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

CNN identified the ship as the Matros Pozynich bulk carrier.

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

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

Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, produces little grain due to a lack of irrigation. But the northern Ukrainian regions, occupied by Russian forces since the beginning of March, produce millions of tons of wheat every year. Ukrainian officials say thousands of tons are now being transported to the Crimea.

Kateryna Yaresko, a SeaKrime project reporter for Ukrainian online publication Myrotvorets, told CNN that the project noted a sharp rise in grain exports from Sevastopol, to around 100,000 tons in both March and April.

From Sevastopol, according to satellite images and tracking data examined by CNN, the Matros Pozynich transited the Bosphorus and headed for the Egyptian port of Alexandria. It was loaded with nearly 30,000 tons of (Ukrainian) grain, according to Ukrainian officials.

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But the Ukrainians were one step ahead. Officials say Egypt has been warned that the grain has been stolen; the shipment was rejected. The Pozynich headed for the Lebanese capital, Beirut, with the same result.

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

The Syrian regime has close relations with Russia and the Russian army is often found in Latakia. In fact, the Matros Pozynich is named after a Russian soldier killed in Syria in 2015.

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

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

In its initial comments on the illicit export of Ukrainian wheat, the defense ministry’s intelligence directorate said Tuesday that “a significant portion of the grain stolen from Ukraine is on Russian-flagged ships 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 that Matros Pozynich is one of three bulk carriers registered with a company called Crane Marine Contractor, based in Astrakhan, Russia. The company is not subject to international sanctions.

CNN’s efforts to reach the company were unsuccessful.

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

More grain thefts

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimates that at least 400,000 tons of wheat were stolen and brought out of Ukraine by the Russian invasion. Mykola Solsky, Ukrainian Minister for Agricultural Policy and Food, said this week he was “sent in an organized way to the Crimea. This is a big deal that is overseen by people of the highest level.”

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

This week, Ukrainian authorities reported more grain thefts by occupation forces. The intelligence directorate said that in one part of Zaporizhzhia wheat and sunflower seeds were being prepared in storage for transport to Russia. A column of Russian trucks carrying grain had left the city of Enerhodar – also in Zaporizhzhia – under the guard of the Russian army, the management said.

While Russian ships are apparently capable of transporting Ukrainian grain on the high seas, Ukrainian farmers find it much more difficult to export their produce. Much of it would normally be shipped from Odesa. While still in Ukrainian hands, Odesa was subject to frequent missile attacks and much of the Black Sea is off-limits for merchant shipping.

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

Ukrainian shippers hijacked grain by rail to Romania, CNN reported last week. But it is certainly not a solution to what is becoming a supply crisis that is already having an impact on world markets.

Samantha Power, the administrator of USAID, tweeted this week: “Putin’s war is devastating food supplies; Ukraine is the 4th largest exporter of corn in the world and the 5th exporter of wheat.”

Ukraine and Russia normally supply about 30% of the world’s grain exports, much of which goes to the poorest countries in the world. According to the United Nations, global food prices hit a record high in March, driven in large part by the war in Ukraine. Drought in the grain-growing areas of France and Canada threatens to exacerbate an already difficult supply situation.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday that “Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortages.”

On the same day, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was in Odesa with the Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shymal, looking at the enormous quantities of grain stored in the port.

He tweeted photographs, saying, “I have seen silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export. This desperately needed food is blocked due to the Russian war and the blockade of the Black Sea ports. dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries “.

Trading Economics noted Wednesday that “wheat prices are 31% higher than before the Russian invasion, as exports disrupted by the Black Sea have significantly reduced world supply.”

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

Josh Pennington contributed to this report.