ISRP Newsletter – Issue No. 3

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In this issue

  • Powerful new reports provide details on Russian looting of Ukrainian grain.
  • The theft and destruction in Ukraine, Europe’s breadbasket, are having dire effects around the world.
  • Media offer a detailed examination of the voyages of one ship suspected of participating in looting.
  • The roles of a Russian defense contractor – and of Turkey.
  • Putin tries to blame the West for grain shortages. Is Africa listening to him?
  • Like Attila the Hun before them, Russians are now looting Ukraine’s cultural artifacts from its museums.

Extensive Media Reporting Shows How Russia Loots and Launders Valuable Ukrainian Assets

Respected news organizations are releasing major reports on Russia’s illegal looting and laundering of valuable Ukrainian assets.

On Oct. 17, Bloomberg reporters K. Oanh Ha, Aine Quinn, and Samuel Dodge wrote that “satellite images, loading and unloading data compiled from ports and vessel-local transmissions obtained by Bloomberg place ships like Amur 2501 at the heart of what industry experts say is Russian shippers’ illicit commodities trade.”

Amur 2501 is described by Bloomberg as a “small Russian cargo ship” that has been “making curious runs in the Black Sea.” The reporters explain the ship’s modus operandi this way:

It collects grains not just from the Russian port of Azov but also from Sevastopol in sanctions-hit Crimea — a harbor from where Ukraine says almost all departing commodities are stolen from its occupied territories by Kremlin troops. At several points during its trips, Amur 2501 goes dark, with its tracking system not transmitting its location. It then appears to participate in multi-ship transfers of cargo in the open seas off the Russian port of Kavkaz with large vessels that then proceed to countries including Libya and Iran.

Amur 2501 is one of the ships identified by the Initiative for the Study of Russian Piracy (ISRP) in an extensive study in July. That study estimated that 500 million metric tons of grain – including wheat, corn, and barley – have been illegally stolen from Ukraine. (The ISRP is continually updating its information and currently places the estimate at 984,000 tons.) The July ISRP study included a list of 51 “identified Instances of suspected illegal exports of Ukrainian resources,” including ship names, routes, and estimated quantities – a number that now easily eclipses 100.

Amur 2501 was noted in the ISRP study for carrying shipments of grain from Sevastopol on July 8 and 21. In both cases, the ship transferred grain to other carriers at sea, in the Kerch Strait that separates Russia from occupied Crimea. (The 12-mile-long bridge over the strait suffered extensive damage in an attack earlier this month.)

The Bloomberg report quotes Ian Ralby, chief executive of I.R. Consilium, a maritime law and security consultancy, as saying of the Russians and those colluding with them, “They’re using ship-to-ship transfers between legitimate and illegitimate products to mix them in order to try to launder them into a legitimate supply chain. They are working to launder the grain to create a degree of legitimacy or clarity of title so that they can engage in transactions with countries that really need the grains.”

A second major report, which appeared on Oct. 3, was the work of the Associated Press (AP), which is collaborating with the PBS series “Frontline.” The report accused the Russians of using “falsified manifests and seaborne manifests to steal Ukrainian grain worth at least $530 million” in order “to help pay for Putin’s war.” The AP reporters tracked three dozen ships making more than 50 voyages carrying grain from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to ports in Turkey, Lebanon and other countries.”

The story – by Michael Biesecker, Sarah El Deeb and Beatrice Dupuy — is part of an AP/”Frontline” investigation that is the subject of an upcoming documentary, “Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes,” which premieres on local PBS network stations on Oct. 25 at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

The Effects of Piracy in the Breadbasket of Europe (and the World)

With the resurgence of the private sector and deployment of advanced technology, Ukraine re-emerged in recent years as the breadbasket of Europe – and much of the world. Ian Sheldon, an expert in agricultural policy at Ohio State University, wrote:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has returned to its pre-revolutionary share by volume in wheat (10%), barley (13%), corn (15%), and sunflower oil (50%) and is ranked the fifth, second, third, and first largest exporter respectively of these crops.

As Bloomberg reports, exports of Ukrainian grain plummeted after the Russian invasion in February. But, at the same time, “the Russian-occupied enclave of Crimea has shipped more than ten times its usual food-export volumes since March, according to Geneva-based researcher AgFlow…. A group of more than 30 ships have been calling at Sevastopol, some multiple times.”

Much of this activity can be characterized as piracy – Russia stealing Ukrainian grain and transporting it either to Russia or to markets abroad. Bloomberg also reported that “farmers in occupied areas have reported grain being taken away by truck, and visuals from Planet Labs PBC and Maxar Technologies, satellite imagery providers, show convoys arriving from the direction of Ukraine — likely carrying the commodity — and lined up at the grain terminal at Sevastopol.”

Bloomberg quoted Justyna Gudzowska, director of Illicit Finance Policy at The Sentry, a non-profit organization that investigates global corruption networks: “It’s quite an elaborate scheme to hide the illicit origin of the grains, and it’s really a new low to use sanctions-evasion techniques perfected in the Iran and North Korea context on a food item.”

Voyages of the Laodicea

The AP article begins with an episode involving the bulk cargo ship Laodicea, owned by Syria, docking in Lebanon last summer. Ukrainian diplomats said the ship was carrying stolen wheat and barley and asked Lebanon’s prosecutor to impound the vessel. But the prosecutor sided with the Kremlin.

The AP investigation, however, found that the Laodicea was “part of a sophisticated Russian-run smuggling operation…, which legal experts say is a potential war crime.” It is being carried out by “wealthy businessmen and state-owned companies in Russia and Syria, some of them already facing financial sanctions from the United States and European Union.”

The AP reporters wrote that the Laodicea “likely started its journey in the south Ukrainian city of Melitopol, which Russia seized in the early days of the war.” Video on social media on July 9 showed a train pulling up to Melitopol Elevator, where grain was loaded into hopper cars “with the name of the Russian company Agro-Fregat LLC in big yellow letters.”

A week later, a Russian occupation official, Andrey Siguta, held a press conference and proclaimed that the grain would “provide food security” for Russian-controlled regions in Ukraine. (Siguta would be sanctioned by the U.S. on Sept. 15 for overseeing grain theft.) At the same time Siguta was speaking in July, said the AP article, workers loaded flour milled from the unloaded wheat into “large white bags like those delivered by the Laodicea to Lebanon three weeks later.”

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov told the AP that the Russians “are moving vast quantities of grain from the region by train and truck to ports in Russia and Crimea,” and videos on social media show a steady stream of Russian transport trucks moving through occupied areas of Ukraine.

A July 11 satellite image shows the Laodicea tied up at a pier at the Crimean port of Feodosia with its cargo holds being filled with “a white substance from waiting trucks,” said the AP report. The ship’s transponder, which tracks its position, was turned off – a regular practice of smugglers. “Two weeks later,” said the report, “when it arrived at the Lebanese port city Tripoli, [the ship] claimed to be carrying grain from a small Russian port on the other side of the Black Sea.”

The AP obtained a manifest that claimed that the Laodicea took on 10,000 metric tons of “Russian Barley and Russian Flour in Bags.” The shipper was listed as Agro-Fregat and the port of origin as Kavkaz, in Russia.

But, said the AP, “the Laodicea couldn’t have picked up its cargo in Kavkaz, the Russian port listed on the manifest because the port is too shallow to accommodate the ship’s hull – though Feodosia is “easily able to accommodate the big ship.”

The AP tracked 10 voyages by the Laodicea and its sister ships, Souria and Finikia – also identified in the July ISRP report – from the coast of Ukraine to ports in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.

A Russian Defense Contractor Launches Grain Ships Before Putin’s Invasion

“Another company involved in smuggling grain is United Shipbuilding Corp., a Russian state-owned defense contractor that builds warships and submarines for Russia’s navy,” said the AP article, which noted that United bough three cargo ships “just weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine, in a departure from its core business.”

The article recounted the voyage in June of a 560-foot ship called the Mikhail Nenashev, which was captured on satellite being loaded at a Russian grain terminal in Sevastopol, in occupied Crimea, with its transponder turned off. The signal came back on two days later when the ship entered the Black Sea.

A remarkable video, released on YouTube on Oct. 14 by the Ukrainian media organization UA South, focuses on the activity of the Nenashev. The Nenashev arrived at Dortyol, Turkey, where video showed it at a pier owned by MMK Metalurji, a steel producer. “Cranes at the dock can be seen scooping up large bucket loads of grain and dropping it into waiting trucks.”

MMK Metalurji is owned by Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works, headed by the Russian oligarch Viktor Rashnikov, a billionaire close to Putin, said the article. Rashnikov and his company have been sanctioned by the U.S., EU, and U.K.

The company claimed in an email to the AP that the grain came from Port Kavkaz, Russia, but, again, Nenashev’s draught is too deep to dock at Kavkaz.

The article also examined how the Russians obtained Ukrainian grain. They have taken 200,000 metric tons from the Ukrainian agricultural company HarvEast, according to its CEO, Dmitry Skornyakov. His employees in occupied Mariupol reported that the grain was being trucked over the border. “To steal it, they just drive to Rostov and Taganrog, small Russian ports, then mix it with Russian grain and say that it is Russian grain,” Skornyakov said.

In our last newsletter, Russia Theft Watch No. 2, we reproduced Russian ads recruiting truck drivers for such transfers.

Like Bloomberg’s piece, the AP article noted that the scam of mixing Russian and Ukrainian grain to avoid sanctions is a practice happening at sea as well. The ISRP report showed in detail, with imagery, just how transshipment of this nature works.

The AP piece quoted a former naval officer whose company tracks ships globally as saying that ship-to-ship transfers of cargo at sea are rare and usually tied to smuggling. “When you’re a sanctioned country,” he said, “you have a much more limited market, so if you don’t blend your cargoes or if you don’t hide your origin, you probably have a much smaller market and therefore much lower price.”

The article highlighted “Turkey’s role in the theft of Ukrainian grain,” saying it was “particularly sensitive” because Turkey is a NATO country that “tried to play the role of mediator.” Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said in a June press conference that his country had not found evidence of theft. Said Cavusoglu:

We’ve received such claims, and such information is coming from the Ukrainian side from time to time. We take every claim seriously and investigate it seriously…. In our investigation on ships’ ports and goods’ origins, following claims about Turkey, we saw the origin records to be Russia.

But the AP article made it clear that such statements are disingenuous. “Whatever the records say,” the article stated, “the smuggling operation continues.” Bloomberg cited Roman Neyter at the Kyiv School of Economics as estimating that Russia has stolen or destroyed 4.04 million tons of grain and oilseeds valued at about $1.9 billion from Ukrainian territories.

With Food Shortages Looming, 17 African Nations Balk at Condemning Russian Annexation

Although Russia is clearly to blame for the food crisis that millions of people around the world will soon be facing, Vladimir Putin is trying blame the grain shortages and high prices on his antagonists in the West.

In a brief on Oct. 12, Nosmot Gbadamosi, who writes Foreign Policy’s Africa Beat, reported that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba traveled to the Senegalese capital of Dakar to start the first African tour in the history of Ukrainian diplomacy, “part of a charm offensive to get the continent to choose sides in the war.”

Gbadamosi reported that Kuleba had to “cut short his tour …as Russia escalated its bombings of key Ukrainian cities.” The article continued:

Seven countries in the Horn and north of Africa are heavily impacted by the ongoing war because their grain supplies come mainly from Russia and Ukraine. Egypt — which accounts for the majority of Africa’s total wheat imports—gets more than 80 percent from Russia and Ukraine.

There has been a struggle for hearts and minds on the issue of grain shortages and who is to blame for spiraling food costs. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to blame sanctions against Russia — which impact its agricultural sector and export capability — as the primary reason for rising food prices.

The United Nations voted Oct. 12 to condemn Russia for its “attempted illegal annexation” of parts of Ukraine and to call on countries not to recognize the takeover. Only five countries – Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Nicaragua and Syria – voted against the resolution while 143 nations voted in favor.

Disturbing, however, was that of the 35 abstaining countries, 17 were African, including Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. These nations joined others such as China and Cuba in failing to support a clear and brutal violation of international law.

“Moscow has tried to paint Western actions as a form of neo-imperialism,” wrote Gbadamosi, who added that “pressure on African countries to pick a side is causing further divisions between Africa and the United States and Europe.”

Speaking in Senegal, Kubela told Africans, “We will do our best until the last breath to continue exporting Ukrainian grain to Africa and the world for food security.”

Also on Oct. 12, President Biden announced his Administration’s National Security Strategy, which included a section on global food security. “The food insecurity crisis has become particularly dangerous because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which took much of Ukraine’s grain off the market and exacerbated an already worsening global food insecurity problem.”

In a RealClear Defense opinion piece on Oct. 7, Steve Bucci, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, had urged that the National Security Strategy document “address Putin’s piracy tactic, which has sparked fears of widespread engineered famine.”

Russia’s theft has crippled “Ukraine’s already weakened economy,” Bucci, a former Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, wrote. “And when Russia sells these looted assets, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the proceeds are used to bolster Moscow’s war efforts.”

He wrote that taking action against Russia’s theft of grain “will also keep hungry populations around the world in a better place. It is time to send Putin’s pirate ship to Davy Jones’s locker.”

Bucci’s piece also cited Aug. 30 reporting by the ISRP that “Russia has begun dismantling specialized equipment at the Azovstal and Illich factories in Mariupol…. This equipment will likely be taken to Russia to produce semi-finished steel products that may be used in the war effort or to be sold to other countries.”

The author referred to the ISRP’s call for the European Union, Turkey and others to ban all semi-finished steel coming from Russia.

Latter-Day Huns: Russian Looting Extends to Cultural Artifacts as Well

In addition to its theft of grain and other Ukrainian commercial and agricultural assets, Russia has killed thousands of civilians and destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure, homes, offices, shops, and schools. Not satisfied with this barbarism, Russia has also been engaging in “industrial-scale destruction of Ukrainian culture,” Hanna Arhirova of the Associated Press reported on Oct. 9.

As an example, her article described the theft of an “exquisite golden tiara, inlaid with precious stones by master craftsmen some 1,500 years ago.” The tiara “was one of the world’s most valuable artifacts from the blood-letting rule of Attila the Hun, who rampaged with horseback warriors deep into Europe in the 5th century.”

Russian troops stole the “priceless crown and a hoard of other treasures after capturing the Ukrainian city of Melitopol in February, museum authorities say.”

In an interview with the AP, Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, charged that Russian soldiers helped themselves to artifacts in almost 40 Ukrainian museums. The looting and destruction of cultural sites has caused losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a statement on released on Oct. 12 the ISRP condemned the abhorrent actions Ambassador (ret.) James K. Glassman, chief spokesperson for ISRP, said:

Russia’s most recent thefts from Ukraine, and the clear attempts to erase Ukrainian culture and identity, are intolerable crimes. The perpetrators should know: they will be stopped and there will be consequences for their actions. While the U.S. and other governments are working hard to hold bad actors accountable and help bring the Russian invasion to an end, the war continues and war crimes like piracy persist. It’s clear we must do more.

Glassman added, “The ISRP is actively investigating individuals and companies involved in transporting stolen Ukrainian grain, steel and other assets. This piracy aids the Russian war effort and prolongs the bloody conflict. Russian theft continues while Ukrainians and the world pay a heavy price. We urge the U.S. government to take swift action to hold these individuals and entities accountable and expose their behavior to the world.”