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Russia’s ‘ghost ship’ tactic

The Kremlin is using a method to get the Ukrainian grain out of the country illegally, as their ships avoid being located.

LUBMIN, GERMANY - JULY 11: A police boat motors past the receiving station for the Nord Stream 1 natural gas pipeline on July 11, 2022 near Lubmin, Germany. The pipeline, which transports natural gas from Russia to Germany, is undergoing maintenance for ten days as of today, meaning that gas deliveries have halted. German authorities are unsure whether gas flows will resume after July 21, when the maintenance work is scheduled to end, given current tensions between Germany and Russia over Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine. Germany is seeking to ween itself off Russian gas and oil imports, though it will remain dependent for the near future. Concerns have grown whether Germany will face natural gas shortages this coming winter.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Sean GallupGetty

An investigation by our sister paper, El País, indicates the existence of at least twenty Russian and Syrian ships that turn off the navigation systems to avoid detection and illegally remove wheat from the territories they have occupied in Ukraine. Despite Moscow and Kyiv negotiating to ship all grain stored in Russian-held Ukrainian port cities, the Kremlin has been confiscating it in recent months.

How Russia is evading detection for wheat transportation

In June, the Russian freighter Matros Koshka disappeared from radar in the middle of the Black Sea. The same thing happened with the Laodicea, a Syrian merchant ship. In April, it was the Nadezhda, another from Russia. None of these suffered accidents. Their trail just disappeared before reappearing days later.

When they enter the Black Sea, these vessels are purposefully switching off the transponder, a device that sends their position to the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Its use is mandatory according to the International Maritime Organization. The El País investigation analyzed the navigation data of some twenty ships over the last three months, as well as satellite images and photographs published by activists and observers from Ukrainian ports. The picture painted is clear.

Russia requisitions Ukrainian farms

From the investigation, it appears that at least 16 vessels related to the illegal trafficking of Ukrainian grain have been identified. According to Kyiv, these practices already involve the theft of 500,000 tons of grain. But Russia has also ‘requisitioned’ the farms where the grain is grown.

One of the cases is that of Petro Melnik, director and co-owner of Agricom Group, a company in the occupied province of Luhansk. When the Russian Armed Forces arrived at their farms, they explained to the workers that their management was changing companies. 11,500 hectares of wheat, corn and sunflowers would pass into Russian hands.

Melnik explained that some of the farmers warned him, but that he has not heard from them since: “In all likelihood they will have looted everything and transported it for export.”

Routes used by Russian ships

The Spanish media outlet has identified four routes from where Russia confiscates and moves Ukrainian grain: from Sevastopol to Turkish or Syrian ports, from Kerch to Samsun (Turkey), from Crimean ports to Russia and from Crimean ports to Kerch. From there they transfer the merchandise to ships from various other countries.

One example of this was reported with a vessel with a Panamanian flag and operated by a shipping company from the United Arab Emirates. Other vessels identified were operated directly by Russian state companies under sanctions by the United States and the European Union.