A Russian merchant ship loaded with grain stolen in Ukraine has been turned away from at least one Mediterranean port and is now in the Syrian port of Latakia, according to shipping sources and Ukrainian officials.
CNN has identified the vessel as the bulk carrier Matros Pozynich.
On April 27, the ship weighed anchor off the coast of Crimea and turned off the transponder. The next day it was seen in the port of Sevastopol, the main port of Crimea, according to photos and satellite images.
The Matros Pozynich is one of three ships involved in the trade in stolen grain, according to open source research and Ukrainian officials.
Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, produces little wheat due to a lack of irrigation. But Ukraine’s northern regions, occupied by Russian troops since early March, produce millions of tons of grain every year. Ukrainian officials say thousands of tons are now being shipped to Crimea.
Kateryna Yaresko, a journalist with Ukrainian online publication Myrotvorets’ SeaKrime project, told CNN that the project had noticed a sharp increase in grain exports from Sebastopol — reaching about 100,000 tons in both March and April.
From Sebastopol, according to satellite images and tracking data reviewed by CNN, the Matros Pozynich sailed through the Bosphorus and made its way to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. According to Ukrainian officials, it was loaded with nearly 30,000 tons of (Ukrainian) wheat.
But the Ukrainians were one step ahead. Officials say Egypt was warned the grain had been stolen; the shipment was rejected. The Pozynich steamed towards the Lebanese capital Beirut, with the same result.
The Matros Pozynich turned its transponder off again on May 5, but footage from Tankertrackers.com and Maxar Technologies shows it traveling to the Syrian port of Latakia.
The Syrian regime has close ties to Russia and the Russian military is regularly in Latakia. Indeed, the Matros Pozynich is named after a Russian soldier who was killed in Syria in 2015.
Mikhail Voytenko, editor-in-chief of the Maritime Bulletin, told CNN the grain may be loaded onto another ship in Latakia to disguise its origin. “If the destination port starts to change for no serious reason, this is new evidence of smuggling,” he said.
In its initial comments on the illegal export of Ukrainian grain, Defense Ministry intelligence said on Tuesday that “a significant amount of 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,” it says.
Shipping records show that the 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 attempts to reach 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 major Russian company, whose other entities were sanctioned by the United States shortly after the Russian invasion.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry estimates that at least 400,000 tons of grain have been stolen and taken from Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Mykola Solsky, Ukraine’s Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food, said this week it is being “steered towards Crimea in an organized manner. This is a large company that is supervised by people of the highest level.”
CNN reported last week that trucks with Crimean license plates had stolen 1,500 tons of grain from storage units in Kherson. In Zaporizhzhya, trucks with the white “Z” symbol of the Russian army were spotted transporting grain to Crimea after the city’s main grain elevator was completely emptied.
This week, the Ukrainian authorities reported more grain thefts by the occupying forces. The intelligence said that in part of Zaporizhzhya, grain and sunflower seeds in storage were being prepared for transport to Russia. A column of Russian grain trucks had left the city of Enerhodar – also in Zaporizhzhya – under Russian army guard, the directorate said.
While Russian ships can apparently carry Ukrainian grain on the high seas, Ukrainian farmers find it much more difficult to export their products. Much of it would normally be shipped from Odessa. Though still in Ukrainian hands, Odessa has suffered frequent rocket attacks and much of the Black Sea is off limits to merchant shipping.
Ukrainian shippers have diverted some grain to Romania by rail, CNN reported last week. But it is hardly a solution to what is becoming a supply crisis that is already impacting global markets.
USAID administrator Samantha Power tweeted this week: “Putin’s war wreaks havoc on food supplies; Ukraine is the number 4 exporter of maize in the world and the number 5 exporter of wheat.”
Ukraine and Russia normally supply about 30% of the world’s wheat exports, much of which goes to the world’s poorest countries. Global food prices hit an all-time high in March, driven largely by the war in Ukraine, according to the United Nations. Drought in the wheat regions of France and Canada threatens to exacerbate 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 brink of food shortages.”
That same day, European Council President Charles Michel was in Odessa with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shymal to look at the vast amounts of grain stored in the port.
He tweeted photos, saying: “I saw silos full of grain, wheat and maize ready for export. This much-needed food has been stranded by the Russian war and blockade of the Black Sea ports. With dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries.”
Trading Economics noted on Wednesday that “wheat prices are 31% higher than before the Russian invasion, as interrupted exports from the Black Sea significantly reduced world supply.”
The Russians seem ready to adapt to the new realities in world markets. The Russian Grain Union has a conference scheduled for June. One of the sessions, according to the Union’s Instagram account, is: “Sanction restrictions – how the grain sector is adapting to the new reality and why the state is reacting with unprecedented speed to a change in the situation.”
CNN’s Josh Pennington and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.