What began as a gleeful debate over the disappearance of the Arctic Sea, a Russian-operated freighter that went off the radar for weeks has turned into a serious question of international security. At first, in late July, the notion that a timber-carrying ship was the first victim of European piracy in centuries was dynamite. But as weeks wore on without radio contact, speculation turned to darker concerns. Was it a cover up? A mafia hit? A bungled act of nuclear smuggling?

The ship's recovery this week has only swelled the speculation. Russian officials' claim that it was all a simple matter of pirates demanding ransom is being greeted with deep suspicion on the Continent.

Until the debate is resolved, it's worth reviewing the principal theories. If the ship didn't actually disappear, what's the story?

  • Ransom, insist Russian authorities, waving off suspicions that the government covered up illicit smuggling. "Crew members confirm that a ransom demand was made by the hijackers and if their demands were not met the hijackers threatened to blow up the vessel."
  • Pirate Coup, says the United Press International. "Experts have speculated that the ship may already be under pirate control; they have also said that the freighter could be loaded with something much more valuable than just wood or even drugs -- they say it could have Russian arms on board, for sale in Africa."
  • Drugs, suggests Lewis Smith in the Independent, providing an excellent list of lingering questions in the case. "An illicit cargo might explain the hijackers' interest in the vessel - the officially listed cargo of timber worth £1m was regarded as a most unlikely target for an armed gang. Arms, drugs and nuclear equipment have all been suggested as likely secret cargos. It has also been suggested that the boat was seized in a commercial dispute."
  • Weapons,  says Yulia Latynina. "To put it plainly: The Arctic Sea was carrying some sort of anti-aircraft or nuclear contraption intended for a nice, peaceful country like Syria, and they were caught with it."
  • Taken as a Pirate Skiff, speculated the Daily Telegraph in Australia. "It had been put into a small West African port, repainted, renamed and relaunched as a "phantom ship" to be used by pirates in attacks on other vessels. This happened often in the 1990s in South-East Asia."
If there proves to be foul play, the contemporary mania for pirates deserves some credit for keeping up the debate, and the scrutiny.