A tale of a testing long voyage and a long naval deployment related to Nord Stream 2
The 150-meter-long 'Akademik Cherskiy' arrived off Kaliningrad on 2 May 2020 after a 12-week voyage, largely unnoticed by the media . Why do I say this? It seems to be in total contrast to how events unfolded back in December 2019. Back then the 'Akademik Cherskiy' was mentioned in the press but the quiet arrival is at odds with the flurry of articles on U.S. moves to impose a set of sectorial sanctions aimed at pipe laying vessels involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 project, back in December 2019.
The signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by President Donald Trump triggered further turmoil for Gazprom's multibillion key project. Nord Stream 2, with a potential annual capacity of 55 billion cubic meters. It is the latest export gas pipeline project from Russia to Europe via the Baltic Sea and it will complement the existing Nord Stream gas pipeline infrastructure.
Russia had brought in foreign contractors both for the Nord Stream 2 project and previously the Turkish Stream. Swiss-Dutch based Allseas was spearheading the Nord Stream 2 subsea pipe laying project, with the mega vessel 'Pioneering Spirit', until the U.S. sanctions announcement was made in December 2019. With this threat looming, all work was stopped and ships pulled out from the project at a critical and late phase of the project. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak had hopes for exports to start end of 2020.
The options left for Gazprom were very limited, considering the capabilities and uniqueness of pipe laying ships and that practically all of them are operated or owned by companies, who don't really want to find themselves in the same situation as Allseas faced, for a total 5 years due to the global nature of their work.
The Russian company MRTS (Mezhregiontruboprovodstroy) has already been laying pipes in the Russian Nord Stream 2 sector. It has a pipe-laying barge 'Fortuna', however it is unsuitable for the Danish sector, since it lacks a dynamic positioning system (DPS), to comply with the Danish requirements . All that was left was the 'Akademik Cherskiy' and another barge, 'Defender'. The 'Fortuna' is at the logistics hub in Mukran, Germany.
Undeterred, Russia set about making alternative arrangements in order to just complete the part of the 160-kilometer-long Danish segment of Nord Stream, representing roughly 5% of the total length of the project. So, the only suitable Gazprom ship with dynamic positioning system, (the highest — class 3), was brought to the Baltic from the Vladivostok area. Given the top priority in its role in continuing and finalising the work on Nord Stream 2, the ship has a maritime version of top VIP status. This meant that the Russian Navy was involved by providing escorts during its long journey from Vladivostok to the Baltic, via Cape of Good Hope. A glimpse of this was obtainable via social media and AIS track history.
A few naval/maritime commentators monitored the progress of the ship via AIS and others via webcam, thus it was possible to look at various aspects of the 'Akademik Cherskiy' with that of the Russian Navy deployments.
A Baltic Fleet based warship, the 'Yaroslav Mudry' also apparently participated in the logistical support/ escort of the 'Akademik Cherskiy' as well, during the African leg of its voyage. First, the 'Yaroslav Mudry' called into Sri Lanka on 4 March. Two days later, the Pacific-Fleet based ASW destroy, 'Admiral Vinogradov', also arrived in Sri Lanka. Both warships called into to replenish stores, water and fuel supplies.
The 'Yaroslav Mudry' had been operating in the region for a while, so the port call initially did not seem to be out of the ordinary, if it wasn't for the fact the 'Akademik Cherskiy', with AIS destination set for the Suez Canal, also stopped off the Sri Lankan coast. Officially, the Neustrashimyy-class frigate was undertaking a prolonged anti-piracy deployment to the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea.
Afterwards, the 'Akademik Cherskiy' disappeared off AIS during the westbound transit of the Indian Ocean. The pipe laying ship did not head to the Gulf of Aden, but instead went around the Cape of Good Hope. There was much speculation at the time, but the apparent answer was simple: the air draft of the hoist crane, (82m) is higher than the Suez bridge clearance of 70 metres.
The 'Yaroslav Mudry' also apparently escorted the 'Akademik Cherskiy' during the whole Eastern African leg of its voyage. The 'Yaroslav Mudry' called into Cape Town, at the end of March, while the 'Akademik Cherskiy' was in the vicinity with an AIS destination for 27 March, although it did not call into Cape Town.
Having gone past Cape Town, the Akademik Cherskiy' changed its AIS destination to Pointe Noire and then back to Port Said off the Moroccan coast. Playing the nautical AIS equivalent of call my bluff. By 22 April the Russian Navy auxiliary tug 'Nikolay Chiker' had been waiting off the Portuguese coast and subsequently escorted the 'Akademik Cherskiy' northbound towards the Channel. The Nikolay Chiker is a regular escort for important Russian naval vessels, maybe this is the first time escorting a high-value civilian ship.
I recently wrote in the preceding article about the oiler 'Akademik Pashin' being in the Channel for a while. The oiler played an integral part in the European-leg transit of the 'Akademik Cherskiy' by providing logistical support to her escorts, another Baltic-Fleet based Steregushchiy-class corvette 'Boikiy' and the ocean-going tug 'Nikolay Chiker'.
Effectively, the 'Boikiy' also escorted the 'Akademik Cherskiy', quite possibly through the Channel as well, as the AIS screenshot below implies a naval ship being monitored by the French Navy.
After nearly a week off Kaliningrad, the 'Akademik Cherskiy' is heading to the sea hub of Mukran, Germany to join 'Fortuna' there. A couple of days before, the 'Yaroslav Mudry' came back to Baltiysk homeport after a 7-month long deployment.
Lingering questions and the future
It is said that the 'Akademik Cherskiy' needs to be retrofitted in order to do its work in the Baltic. Interestingly, the question of the suitability and modernisation of the 'Akademik Cherskiy' is largely echoed in think tanks and Western media outlets. Gazprom did put out a tender for the work for 2020-2021 period, so it is an unknown factor at the moment, as to whether it needs months-worth work in a shipyard or just a stopover for equipment, supplies and crew change.
However, I do not believe that is a detrimental issue because Gazprom actually brought the ship 4 years ago with the possibility of further U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2 in mind. Although, the 'Akademik Cherskiy' was originally expected to work in the Sakhalin gas fields in the Russian Far East.
The halt of the work done by the specialist foreign-operated ships is one element of a continuous series of tensions between Washington and Moscow. The former ceaselessly escalating the raft of U.S. sectorial sanctions, while the latter is forced to adapt and overcome the obstacles with its own limited domestic resources. Russia is being hamstrung through a series of niggling vindictive efforts, at every possible opportunity and as such further U.S. sanctions are likely to be in the pipeline (so to speak).
In a long running saga, Washington has insisted for many years that Europe should buy more expensive LNG from the U.S., giving rise to the (in)famous "freedom gas, instead of greatly relying on cheaper Russian LNG. As such, Washington feels that Nord Stream 2 would increase reliance on Russian LNG.
Yet, the more obstacles placed by Washington on the Russian 40% share of the Europe gas market, the more impetus there will be to construct and pump natural gas to China. The biggest loser in all of this tussle is Ukraine, as it will loose huge pipeline transit fees for natural gas as a result.
It remains to be seen as to how this energy tussle will pan out, given the significant support by 5 big European energy entities. Nord Stream 2 is opposed by the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, amongst others. The start of the Nord Stream work revealed the geopolitical fault lines within the EU and these continue to be exposed. Hence, Washington has to play a fine juggling geopolitical act between the two camps.
The Akademik Cherskiy, did change AIS destinations several times, from Singapore, Sri Lanka and even Maputo and Pointe Noire as well as Cape Town on its way to the Baltic, but this one is tongue in cheek: