MOSCOW – Russia's decision to dispatch a warship to pirate-infested waters off Somalia reflects its determination to project power worldwide. But it remains unclear what role the vessel might play in the latest hostage crisis there.
The Russian Navy has said only that it ordered the guided missile frigate Neustrashimy (Intrepid) to the northwest Indian Ocean to protect commercial shipping lanes and defend the lives of Russian citizens.
But there has been speculation Russia could try to free the hostages aboard a Ukrainian ship, the Faina, that was seized by Somalia-based pirates last week. Russia has dealt harshly with hostage-takers in recent years.
The pirates have demanded US$20 million for the release of the ship and its 20-man crew, which includes two Russians. Besides more than 30 battle tanks, the ship is loaded with armaments and the pirates warn they will fight to the death if attacked.
The seizure, analysts say, has given Russia another chance to display its might following its brief war with Georgia — which the Kremlin justified, in part, as an effort to protect Russian citizens living in two Georgian breakaway regions.
"It's another show of the flag intended to demonstrate that Russia would protect its citizens wherever it deems it necessary," said Yevgeny Volk, the head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation.
A hostage rescue would play well with the many Russians nostalgic for the superpower status of the Soviet Union.
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst, said Russia might be tempted to use force against the pirates. "Neustrashimy is a well-armed frigate, which can do that," he said.
But there was no word of any Russian forces being sent to the area besides the frigate. The ship is armed with cruise missiles, torpedoes and cannons and carries a helicopter for anti-submarine missions.
"It's a pure propaganda effort," Volk said, arguing that a single warship would be useless in the current situation and a special-forces mission would be needed.
Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, sought to restore Russia's global power and prestige during his eight years as president. His successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, recently pledged to deploy Russian forces on regular maneuvers worldwide.
Earlier this month, a Russian Navy squadron sailed for Venezuela in the first Russian deployment to the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War. Its departure followed a weeklong visit to Venezuela by a pair of Russian strategic bombers.
Deputy chief of the Russian Sailors Union, Alexander Ageyev, argued that one nation or another needs to use its navy to battle the pirates who prey on shipping off Somalia's coast.
"They feel impunity. And it will continue until navy ships, ours or others, use force," Ageyev said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
But others warned there is little the Russian frigate can do without risking the lives of the Faina's mostly Ukrainian crew.
"Any attempt to use force would lead to victims among the crew," said Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of the Maritime Bulletin-Sovfrakht Web site who has closely followed attacks by Somalian pirates.
Since Putin's first term as president, Russia has typically responded to hostage crises with force.
After Chechen rebels seized Moscow's Dubrovka theater in 2002, taking more than 800 hostages, the government ended the three-day standoff by pumping opiate-based gas into the theater and storming the building with special forces. All 41 gunmen were killed, and more than 100 hostages died from the effects of the gas.
In September 2004, Russian security forces stormed a school in Beslan, where Islamic militants held more than 1,100 students, teachers and parents. The fire-fight killed 333 people, nearly half of them children.
Voitenko said the Ukrainian government should be negotiating with the pirates in the current crisis, and warning other nations not to use force.
The Kremlin has not publicly offered help to Ukraine, and Ukrainian authorities have not publicly asked.
The seizure of the Faina comes at a time of strained relations between Ukraine and Russia. Russia is angry about Ukraine's bid to join NATO, its threat to evict Russia's Black Sea fleet from its Ukrainian base in Sevastopol and its criticism of Russia's war in Georgia.
During the brief period of U.S.-Russia cooperation after Sept. 11, Washington and Moscow might have joined forces to free the crew. Not now.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the United Nations on Monday that an international effort was needed to fight Somali pirates. But Lavrov pointedly refrained from mentioning that U.S. warships were shadowing the Faina.
"Russia now isn't in a mood to engage in any kind of cooperation with the United States," Volk said.