Revealed: How Russian ships are turning off trackers in the Black Sea to sell Ukraine’s stolen grain

·7 min read
Russian-flagged bulk carrier Matros Koshka - Yoruk Isik/Reuters
Russian-flagged bulk carrier Matros Koshka - Yoruk Isik/Reuters

At 170 metres long, with a red hull, white painted superstructure and towering deck cranes, the Matros Koshka is difficult to miss.

But the bulk carrier - whose name means “the sailor cat” in Russian - has not been seen since it turned off its transponder in the middle of the Black Sea three weeks ago.

The vanishing ship is one of nearly a dozen Russian and Syrian flagged vessels at the centre of what Western governments believe is large-scale smuggling of looted Ukrainian grain.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has wrought chaos on the Pontic Steppe, the fertile black earth region that produces a disproportionate quantity of the world’s cereals.

A de-facto Russian naval blockade of the Black Sea ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv has strangled Ukraine’s usually enormous food exports to a trickle, leaving some 20 million tons of grains, mostly wheat, rotting in silos and warehouses.

As many as 25 African countries, including many least developed countries, import more than a third of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. The United Nations has warned of a food crisis if the standoff is not resolved.

Russia denies blocking grain shipments and said its retreat from Snake Island on Thursday was a goodwill gesture to allow exports to resume.

port of Mykolayiv - Planet Labs PBC/AFP via Getty Images
port of Mykolayiv - Planet Labs PBC/AFP via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin last month explicitly promised the African Union that Russia would “do everything possible on our side to take care of our regular buyers of grain”.

But the blockade is only half the story.

According to Ukrainian and Western officials, Moscow has also systematically looted wheat from areas it has occupied since the war began.

In April, Mykola Solskyi, Ukraine’s agriculture minister, said “several hundred thousand tons” had been lifted and presumably trucked to Crimea for shipping abroad.

On Friday, Ukraine requested that Turkey detain and arrest the Zhibek Zholy, a Russian-flagged cargo ship that arrived in the port of Karasu early in the morning, for the “illegal export of Ukrainian grain” from the occupied port of Berdyansk.

The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office asked Turkey to “conduct an inspection of this sea vessel, seize samples of grain for forensic examination, demand information on the location of such grain”, which has already arrived in the Turkish port of Karasu.

It came a day after Yevgeny Balitsky, a Russian-installed official in the occupied zone of the Zaporizhzhia region, said the first ship to leave Berdyansk’s port since Russia captured it at the beginning of the war was carrying 7,000 tons of grain to unnamed “friendly countries”.

He later edited the Telegram post to remove any reference to the ship’s cargo.

The Zhibek Zholy is only the latest vessel to be implicated in the alleged smuggling operation.

The Zhibek Zholy
The Zhibek Zholy

An investigation by Lloyd’s List, the shipping industry publication, last month identified nine vessels involved in suspicious behaviour consistent with grain smuggling: the Russian-flagged Matros Koshka, Matros Pozynich, Mikhail Nenashev, Nadezhda, Vera, Fedor, and Sormovsky 48, and the Syrian-flagged Finikia and Souria.

All are bulk carriers or general cargo carriers capable of shifting grain. All appeared to be sailing between Crimea and ports in Turkey and Syria, and all of them have been turning off their transponders in the Black Sea - a technically illegal but rarely sanctioned stunt more often associated with Iranian tankers trying to evade US oil sanctions.

The Matros Koshka’s recent voyages are typical.

It last vanished as it crossed the Black Sea on May 18. It reappeared on May 24 in a part of the Kerch Strait called the Kavkaz Anchorage, an area used by shipping headed to and from Russian ports on the Azov and eastern Black Sea.

It then sailed through the Bosporus, around Turkey, and on May 30, just off Cyprus, vanished again - only to reappear on June 8 about 60 nautical miles off Lebanon.

It sailed back to the Black Sea and vanished for the final time off the northern coast of Turkey. At the time of writing it has not reappeared.

Photographs obtained by SeaKrime, a Ukrainian activist group monitoring suspicious shipping, showed the vessel docked at a grain terminal in Sevastopol, the main port in Russian-occupied Crimea, while it was “blacked out” between May 19 and May 24.

Ukrainian officials say Sevastopol is the destination for grain stolen from the mainland.

“The use of the AIS (automatic identification system) is mandated under international maritime conventions,” said Michelle Bockman, the energy and commodities analyst at Lloyd’s List who led the investigation.

“There is a clause allowing you to run it off if the security of the ship is threatened - that was implemented in 2011 when Somali piracy was at its height. But it is highly unusual for AIS to be turned off unless the vessel wants to obscure its destination - specifically to avoid sanctions and obfuscate its destination, origin, cargo transfers, and vessel callings. It is usually associated with sanctions-busting or skirting.”

Diplomatic efforts to intercept the alleged illegal shipments have had mixed results.

The Lloyd’s List investigation suggests the ships have been running deliveries to ports in Syria, a close Russian ally, and Turkey, a Nato member that imports large quantities of Russian and Ukrainian grain for milling into flour.

Turkish authorities have denied allowing illegal grain imports. Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey says he is working closely with the country to track down suspected stolen grain imports.

In May, Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, publicly thanked Egypt for turning away a Russian ship without the proper paperwork.

At around the same time, the United States sent a note to several north and east African governments warning them to beware of Russia selling contraband.

Ukraine fields - Julian Simmonds
Ukraine fields - Julian Simmonds

Last week, George Eustice, the Environment and Food Secretary, said Britain would give £1.5 million to fund DNA analysis to crack down on illicit shipments.

But industry experts say that in reality, policing grain shipments is a difficult if not impossible task.

Ukrainian and Russian wheat have different official protein standards - 11.5 and 12.5 respectively - but in other respects are more or less indistinguishable.

“I don’t necessarily think that DNA testing could distinguish wheat from Kherson from wheat from western Russia. You have very similar earth, and similar strains of wheat. The strains grown on both sides of the border are similar if not the same,” said Swithun Still, a former grain trader who has worked in the Black Sea for 20 years.

“Buyers will ask for assurances from the sellers that this is not looted Ukrainian wheat, but there will be ways and means of dressing it up to come out as Russian origin grain,“ he added. He said he was not aware that any such fraud had actually taken place.

Even if the testing idea worked, it is not exactly clear what could be done to stop such sales.

G7 leaders said after their summit in Germany last week that the next round of sanctions against Russia will target individuals suspected of profiteering in occupied areas, including those involved in the theft of grain.

A senior US official with knowledge of the planned sanctions said the targets would only be Russian nationals. He said he was not aware of any proposals to target other governments or third-country individuals suspected of buying stolen grain.

That partly reflects the political and moral difficulties of telling countries to turn away food at a time of shortages and spiralling inflation.

“A lot of the grain from Russia and Ukraine goes to North Africa where they can’t grow wheat because of the climate,” said Mike Lee, the director of Green Square Agro Consulting and a specialist in Black Sea wheat production.

“In the UK our bread price will go up, but we won’t have a shortage because we produce most of it ourselves. Your 80p loaf from Tesco will double, but we’ll be ok. The poor countries reliant on importing this grain as a stable food source may not be.”

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