SPARTA IV, Oboronlogistics and Russian strategic logistics in the Black Sea

(To Fabrizio Minniti)

The Russian Defense Ministry continues to manipulate the international legal system with impunity. An example is provided by the fleet of Oboronlogistics and the SPARTA IV (IMO: 9743033), a purported civilian vessel that probably regularly transports military equipment from Tartus, Syria, to Novorossiysk, the main Russian civilian and military hub in the Black Sea. The report of the RUSSIA: Greyzone Lawfare: Russia and the Voyages of the SPARTA IV, analyzed its movements and possible use.

Less than a week after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that his government would use the Montreux Convention of 1936 to limit the passage of military ships through the Bosphorus. This closure was supposed to prevent the movement of wartime ships, preventing the trafficking of military components. However, as in the case of SPARTA IV, some Russian ships appear to continue to regularly transit the Bosphorus with military material, therefore in violation of international law.

Automatic Ship Identification System (AIS) data was provided by Geollect who worked closely with theOpen Source Intelligence and Analysis (OSIA) of the Royal United Services Institute in London to bring to light the history of Russian logistics in the Black Sea. The satellite images provided by Planet Labs, Maxar Technologies and Airbus Defense and Space confirm what was observed from the navigation data of the SPARTA IV. The ship made continuous voyages between the ports of Tartus, Syria and Novorossiysk, Russia. This was confirmed by a recent report from Center for Strategic and International Studies of Washington.

Figure 1: SPARTA IV in Novorossiysk with probable M-46 and S-60.

Credits: Maxar Technologies, RUSI – OSIA.

Figure 2: SPARTA IV navigation data (AIS) between January and August 2023.

Credits: AIS data provided by Geollect, RUSI OSIA

In 2023, the SPARTA IV completed at least six voyages between the Russian military ports of Tartus, Syria and Novorossiysk, Russia. On January 14, 2023, you embarked on the first trip of 2023 from Tartus to Novorossiysk. After 11 days of navigation, on January 25, the ship arrived in Novorossiysk; here, she spent 22 days before embarking on the return journey. On March 1, 2023, SPARTA IV once again sailed from Tartus and reached Novorossiysk five days later. On March 30, the ship left the Russian port to return to Tartus.

On April 8, 2023, SPARTA IV began its third voyage of the year from Tartus to Novorossiysk. After a voyage of just over a week, she arrived at her destination on 15 April, remaining moored in the port for 21 days before setting sail again for Tartus on 6 May. On May 16, 2023, the fourth voyage of SPARTA IV began, bringing it back to Novorossiysk. After a nine-day stay, the ship undertook the return voyage, arriving in Tartus on 21 June. On July 15, 2023, SPARTA IV was photographed by Planet Labs' SKY Sat. The resulting images raised suspicions that the vessel was carrying out military material unloading operations in Novorossiysk, fueling further speculation about its mission.

On 10 August 2023, although not confirmed by AIS data, SPARTA IV is believed to have made a return voyage to Tartus. What caused concern was the 292-hour AIS darkness period (a violation of international naval safety laws) that covered its passage off Lemnos in the Aegean Sea from August 3 to 15. This long interruption in AIS data transmission raised suspicions that the vessel was adopting new techniques to mask her movements. Satellite images confirmed the presence of SPARTA IV in the port of Tartus from at least 7 to 10 August, before it headed for Novorossiysk again.

Figure 3: 292 hours of AIS darkness.

Credits: AIS data provided by Geollect, RUSI OSIA

On each of these visits, the SPARTA IV docked only at Russian naval base terminals, despite claims by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, which owns the ship, that it was carrying cargo for civilian purposes.

Figure 4: The SPARTA IV in the Russian military ports of Tartus (top) and Novorossiysk (bottom)

Credits: Geocollect.

Russia used the SPARTA IV as a vessel for sensitive maritime logistics operations since 2018. The construction, certifications and capacity of the SPARTA IV make her an excellent transit vessel for large military material.

Figure 5: SPARTA IV – technical details, measurements and profile.

Credits: Dr Giangiuseppe Pili, RUSI OSIA.

The SPARTA IV is classified as a Russian-flagged cargo ship weighing 8.870 tons deadweight and measuring 122 meters long by 18 meters wide and can reach 14 knots. Its volumetric capacity, its two cranes able to to lift up to "55 tons" and the overall displacement imply that the ship could easily carry heavy military cargo, such as the T-90 tanks deployed in Syria on behalf of the Russian government. For example, the high-resolution satellite image over Tartus from February 26, 2022 appears to show the presence of 17 vehicles with measurements compatible with those of KAMAZ-5350 trucks. Furthermore, HI Sutton, a highly reputable OSINT analyst, again claimed that SPARTA IV and other ships are escorted by Russian corvettes.

Figure 6: Possible escort ship of the Russian fleet – Steregushchiy class.

Credits: Dr Giangiuseppe Pili, RUSI OSIA.

Before the route between Tartus and Novorossiysk, the SPARTA IV it was reputed to be able to "cross three seas", carrying goods for Russia across the regions arctic , baltic e of South Asia. In essence, if the Russian Ministry of Defense needed maritime logistics, the SPARTA IV would have made its appearance. The commitment of SPARTA IV in military transport it is not surprising; The vessel's ownership structure includes sanctioned Russian defense companies and ties to a prominent Russian politician.

Oboronlogistics LLC, a Moscow-based company supposedly created to oversee logistics for the Russian Ministry of Defense, is the owner of the group SPARTA IV. The company was sanctioned from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and Ukraine for aiding Russia's invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. In particular, the Oboronlogistics website features a video the SPARTA IV loading a military load.

La SPARTA IV is directly owned by Novorossiysk-based SC-South LLC, a subsidiary of Oboronlogistics also sanctioned from United Kingdom, Ukraine and the United States for the delivery of sea cargo on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Another company of the Oboronlogistics group, OBL-Shipping LLC, is the operational manager of the SPARTA IV, whose CEO is Timur Vadimovich Ivanov, Russian Deputy Defense Minister. Ivanov, considered one of Putin's men, was sanctioned by the EU for benefiting financially from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The case of the SPARTA IV reveals Russia's continued willingness to use international law to cover its military interests related to the war in Ukraine. The RUSI report on SPARTA IV highlights the ability of Open Source Intelligence to identify illicit trafficking and violations of international law.