A Russian merchant ship loaded with grain stolen in Ukraine has been turned away from at least one Mediterranean port and is now in the Syrian port of Latakia, according to maritime sources and Ukrainian officials.
CNN identified the vessel as the bulk carrier Matros Pozynich.
On April 27, the ship weighed anchor off Crimea and turned off its transponder. The following day, he was seen at the port of Sevastopol, Crimea’s main port, according to photographs and satellite images.
The Matros Pozynich is one of three vessels involved in the trade in stolen grain, according to open source research and Ukrainian officials.
Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, produces little wheat due to lack of irrigation. But the northern Ukrainian regions, occupied by Russian forces since early March, produce millions of tons of grain every year. Ukrainian officials say thousands of tonnes are now being trucked into Crimea.
Kateryna Yaresko, a reporter for the SeaKrime project at Ukrainian online publication Myrotvorets, told CNN the project has noticed a sharp increase in grain exports from Sevastopol — to around 100,000 tonnes in March and April.
From Sevastopol, according to satellite images and tracking data reviewed by CNN, the Matros Pozynich transited the Bosphorus and headed for the Egyptian port of Alexandria. It was loaded with nearly 30,000 tonnes of (Ukrainian) wheat, according to Ukrainian officials.
But the Ukrainians had a head start. Officials say Egypt was warned the grain had been stolen; the shipment was returned. The Pozynich steamed towards the Lebanese capital, Beirut, with the same result.
The Matros Pozynich turned off her transponder again on May 5, but images from Tankertrackers.com and Maxar Technologies show she made it to the Syrian port of Latakia.
The Syrian regime maintains close relations with Russia, and the Russian military is frequently in Latakia. Indeed, the Matros Pozynich is named after a Russian soldier killed in Syria in 2015.
Mikhail Voytenko, editor of the Maritime Bulletin, told CNN the grain could be reloaded onto another ship in Latakia to disguise its origins. “When the port of destination starts changing without a serious reason, that’s another proof of smuggling,” he said.
In its first comments on the illicit 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 Russian-flagged vessels in the waters of the Mediterranean”.
“The most likely destination for the shipment is Syria. Grain can be smuggled from there to other countries in the Middle East,” he said.
Shipping data shows that the Matros Pozynich is one of three bulk carriers registered with a company called Crane Marine Contractor, based in Astrakhan, Russia. The company is not under international sanctions.
CNN’s efforts to reach the company were unsuccessful.
Yaresko says the SeaKrime project identified the true owners of the three vessels as one of 29 companies under the umbrella of a major Russian corporation, whose other entities were sanctioned by the United States shortly after the Russian invasion .
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimates that at least 400,000 tonnes of grain have been stolen and taken out of Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Mykola Solsky, Ukraine’s Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food, said this week that he is “sent in an organized manner towards Crimea. It’s a big company that is supervised by people of the highest level.
CNN reported last week that trucks with Crimean license plates stole 1,500 tonnes of grain from storage units in Kherson. In Zaporizhzhia, trucks bearing the Russian army’s white “Z” symbol were spotted transporting grain to Crimea after the city’s main grain elevator was completely emptied.
This week, the Ukrainian authorities reported new thefts of grain by the occupying forces. The Intelligence Directorate said that in part of Zaporizhzhia stored grain and sunflower seeds are being prepared for transport to Russia. A column of Russian trucks carrying grain had left the town of Enerhodar – also in Zaporizhzhia – under Russian military guard, the Directorate said.
While Russian ships are apparently capable of transporting Ukrainian grain on the high seas, Ukrainian farmers have a much harder time exporting their produce. Much of it would normally be shipped from Odessa. Although still in Ukrainian hands, Odessa has suffered frequent missile attacks and much of the Black Sea is closed to merchant shipping.
Ukrainian shippers have diverted grain by rail to Romania, as CNN reported last week. But it is not a solution to what is becoming a supply crisis that is already impacting global markets.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power tweeted this week“Putin’s war wreaks havoc on food supply; Ukraine is the 4th world exporter of maize and the 5th exporter of wheat.
Ukraine and Russia normally supply around 30% of global wheat exports, much of which goes to the world’s poorest countries. According to the United Nations, world food prices hit a record high in March, mainly due to the war in Ukraine. Drought in wheat-growing regions of France and Canada threatens to worsen an already tight supply situation.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday that “without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortage.”
On the same day, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was in Odessa with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shymal, observing the huge quantities of grain stored in the port.
He tweeted photos, saying, “I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready to be exported. This essential food is blocked because of the Russian war and the blockade of the Black Sea ports. Causing dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries.
Trading Economics noted on Wednesday that “wheat prices are 31% higher than before the Russian invasion, as the disruption of Black Sea exports has significantly reduced global supply.”
As for the Russians, they seem ready to adapt to the new realities of world markets. The Russian Grain Union is organizing a conference in June. One of the sessions, according to the Union’s Instagram account, is: “Sanction restrictions – how the grain sector is adapting to the new reality and why the state is responding to changing circumstances with unparalleled speed. previous”.
CNN’s Josh Pennington and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.