French authorities intercepted on Saturday in the English Channel a merchant ship belonging according to Paris to the Russian bank PSB, targeted by European sanctions against Moscow, the first visible application of retaliatory measures after the invasion of Ukraine.
This boat flying the Russian flag, the Baltic Leader, a ro-ro cargo ship, built especially for the transport of vehicles, transported its cargo to Saint-Petersburg (Russia).
Leaving Rouen the day before, he was diverted overnight from Friday to Saturday to Boulogne-sur-Mer (Pas-de-Calais), the maritime prefecture told AFP.
The imposing ship, 127 meters long, is now in customs detention and checks are continuing, said the office of the French Minister Delegate for Public Accounts, Olivier Dussopt.
This operation, in application of European sanctions, was “conducted in cooperation with the American authorities”, specified the Ministry of Finance in a press release, adding that the ship was “property of the company PSB Lizing”.
Promsvyazbank (PSB), targeted since Wednesday by European sanctions, is also one of the two Russian public banks targeted by the American measures.
According to the US Treasury, this bank nationalized since 2018 is “crucial for the defense sector”.
The PSB has provided “billions of dollars” to Russian defense groups and handles the majority of the Department of Defense’s big contracts, according to the Treasury Department. The latter indicates on its website that it has included in the list of targeted goods five ships owned by the subsidiary PSB Lizing, including the Baltic Leader.
Washington also suspects the PSB of seeking to launch a parallel currency system designed to circumvent Western sanctions.
– “Image war” –
The Russian embassy in Paris, informed by an emergency call from the captain, “immediately contacted the French authorities to seek clarification”, according to statements by the spokesman of the embassy, Alexandre Makagonov, quoted by the agency. official TASS press release.
The boat, escorted by a customs patrol boat, with the support of the gendarmerie and the navy, was “cooperative”, specified Véronique Magnin, regional communication officer for the maritime prefecture. She stressed that such an operation, a sign of “firmness”, was “rare” in this area.
Customs conducted hearings and investigations on board.
The imposing ro-ro ship with a red hull, visible from afar, was moored at the quay in an uncrowded area of the port, at a distance from other boats, noted an AFP journalist. Saturday at midday, no activity was detectable either on board or around.
The port’s CEO, Jean-Jacques Puissesseau, said he had “never seen” an interception of this type in 20 years of activity.
The European Union on Thursday adopted an unprecedented new round of sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine, shortly before London and Washington in turn tightened restrictions, without taking drastic measures.
The interception of the Baltic Leader, a “symbolic” act and “visible consequence of abstract measures” until then, marks “the beginning of the war of images”, considers lawyer Olivier Dorgans, specialist in international sanctions.
A seizure in application of the sanctions would be “unpublished or in any case not seen for a long time”, he underlines, indicating that “it has the advantage of showing that we use the weapons that we prepare” and that the Westerners are ready to “bear the cost” of the sanctions.
Retaliation is possible, he warned, referring to possible seizures of French property in Russia.
According to the European Commission, Russia was the EU’s 5th largest trading partner in 2020 (4.8% of Europeans’ trade in goods with the rest of the world).
Conversely, the EU is Moscow’s leading partner: Europeans account for 37.3% of Russia’s trade in goods.