Under the cover of darkness, a nondescript Russian cargo ship slipped through the Bosporus in Turkey. The narrow strait is the only waterway connecting the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. The ship, Sparta II, is suspected to have been carrying sophisticated weapons towards Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Russia is believed to have shipped S-300 air defense system from its bases in Syria to the Black Sea.
Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkey closed the Bosporus to warships. This stopped the Russian Navy from reinforcing its naval forces fighting against Ukraine. But merchant ships could still pass.
Sparta II’s destination was Novorossiysk, a Russian port and major naval base close to the Kerch Bridge. By implication, the S-300 missiles are to bolster defenses either near Kerch, or other areas of Russian operations. Crimea is seeing increased Ukrainian drone activity and they may be to boost defenses there.
The ship is understood to have sailed from Tartus in Syria, where S-300 components had been gathered on the pier. The S-300 likely came from a site at Masyaf in northern Syria. It started the voyage on August 20 and passed the Bosporus overnight on August 24-25. The transit was observed by respected ship spotter Yörük Işık. After waiting at anchor near the Russian coast, it pulled into Novorossiysk on August 27.
The ship is understood to be owned by Oboronlogistika, which in effect means the Russian Ministry of Defense. The ship has specifically been added to the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanction list. The crew is civilian, but it’s cargo is often military.
The S-300 is a capable air defense missile system roughly analogous to the U.S. made Patriot. It has been augmented by the newer S-400 and S-350 systems but remains a relevant frontline system. In May this year the S-300 site at Masyaf was reported to have fired missiles at Israeli jets. It is these same units which are believed to have been shipped to the Black Sea.
The shift of powerful air defenses from Syria to the Black Sea may be significant. It implies shortages of systems supporting the war in Ukraine. At the same time it weakens Russian and Assad regime forces in Syria.