’s special purpose submarines, suspected of conducting intelligence collection from undersea cables.
Watkins said Yantar’s deep-sea oceanographic research capabilities enabled it to perform tasks related to retrieving sunken objects, like aircraft black boxes or cryptographic gear, or use those same capabilities to scout for sensor arrays or military fibre optic cables; for future sabotage, or additional intelligence collection.
This is not the ship’s first foray into the Caribbean. When it was first commissioned in 2015, the Yantar’s location was reported near the Turks and Caicos Islands on September 1 and it sailed into the port of Willemstad, Curacao, on September 20 to be resupplied.