When the majority cargo ship Laodicea docked in Lebanon final summer time, Ukrainian diplomats mentioned the vessel was carrying grain stolen by Russia and urged Lebanese officers to impound the ship.
Moscow referred to as the allegation “false and baseless,” and Lebanon’s prosecutor basic sided with the Kremlin and declared that the ten,000 tons of barley and wheat flour wasn’t stolen and allowed the ship to unload.
However an investigation by The Related Press and the PBS collection “Frontline” has discovered the Laodicea, owned by Syria, is a part of a classy Russian-run smuggling operation that has used falsified manifests and seaborne subterfuge to steal Ukrainian grain price no less than $530 million — money that has helped feed President Vladimir Putin’s warfare machine.
AP used satellite tv for pc imagery and marine radio transponder knowledge to trace three dozen ships making greater than 50 voyages carrying grain from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to ports in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and different nations. Reporters reviewed transport manifests, searched social media posts, and interviewed farmers, shippers and company officers to uncover the small print of the huge smuggling operation.
This story is a part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that features the Struggle Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive expertise and and upcoming documentary, “Putin’s Assault on Ukraine: Documenting Struggle Crimes,” which premieres 10/9c Oct. 25 on PBS.
The ongoing theft, which authorized consultants say is a possible warfare crime, is being carried out by rich businessmen and state-owned corporations in Russia and Syria, a few of them already going through monetary sanctions from the US and European Union.
In the meantime, the Russian navy has attacked farms, grain silos and transport amenities nonetheless below Ukrainian management with artillery and air strikes, destroying meals, driving up costs and lowering the circulation of grain from a rustic lengthy often known as the breadbasket of Europe.
The Russians “have an absolute obligation to make sure that civilians are cared for and to not deprive them their means of a livelihood and a capability to feed themselves,” mentioned David Crane, a veteran prosecutor who has been concerned in quite a few worldwide warfare crime investigations. “It’s simply pure pillaging and looting, and that’s additionally an actionable offense below worldwide navy regulation.”
The grain and flour carried by the 138-meter-long (453 ft) Laodicea doubtless began its journey within the southern Ukrainian metropolis of Melitopol, which Russia seized within the early days of the warfare.
Video posted to social media on July 9 reveals a practice pulling as much as the Melitopol Elevator, a large grain storage facility, with inexperienced hopper automobiles marked with the title of the Russian firm Agro-Fregat LLC in large yellow letters, together with a brand within the form of a spike of wheat.
Russian occupation official Andrey Siguta held a information convention on the depot the next week the place he mentioned the grain would “present meals safety” for Russia-controlled areas in Ukraine, and that his administration would “consider the harvest and decide how a lot shall be on the market.”
As he spoke, a masked soldier armed with an assault rifle stood guard as vans unloaded wheat on the facility to be milled. Staff loaded flour into giant white baggage like these delivered by the Laodicea to Lebanon three weeks later.
Siguta, together with 4 different prime Russian occupation officers, was sanctioned by the U.S. authorities on Sept. 15 for overseeing the theft and export of Ukranian grain.
Putin signed treaties Friday to annex 4 occupied areas of Ukraine into the Russian Federation, in defiance of worldwide regulation. America and European Union instantly rejected “the unlawful annexation.”
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov instructed AP the occupiers are shifting huge portions of grain from the area by practice and truck to ports in Russia and Crimea, a strategic Ukrainian peninsula that Russia has occupied since 2014. Regardless of Russian claims to have annexed Crimea, the United Nations dominated that land seize was additionally unlawful.
Movies posted on social media in current months present a gradual stream of grain transport vans shifting south by way of occupied areas of Ukraine with the letter “Z” painted on their sides, a wartime image for Russia and its navy forces. Agro-Fregat practice automobiles have been recorded rolling by way of the Crimean port city of Feodosia, the place satellite tv for pc imagery reveals vans and trains lined up as grain was being loaded onto ships.
The Kremlin has denied stealing any grain, however Russia’s state-run information company Tass reported on June 16 that Ukrainian grain was being trucked to Crimea, leading to lengthy strains at border checkpoints. Tass later reported that grain from Melitopol had arrived in Crimea and that further shipments had been anticipated, certain for patrons within the Center East and Africa.
A July 11 satellite tv for pc picture reveals the Laodicea tied up at a pier in Feodosia. The ship’s radio transponder was turned off and its cargo holds had been open, being full of a white substance from ready vans. Two weeks later, when it arrived on the Lebanese port metropolis Tripoli, it claimed to be carrying grain from a small Russian port on the opposite aspect of the Black Sea.
A replica of the ship’s manifests obtained by AP claimed its port of origin was Kavkaz, Russia. Its cargo was listed as practically 10,000 metric tons of “Russian Barley and Russian Flour in Baggage.” The shipper was listed as Agro-Fregat and the customer was Loyal Agro Co Ltd., a wholesale grocer headquartered in Turkey.
Agro-Fregat did not reply to emailed questions and shortly after AP’s inquiry, the corporate’s web site seems to have been taken down. A cellphone quantity that had been listed on the web site was out of service final week.
A spokesman for Loyal Agro mentioned the corporate took supply of 5,000 tons of flour and the remainder of the ship’s cargo went to Tartus, Syria.
“We reached an settlement with Russia, the flour got here from Russia,” mentioned Muhammed Cuma, a spokesman for the corporate. “If the flour was stolen, then the Lebanese authorities wouldn’t have allowed it (to be imported).”
However the Laodicea couldn’t have picked up its cargo in Kavkaz, the Russian port listed on the manifest. The ship’s hull, which reaches 8 meters (26 ft) beneath the floor, would run aground within the comparatively shallow port, which based on Russia’s transport regulator can solely accommodate ships with a most depth of 5.3 meters (17.5 ft).
The port in Feodosia is greater than twice as deep — simply in a position to accommodate the massive ship.
The Laodicea is considered one of three bulk cargo vessels operated by Syriamar Delivery Ltd., a Syrian government-run firm below U.S. sanctions since 2015 for its ties to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
AP tracked 10 voyages made by the Laodicea and her sister ships — Souria and Finikia — from the Ukrainian coast to ports in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.
Syriamar did not reply to emails to its headquarters in Latakia, Syria. A name to the cellphone quantity on the corporate’s web site went unanswered.
One other firm concerned in smuggling grain is United Shipbuilding Corp., a Russian state-owned protection contractor that builds warships and submarines for Russia’s navy. In April, the corporate and its senior executives had been sanctioned by the US for offering weapons to the Russian warfare effort.
The corporate, by way of its subsidiary Crane Marine Contractor, purchased three cargo ships simply weeks earlier than Putin invaded Ukraine, in a departure from its core enterprise offering heavy elevate platforms to the oil and gasoline business.
The three ships have made no less than 17 journeys between Crimea and ports in Turkey and Syria.
A spokeswoman for United Shipbuilding Corp. in Moscow didn’t reply to questions despatched by way of e-mail. When AP referred to as Crane Marine Contractor a receptionist answered by saying the corporate’s title. A person she transferred the decision to, nonetheless, insisted AP had the incorrect quantity.
“You might have reached the incorrect place, we shouldn’t have such info,” mentioned the person, who refused to offer his title. “I’ve no clue what you might be speaking about and no clue who I can join you with, do you perceive?”
Throughout a typical voyage in mid-June, a 170-meter-long ship (560 ft) referred to as the Mikhail Nenashev was captured on satellite tv for pc being loaded on the Russian-controlled Avlita Grain Terminal in Sevastopol, Crimea, whereas its radio transponder was turned off. The ship’s crew turned the sign again on two days later whereas underway within the Black Sea.
It turned south towards the Mediterranean and arrived on June 25 in Dörtyol, Turkey the place unique video obtained by AP reveals it two days later at a pier owned by MMK Metalurji, a metal producer. Cranes on the dock may be seen scooping up giant bucket a great deal of grain and dropping it into ready vans that drive away.
MMK Metalurji is the Turkish subsidiary of Magnitogorsk Iron & Metal Works, a significant Russian metal conglomerate managed by Viktor Rashnikov, a Russian billionaire who’s near Putin. Rashnikov and his firm have been sanctioned by the US, European Union and United Kingdom for offering income and tools in assist of Russia’s warfare effort.
In an e-mail to AP, the corporate mentioned the grain got here from Russia: “The place the place the mentioned cargo is loaded is PORT KAVKAZ … based on the customs declaration and the written declaration made by the transport company to us.”
As with Laodicea, Nenashev’s draught is simply too deep to dock on the Kavkaz port.
Ami Daniel, CEO of the marine knowledge analytics firm Winward, mentioned ships working darkish is a pink flag that criminality is happening. He mentioned it is usually widespread for smugglers to falsify transport manifests and customs declarations to cover the true origin of their cargo.
“Illegally falsifying documentation is a tactic utilized by unhealthy actors to disguise the origin of the products they’re transporting, be it for the aim of evading sanctions, trafficking illicit items, or different crimes,” mentioned Daniel, a former Israeli naval officer.
Rashnikov, who has a private fortune estimated at greater than $10 billion, seems to have anticipated the sanctions.
Days earlier than Russia launched its February invasion, his 140-meter-long superyacht (460 ft), the Ocean Victory, cruised from Dubai to the Maldives, a distant archipelago within the Indian Ocean the place the federal government hasn’t enforced Western sanctions. Ocean Victory’s crew turned off its radio transponder on March 1, and the $300 million get together barge has been working darkish ever since.
For the reason that invasion, world grain costs have skyrocketed, boosting earnings for Russian smugglers, whereas triggering what U.N. World Meals Program director David Beasley on Sept. 15 referred to as a “tsunami of starvation” affecting no less than 345 million folks.
Whereas there’s little proof Ukrainians themselves are below menace of famine, Russia’s warfare of aggression has starved its economic system of export income. In 2021, earlier than Russia’s most up-to-date invasion, Ukraine exported $5 billion price of wheat, corn and vegetable oils — primarily within the Center East, Africa and Asia.
The excessive costs haven’t helped Ukrainian farmers within the occupied areas, who’ve been compelled to promote their harvests to Russian-controlled corporations for half of what they’d have been paid earlier than the warfare, based on Fedorov, the Melitopol mayor. If a farmer refuses, he mentioned, the Russians simply take the grain anyway, paying nothing.
“It’s a very low value, and our farmers don’t perceive what they’ll do,” mentioned Fedorov, who evacuated to Ukrainian-controlled territory after the invasion however retains in contact with folks again residence.
Ukrainian agricultural holding firm HarvEast reported that Russians had taken about 200,000 metric tons of grain, which CEO Dmitry Skornyakov mentioned value his firm about $50 million. He mentioned his staff in the occupied Ukrainian metropolis of Mariupol reported the grain was trucked throughout the border into Russia.
“To steal it, they simply drive to Rostov and Taganrog, small Russian ports, then combine it with the Russian grain and say that that’s Russian grain,” Skornyakov mentioned.
The identical seems to be occurring at sea.
Satellite tv for pc imagery and transponder knowledge reveals giant cargo ships anchored off the Russian coast rendezvousing with smaller ships shuttling grain from each Crimean and Russian ports, obscuring the true origin of the cargo. These bigger ships then carried the blended grain to Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Daniel, the previous naval officer whose firm tracks ships globally, mentioned ship-to-ship transfers of cargo at sea are uncommon, and are often tied to smuggling. “If you’re a sanctioned nation, you could have a way more restricted market,” he mentioned. “So should you don’t mix your cargoes or should you don’t cover your origin, you in all probability have a a lot smaller market and due to this fact a lot lower cost.”
Excessive demand for grain makes it straightforward for Russians to search out consumers, mentioned Oleg Nivievskyi, assistant professor and vice chairman for economics schooling on the Kyiv Faculty of Economics.
“There shall be no drawback to promote the stolen grain from Ukraine in any way,” he mentioned.
Yayla Agro, which makes packaged dried items and ready-to-eat meals usually stocked on the cabinets of Turkish supermarkets, mentioned it purchased 8,800 metric tons of corn delivered by the Russian ship Fedor to the Turkish port of Bandirma on June 17. The cargo could be price about $2.7 million.
In an announcement to AP, Yayla Agro denied it had ever bought grain from the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and mentioned the invoice of lading, certificates of origin and different official paperwork present the ship had been loaded within the port of Kavkaz.
“We wish to stress that our firm is concerned in worldwide commerce, abides by moral guidelines and considers abiding by worldwide regulation as an absolute precedence,” the corporate mentioned. “In the identical vein, (Yayla Agro) meticulously examines whether or not its industrial companions are the topic of any worldwide sanction.”
Satellite tv for pc imagery from June 12 reveals the Fedor was truly loaded in Sevastopol, Crimea.
AnRussTrans, the Russian firm that owns the ship by way of a subsidiary, did not reply to emailed questions. Sergey Dubrov, who answered the cellphone on the firm’s headquarters in Moscow, denied receiving AP’s e-mail and mentioned he would solely reply to written questions.
“I can say one factor,” he added. “The ships completely work on authorized transportation and don’t violate worldwide regulation.”
Yayla additionally confirmed buying 7,000 metric tons of corn from one other Russian ship, SV. Nikolay, on June 24. Satellite tv for pc imagery reveals the ship had docked on the grain terminal in Sevastopol six days earlier, however the firm mentioned its documentation exhibiting the grain had come from Kavkaz.
As with the opposite smuggling ships, each the Fedor and SV. Nikolay are too large to dock at Kavkaz.
Turkey’s position within the theft of Ukrainian grain is especially delicate as a result of the NATO nation has tried to play the position of mediator between the 2 warring nations.
Turkey helped dealer an settlement between Russia and Ukraine in July to permit each nations to export grain and fertilizer by way of secure corridors within the Black Sea. The deal didn’t deal with the grain Russia has taken from occupied areas. Within the final two months Ukrainian officers mentioned greater than 150 ships carrying grain have departed from ports they nonetheless management, together with shipments to Somalia and Yemen, war-torn nations presently going through famine.
But there are additionally indications the Turkish authorities itself could also be a recipient of disputed grain from Ukraine. AP and “Frontline” tracked journeys from Crimea to Turkey by the smuggling ships Mikhail Nenashev, Laodicea and Souria to docks with seaside silos operated by the Turkish Grain Board, a government-run entity that imports and exports grain and different agricultural merchandise.
The board’s press workplace and executives didn’t reply to emails with detailed questions concerning the suspect shipments.
Although Turkish authorities have pledged to cease unlawful smuggling, Turkey’s international minister Mevlut Cavusoglu mentioned in a June information convention his nation had not discovered any proof of theft.
“We’ve acquired such claims,” he mentioned. “And such info is coming from the Ukrainian aspect once in a while. We take each declare critically and examine it critically. … In our investigation on ships’ ports and items’ origins, following claims about Turkey, we noticed the origin data to be Russia.”
Regardless of the data say, the smuggling operation continues.
Crane Marine Contractor’s ship Matros Koshka — named for a Russian sailor lauded as a nationwide hero for his bravery through the Crimean Struggle of 1854 — cruised north final week into the Black Sea with a listed vacation spot of Kavkaz earlier than turning off its transponder and working darkish.
Satellite tv for pc imagery taken Thursday confirmed the 161-meter-long ship (528 ft) had docked as soon as once more on the grain terminal within the occupied Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, little greater than a mile from a Soviet-era statue honoring its namesake.
AP investigative reporters Sarah El Deeb reported from Beirut and Michael Biesecker reported from Washington, and information verification reporter Beatrice Dupuy was in New York. AP reporters Arijeta Lajka in New York, Zoya Shu in Berlin and Ahmad El-Katib in Beirut contributed to this report.
Comply with Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck, El Deeb at twitter.com/seldeeb, and Dupuy at twitter.com/Beatrice_Dupuy
Contact AP’s world investigative workforce at [email protected]
This story was initially printed October 3, 2022 12:14 AM.