Two Sanctioned Russian Ships Leave Bosporus and Take the Long Way Home

The sanctioned tanker Yaz turned back at the Bosporus in February and took the long way back to Russia - all the way to St. Petersburg (Pole Star)

Published Apr 22, 2024 8:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

For reasons unclear, two of Russia's sanctioned military supply ships have had to make a heroic journey around Europe after their latest run to the naval base at Tartus, Syria. 

The freighter Sparta IV has traveled back and forth between Russia and Tartus for years, moving equipment and stores for the Russian military. Tartus is an important base, providing the Russian Navy with a year-round, sanctions-free haven in the Mediterranean. It is one of the Russian military's few overseas installations, and one of the motivating factors behind Moscow's support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. 

Sparta's normal service route from Russia to Tartus runs from Novorossiysk through the Bosporus and the Aegean, and the vessel has been spotted and photographed on this liner service countless times since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Turkey has long allowed it to pass, despite American sanctions targeting Sparta and similar Russian military logistics vessels. 

That arrangement may have changed. On February 26, Sparta was returning from a normal run to Tartus and entered the Sea of Marmara. However, instead of entering the Bosporus, the ship turned around and headed back for the Mediterranean. She kept going, out the Strait of Gibraltar and all the way around Europe to the Russian Baltic territory of Kaliningrad. 

The Ukrainian activist group Crimean Wind noticed that Sparta was not the only Russian vessel that turned away from the Bosporus. Two days later, the Russian bulkers Zafar and Grumant - allegedly laden with stolen Ukrainian grain - made an about-face at the northern end of the waterway. 

The Russian military product tanker Yaz also appears to have stalled at the southern entrance of the Bosporus at about the same time. Like Sparta IV, Yaz is sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury; like Sparta, it also took the long way around Europe to get back to Russia, transiting all the way to the Baltic to call at St. Petersburg (top). 

Turkey has closed the Bosporus to warships, but has not previously blocked nominally civilian vessels like Sparta IV, even if potentially carrying arms. Whether the turnarounds represented a change in policy is not known, but Turkish bankers and companies have reduced their trade ties with Russia since the start of the year over fears of heightened sanctions enforcement, according to Moscow Times.