Military Hub or Stolen Goods Transfer Base: How Occupiers Use the Port of Mariupol

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What is known about the operation of the Mariupol port after it was seized by the Russians.

In the results of 2021, the year preceded the full-scale Russian invasion, the operators of the Mariupol seaport processed 6.9 million tons of cargo, of which nearly 5 million tons were metallurgical products. The lion’s share of the cargo was handled by the state stevedore – Mariupol Sea Trade Port State Enterprise – 6.5 million tons, while another 0.4 million tons of handling were attributed to the UkrTransAgro terminal (0.36 million tons) and LLC SRZ.

Since 2014, the cargo base of the port has undergone significant transformations, as the export of coal, clay, and containers ceased due to the war in Donbas initiated by Russia back then. The port began to develop in the direction of food products handling – the only cargo flow that had been steadily growing in recent decades. The UkrTransAgro terminal worked in this direction, and in May-June 2022, the state stevedore planned to launch the first phase of a newly built grain terminal with a capacity of up to 2 million tons per year. The first phase of the terminal was financed by the state enterprise, and the second was supposed to be built in partnership with COFCO.

The full-scale invasion became the second shock for the port city in eight years. As previously mentioned in an interview with CTS Igor Barskyi, the director of the Mariupol Sea Trade Port State Enterprise, in the first weeks of the siege of Mariupol, the enterprise provided food, drinking water, shelter, equipment for emergency response, fuel, and wood for heating for the people.

The first shelling of the port began about a week after the start of the war. At that time, some buildings and warehouses were damaged. However, according to Barsky, the most crucial assets in the port were the quay wall, crane infrastructure, and railway tracks. At the time of the evacuation of the port’s management (in the second half of March 2022), the berths were intact, but the crane infrastructure had already been damaged.

Occupiers do not hide that they use Mariupol and Berdiansk as the main channels for exporting stolen agricultural products from the occupied territories of Ukraine. According to the sources of the occupiers (which should, of course, be critically evaluated), 14 out of 22 berths are in working condition. Information from there indicates that since the beginning of 2023, the port’s cargo flow has amounted to 85 thousand tons. It’s challenging to verify this data. However, OSINT observations and data from Ukrainian official sources can still provide a certain picture of what is happening in the port of the main city of Ukrainian Azov Sea coast.

“It sounds extensive unless you start counting. The only class of ships entering the port is RM 3 (river-sea) with a maximum load of 5,000 tons. In reality, the average load is 3,500 tons. Let’s calculate 85,000 tons / 3,500 tons = 24 vessels. Taking into account that both arrivals to the port and departures from the port are counted in the cargo flow, it turns out that there are as many as 12 vessels. So, in just 9 months of 2023, a maximum of 12 vessels passed through the port. Considering that you are well aware of almost each one, 12 vessels don’t look like a significant port victory. That’s why Russians are trying to hide the statistics about Mariupol as much as possible,” writes Petro Andriushchenko, an advisor to the Mayor of Mariupol.

According to his Telegram channel, which is one of the few sources of information about the occupied Mariupol from the legitimate officials, you can track the frequency of visits to the port by Russian trade (and not only) vessels.

Only this year, occupiers have exported stolen metallurgical products, ore, and grain from Ukraine through the Mariupol port to Rostov-on-Don or for transshipment in Kerch. For example, in March, the export of ore from the Zaporizhzhia iron ore plant was recorded through the port. The theft of metal and ore through the port has been documented multiple times – in addition to mentioned, at least rolled metal and reinforcement were exported through it. The scale of the theft of Ukrainian metal by the occupiers using satellite images was recorded in July. It became known that the Russians and collaborators had stolen and exported hot-rolled coils worth $25 million.

Regarding grain theft, as Andriushchenko points out, a scheme is used where after loading a “river-sea” class vessel from Mariupol, it moves for transshipment in the Kerch area, where it is transferred to larger-capacity seagoing vessels. According to him, this scheme was agreed upon last year with Syria’s participation. “So, from these waters, it’s no longer Russian but Syrian, Maltese, or any other vessel under an offshore flag... In this way, they 'cleanse' various goods. They were doing this before the full-scale invasion, and we believe they are still doing it now,” says the advisor to the Mariupol’s Mayor.

The movements of vessels to the port of Mariupol for grain are tracked by Ukrainian observers at least several times a month. The vessel “Mezhdurechensk” was most frequently noticed in this regard. Periodically, this and other vessels allegedly bring construction materials for the city’s reconstruction, which, in fact, are used by the occupation authorities to deceive the local population or build fortifications to repel a possible offensive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Most of the Russian trade vessels recorded in the port of Mariupol belong to RosKapStroy, which is de facto controlled by Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

In general, it is evident that Russia has plans to turn the city into a major logistics hub for the export of grain, metallurgical products, and possibly clay and limestone from the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions. To achieve this goal, the occupiers have initiated the reconstruction of the railway station and the seaport. For the “full-scale” launch of the port, the occupation authorities are making significant efforts, involving “migrants” from Novorossiysk.

This is a concerning signal, also from a military perspective, as experts consider it obvious that the transshipment of non-military cargo in the Mariupol port is a “smokescreen” and cover for a much more important mission of the occupiers – turning the seaport into a hub for supplying weapons to Russian units in the south and east of Ukraine.

Several factors support this claim. Firstly, as reported by the Center for National Resistance in June, a headquarters for the creation of the Azov Military Maritime District by the Russians was being formed in Mariupol as part of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It was planned to equip it partially with ships from the Black Sea Fleet and partially with ships from the Russian Navy’s Caspian Flotilla.

In the area of the ASRZ (shipyard close to the port’s territory), unusual activity of helicopters has been observed since the beginning of September, which may indicate the establishment of a Russian military helicopter landing site. To support the theory of transforming Mariupol into a military logistics base, Andriushchenko cites indirect arguments. He mentions that locomotives have been put into operation in the port. Unfortunately, this is another sign that in the coming months, they may start operating at a level sufficient to address military logistical issues.

The overall logic is to utilize the Mariupol port for supplying weapons to the occupiers on the Volnovakha-Vuhledar line. The supply route would appear as follows: Mariupol Port – railway to the Volnovakha railway junction, optionally – road transport of weapons from Mariupol to the Berdiansk direction.

Observers, who are analyzing open-source data and the testimony of local residents, believe that there is a high likelihood of military cargo and personnel being delivered to Mariupol, possibly using large landing warships. This is linked to the regular appearance of enemy resources in Mariupol, which are then transported towards the conflict lines in the south of Ukraine.

According to Yevhen Dykyi, the former deputy commander of the “Aidar” battalion, Russian military personnel are currently using large landing ships not for their intended purpose but as “improvised ferries for transporting armored vehicles from mainland Russia to the occupied Ukrainian territories.” This approach makes sense now but will become even more crucial if the Ukrainian Armed Forces manage to deal a devastating blow to the Crimean Bridge, Dykyi believes.

Based on publicly available data, Ivan Kyrychevskyi, an expert from the Defense Express military portal, told CFTS that it is likely that the Russians began organizing the delivery of military cargo and units through the Mariupol port no later than the autumn of 2022. “The occupiers began to carry out military logistics, which is usually referred to as 'express.' Just like during the Second World War, the Japanese transported cargo for speed with destroyers,” he says. In Russia’s case, their large landing ships are suitable for this purpose, taking into account various parameters, from equipment that allows unloading wheeled or tracked vehicles without the use of crane equipment to the draft of the ships. The draft of the Russian Black Sea Fleet large landing ships does not exceed 4.5 meters. The same draft have the vessels whose movements in the Mariupol port for grain are not concealed by the occupiers (for example, the “Mezhdurechensk”). It is likely that vessels with such shallow draft are used due to the inability to fully clear the port’s waterway (before the full-scale invasion, the port could accommodate ships with a draft of up to 8 meters).