The Government of Bangladesh has denied entry to a US-sanctioned Russian multipurpose general cargo ship that is attempting to deliver a cargo consigned to the country’s first nuclear power plant.

The denial of entry of the 9,500-dwt Ursa Major (built 2009) into Mongla Port came just weeks after South African officials were left scrambling to provide answers on why another Russian multipurpose vessel was working cargo in the country’s main naval base under the cover of darkness.

The Ursa Major, a vessel operated by Novorossiysk-based SC-South LLC, arrived off Mongla on 24 December carrying vital components for the Rooppur nuclear power plant project that Bangladesh is building in partnership with Russian state-run nuclear energy company Rosatom.

The issue had nothing to do with the cargo the vessel was carrying, according to statements given to local media by officials at Bangladesh’s foreign ministry. The vessel was denied permission to dock because it was on the US government’s list of sanctioned ships.

The Ursa Major was sanctioned due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the time it was trading under the name Sparta III. S&P Global’s International Ships Register indicates the ship was given its current name in November 2021, although its management and ownership remained the same as before.

The US Embassy in Dhaka had notified Bangladesh’s foreign ministry just prior to the ship’s arrival that it was a sanctioned vessel and that unloading goods from an embargoed vessel and providing fuel or any kind of support to its crew would increase the risks of sanctions or financial penalties.

Bangladesh is one of the few countries that has refused to cut ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. In March Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged that the country would maintain its business commitments with Russia and carry on with the construction of the $13bn Rooppur nuclear power plant.

The South Asian nation, which relies heavily on foreign aid, has had to maintain a difficult balancing act with its relations between Moscow, and with the foreign development partners who provided it with $10bn during the 2021-2022 fiscal year who are pressuring it to reduce its ties with Russia.

On Thursday Bangladesh’s Minister of Science and Technology, Yeafesh Osman, told news agencies that efforts were underway to resolve the stand-off with the Ursa Major. This would likely involve transshipping the cargo to another vessel.

Mystery South African call

South Africa's Minister of Defense, Thandi Modise, has given little in the way explanation as to why a Russian general cargo ship was working cargo in the country's main naval base. Photo: Government of South Africa

Bangladesh’s refusal to allow the Ursa Major to dock came just weeks after the South African government was left scrambling to explain why a US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship had docked in the country’s main naval base under the cover of darkness.

The 7,630-dwt multipurpose general cargo ship Lady R (built 2004), a vessel owned and operated by Russia’s Transmorflot, docked at the naval port in Simonstown late in the night of 8 December.

South African investigative news outlet Daily Maverick reported that the ship had turned off its automatic identification system before changing course for the naval base, and its arrival in port just happened to coincide with a power blackout in the area as part of the country’s series of rolling power cuts due to the country’s ongoing electricity production shortfalls.

Despite the blackout, numerous eyewitnesses observed that the ship was working cargo under armed guards. It slipped out of the port in the early hours of the following morning.

Two weeks later, under pressure from opposition party leaders to explain the presence of the Lady R in the country’s main naval base, South Africa’s defence minister Thandi Modise said the ship had docked to unload an “old order” for ammunition.

Modise gave no other details, and government officials have said nothing further on the matter.

Like Bangladesh, the South African government has continued to maintain its strong political and economic ties with Russia and has not sanctioned nor restricted Russian shipping.

The ruling ANC party's ties with the Kremlin stretch back many decades, with the former Soviet Union providing it with strong support during its armed struggle against the former white apartheid regime.