The vast majority of Ukraine’s stored grain is awaiting export from its large Black Sea terminals, which have been shuttered by a Russian naval blockade. A small amount is trickling out of the country via its land borders to the west, and a bit more is being carried out via its Danube River ports on the Romanian border. Unfortunately, according to the Ukrainian government, hundreds of thousands of tonnes are also being taken by Russian occupying forces, with little to no compensation for farmers.
Several independent investigations have documented an abnormal surge in grain shipments out of the Russian-occupied port of Sevastopol, which has historically handled little outbound grain. According to an investigation by the Financial Times, an estimated 140,000 tonnes of grain were loaded on bulkers and exported from Sevastopol in May alone. In a separate investigation, Russian truckers interviewed by the Wall Street Journal explained how they have been contracted to carry grain from newly-occupied areas of Ukraine to Sevastopol.
According to Windward, there has been a 160 percent increase in AIS-dark activity in the Black Sea for Russian- and Syrian-flagged vessels over the past year, the majority since the start of the invasion. In recent months, most of the “dark” voyages that started in the Sea of Azov have ended in Turkey or Bulgaria, with a small number headed to Syria.
In addition to the traffic in and out of Sevastopol, Russian-flagged and open-registry bulkers appear to be meeting with one to four other vessels in clusters in the Kerch Port anchorage, and satellite imagery shows clear evidence of STS transfers in progress.
The company’s proprietary AIS- and satellite-based tracking intelligence has identified a pattern of suspicious ship-to-ship grain transfers in the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait, where small bulkers are meeting up with larger vessels to hand off cargo for export.
“Dark” STS transfers are a familiar sanctions-evasion strategy used in the tanker industry. There are legitimate reasons for STS transfers of grain in the Sea of Azov, like moving cargo from the region’s ubiquitous river-sea class barges onto seagoing bulkers – but when conducted in combination with “dark” activity it could suggest handling of illegitimate cargoes.
In an example from June 10, Windward identified a cluster of five vessels – two small bulkers, one midsize bulker and two service vessels – all rafted up in the Kerch Strait. The two small bulkers spent an extended period of time operating dark in the Sea of Azov, turning on their AIS transcievers on the Don River. Based on their reported drafts, they appear to have loaded grain at the Russian port of Azov.
The large vessel increased its AIS reported draft from 6.2 to 9.9 meters after the meeting (a sign of laden condition), then headed to Metalurji, Turkey, where it updated its draft back down to 6.2 meters (a sign it had offloaded cargo). This ship has since made similar trips, but ending in Libya.
One of the smaller vessels has since made a trip to Ukraine, according to Windward.
“In addition to a proliferation of dark activities in the Black Sea area since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are now witnessing coordinated cargo ship-to-ship meetings involving multiple ships in what looks like a clear attempt to evade restrictions and sanctions via smuggling,” warned Windward. “It is now clear to every shipping stakeholder dealing with trade that deceptive shipping practices and risk mitigation are relevant to all vessels and types of commodities – oil is no longer the main driver of the maritime economy.”