Russian ships carrying stolen Ukrainian grain have moved away from Mediterranean ports – but not all
CNN has identified the ship as the Matros Pozynic bulk carrier.
On April 27, the ship weighed anchor off the coast of Crimea, turning off the transponder. The next day, he was seen in the port of Sevastopol, the main port in Crimea, according to photographs and satellite images.
Matros Pozynich is one of three ships involved in the stolen grain trade, according to open source research and Ukrainian officials.
Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, produces little wheat due to a lack of irrigation. But the Ukrainian regions to its north, occupied by Russian troops since early March, produce millions of tons of grain every year. Ukrainian officials say thousands of tons are now trucked into Crimea.
Katerina Yarsko, a journalist with the SeaKrime project for the Ukrainian online publication Myrotvorets, told CNN that the project observed a sharp increase in grain exports from Sevastopol – to around 100,000 tons in March and April.
From Sevastopol, according to satellite images and tracking data reviewed by CNN, Matros Pozynich crossed the Bosphorus and made its way to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. According to Ukrainian officials, it was loaded with about 30 thousand tons of (Ukrainian) wheat.
But the Ukrainians were one step ahead. Officials say Egypt has received warnings of grain theft. The shipment has been discarded. Bozinic set out for the Lebanese capital, Beirut, with the same result.
The Matros Pozynich vessel switched off the transponder again on May 5, but images from Tankertrackers.com and Maxar Technologies show it traveled to the Syrian port of Latakia.
The Syrian regime has a close relationship with Russia and the Russian army often in Latakia. In fact, Matros Pozynich is named after a Russian soldier who was killed in Syria in 2015.
Mikhail Voitenko, Maritime Bulletin’s editor-in-chief, told CNN that the grain could be reloaded onto another ship in Latakia to hide its origins. “When the port of arrival begins to change without any serious reason, this is another indication of smuggling,” he said.
In its first comment on the illegal export of Ukrainian grain, the Defense Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate said on Tuesday that “a significant part of the grain stolen from Ukraine is on ships sailing under the Russian flag in the waters of the Mediterranean.”
“The most likely destination for the shipment is Syria. The grain can be smuggled from there to other countries in the Middle East,” she added.
Shipping data shows that Matros Pozynich is one of three bulk carriers registered for a company called Crane Marine Contractor, headquartered in Astrakhan, Russia. The company is not subject to international sanctions.
CNN’s efforts to reach out to the company were unsuccessful.
Yarsko says the SeaKrime project identified the real owners of the three ships as one of 29 companies under the umbrella of a large Russian corporation, and the United States imposed sanctions on its other entities shortly after the Russian invasion.
More grain thefts
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimates that at least 400,000 tons of grain have been stolen and taken out of Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Mykola Solsky, Ukraine’s Minister of Agricultural and Food Policy, said this week that it was “sent in an orderly manner in the direction of Crimea. This is a large company supervised by people of the highest levels.”
This week, Ukrainian authorities reported more grain thefts by occupying forces. The Intelligence Directorate said that in one part of Zaporizhia, stored grain and sunflower seeds are being prepared for transportation to Russia. The directorate claimed that a column of Russian trucks carrying grain left the town of Enerhodar – also in Zaporizhia – under the escort of the Russian army.
While Russian ships seem to be able to carry Ukrainian grain on the high seas, Ukrainian farmers are finding it more difficult to export their produce. Usually many of them are shipped outside Odessa. While Odessa was still in Ukrainian hands, it was subjected to frequent missile attacks, and a large part of the Black Sea became off-limits to commercial shipping.
Ukrainian shippers have funneled some grain via rail to Romania, CNN reported last week. But it is not a solution to what has become a supply crisis that is already affecting global markets.
Ukraine and Russia usually supply about 30% of world wheat exports, much of it going to the world’s poorest countries. Global food prices hit a record high in March, according to the United Nations, driven in large part by the war in Ukraine. Drought in the wheat-growing regions of France and Canada threatens to exacerbate an already limited supply situation.
“Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortages,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday.
On the same day, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was in Odessa with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shemal, to look at the vast quantities of grain stored in the port.
He tweeted pictures, saying: “I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export. This much-needed food was stranded by the Russian war and the blockade of the Black Sea ports. Causing dire consequences for weak countries.”
Trading Economics noted that “wheat prices are 31% higher than they were before the Russian invasion, as the halt in exports from the Black Sea significantly reduced global supply.”
CNN’s Josh Pennington and Paul B. Murphy contributed to this report.