Russian ships carrying stolen Ukrainian grain moved away from Mediterranean ports, but not all

CNN has identified the vessel as the bulk carrier Matros Pozynich.

On April 27, the ship weighed anchor off the Crimean coast and turned off its transponder. The next day she was seen in the port of Sevastopol, the main port of Crimea, according to photographs and satellite images.

The Matros Pozynich is one of three ships involved in the stolen grain trade, according to an open source investigation and Ukrainian officials.

Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, produces little wheat due to lack of irrigation. But the Ukrainian regions to the north, occupied by Russian forces since early March, produce millions of tons of grain each year. Ukrainian officials say thousands of tons are now being trucked into Crimea.

Kateryna Yaresko, a journalist with the SeaKrime project of the Ukrainian online publication Myrotvorets, told CNN that the project had noted a sharp increase in grain exports from Sevastopol, to some 100,000 tons in both 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. She was loaded with almost 30,000 tons of (Ukrainian) wheat, according to Ukrainian officials.

But the Ukrainians were one step ahead. Authorities say Egypt was warned that the grain had been stolen; the shipment was refused. The Pozynich sailed towards the Lebanese capital, Beirut, with the same result.

The Matros Pozynich switched off its transponder again on May 5, but images from and Maxar Technologies show that it traveled to the Syrian port of Latakia.

The Syrian regime has a close relationship with Russia and the Russian military is frequently in Latakia. In fact, Matros Pozynich is named after a Russian soldier killed in Syria in 2015.

Mikhail Voytenko, editor-in-chief of the Maritime Bulletin, told CNN that the grain could be reloaded onto another ship in Latakia to disguise its origins. “When the destination port starts to change for no serious reason, this is another evidence of smuggling,” he said.

Close-up view shows the Matros Pozynich, named after a Russian soldier killed in Syria in 2015, in the port of Latakia.

In its first comments 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 Mediterranean waters.”

“The most likely destination of the cargo is Syria. The grain can be smuggled from there to other countries in the Middle East,” he said.

Shipping data shows 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 out to the company were unsuccessful.

Yaresko says the SeaKrime project has identified the true owners of the three ships as one of 29 companies under the umbrella of a large Russian corporation, whose other entities were sanctioned by the United States shortly after the Russian invasion.

More grain thefts

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry 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 Agrarian Policy and Food, said this week that “it is sent in an organized way in the direction of Crimea. This is a big business supervised by people at the highest level.”

CNN reported last week that trucks with Crimean license plates stole 1,500 tons of grain from storage units in Kherson. In Zaporizhzhia, trucks bearing the white “Z” symbol of the Russian army were seen transporting grain to Crimea after the city’s main grain elevator emptied completely.

This week, the Ukrainian authorities reported more grain thefts by the occupying forces. The Intelligence Directorate said that in one part of Zaporizhzhia, grains and stored sunflower seeds were being prepared for transport to Russia. A column of Russian trucks carrying grain had left the city of Enerhodar, also in Zaporizhzhia, under the surveillance of the Russian army, the Directorate said.

While Russian ships can apparently transport Ukrainian grain on the high seas, Ukrainian farmers find it much more difficult to export their produce. Much of it would normally be shipped out of Odessa. While still in Ukrainian hands, Odessa has come under frequent missile attacks and much of the Black Sea is off limits to merchant shipping.

Russians steal large amounts of Ukrainian grain and equipment, threatening this year's harvest

Ukrainian shippers have diverted some of the grain by rail to Romania, as CNN reported last week. But it is hardly a solution to what is becoming a supply crisis that is already having an impact on world markets.

Samantha Power, the USAID administrator, tweeted this week: “Putin’s war is wreaking havoc on food supply; Ukraine is world’s No. 4 exporter of corn and No. 5 exporter of wheat.”

Ukraine and Russia typically supply around 30% of world wheat exports, much of which goes to the world’s poorest countries. Global food prices hit an all-time high in March, according to the United Nations, fueled largely by the war in Ukraine. Drought in the wheat producing areas of France and Canada threatens to aggravate 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 verge of food shortages.”

On the same day, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was in Odessa with the Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shymal, observing the huge quantities of grain stored in the port.

He tweeted pictures and said: “I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export. This much needed food is stranded due to the Russian war and blockade of 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 disrupted exports from the Black Sea significantly reduced global supply.”

As for the Russians, they seem ready to adapt to the new realities of world markets. The Russian Grain Union has a conference scheduled for June. One of the sessions, according to the Union’s Instagram account, is: “Sanctions Restrictions: How the grain sector is adapting to the new reality and why the state is reacting to a change in the situation with unprecedented speed.” precedent”.

CNN’s Josh Pennington and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.

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