(CNN) — A Russian ship loaded with grain stolen from Ukraine has been turned away from at least one Mediterranean port and is now in the Syrian port of Latakia, according to maritime sources and Ukrainian officials.
CNN identified the vessel as the freighter Matros Pozynich.
On April 27, the ship weighed anchor off the Crimean coast and turned off its transponder. The next day she was seen in Crimea’s main port, Sevastopol, according to photographs and satellite images.
The Matros Pozynich is one of three vessels involved in the stolen grain trade, according to investigations by open sources and Ukrainian officials.
Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, produces little wheat due to lack of irrigation. But the Ukrainian regions to the north, occupied by Russian forces since early March, produce millions of tons of grain each year. Ukrainian officials say thousands of tons are being trucked into Crimea.
Kateryna Yaresko, a journalist with the SeaKrime project of the Ukrainian online publication Myrotvorets, told CNN that the project had noted a sharp increase in grain exports from Sevastopol, up to about 100,000 tons in both March and April.
From Sevastopol, according to satellite images and tracking data reviewed by CNN, the Matros Pozynich transited the Bosphorus and headed for the Egyptian port of Alexandria. She was loaded with almost 30,000 tons of (Ukrainian) wheat, according to Ukrainian officials.
But the Ukrainians were one step ahead. Officials say they warned Egypt that the grain was stolen and the shipment was refused. 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 traveled to the Syrian port of Latakia.
The Syrian regime has a close relationship with Russia and the Russian military is frequently in Latakia. In fact, the Matros Pozynich is named after a Russian soldier who died in Syria in 2015.
Mikhail Voytenko, editor-in-chief of the Maritime Bulletin, told CNN that the grain could be reloaded onto another ship in Latakia to disguise its origin. “When the destination port starts to change for no serious reason, this is another evidence of smuggling,” he said.
In its first comments on the illegal export of Ukrainian grain, the Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry denounced on Tuesday that “a significant part of the grain stolen from Ukraine is on ships sailing under the Russian flag 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 the Matros Pozynich is one of three cargo ships registered to a company called Crane Marine Contractor, based in Astrakhan, Russia. The company is not covered by international sanctions.
CNN’s efforts to contact the company were unsuccessful.
Yaresko says the SeaKrime project identified the true owners of the three vessels as one of 29 companies under the umbrella of a large Russian corporation, whose other entities were sanctioned by the United States shortly after the Ukraine invasion.
More grain thefts
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry estimates that at least 400,000 tons of grain have been stolen and taken out of Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Mykola Solsky, Ukraine’s Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food, said this week that “it is sent in an organized way in the direction of Crimea. This is a big deal supervised by people at the highest level.”
CNN reported last week that trucks with Crimean license plates stole 1,500 tons of grain from storage units in Kherson. In Zaporizhia, trucks bearing the white “Z” symbol of the Russian Army were seen transporting grain to Crimea after completely emptying the city’s main grain elevator.
This week, the Ukrainian authorities reported more grain thefts by the occupation forces. The Intelligence Directorate said that in one part of Zaporizhia, stored grain and sunflower seeds were being prepared for transport to Russia. A row of Russian trucks carrying grain had left the city of Enerhodar, also in Zaporizhia, under the surveillance of the Russian military, the Directorate said.
While Russian ships can apparently transport Ukrainian grain on the high seas, Ukrainian farmers have a much harder time exporting their produce. Most of them are usually shipped from Odessa. Although still in Ukrainian hands, Odessa has been the target of frequent missile attacks and much of the Black Sea is closed to commercial shipping.
Ukrainian shippers have diverted some of the grain by rail to Romania, CNN reported last week. But it is not a solution to what is becoming a supply crisis that is already affecting world markets.
Samantha Power, the administrator of USAID, tweeted this week: “Putin’s war is wreaking havoc on the food supply; Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest exporter of corn and fifth of wheat.”
Ukraine and Russia normally supply about 30% of world wheat exports, much of which goes to the world’s poorest countries. Global food prices hit a record high in March, according to the United Nations, fueled largely by the war in Ukraine. Drought in French and Canadian wheat-growing areas threatens to aggravate an already tight supply situation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared 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, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was in Odessa with the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denys Shymal, observing the enormous quantities of grain stored in the port. In a tweet he published photos: “I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn, ready for export. This much needed food is stranded due to the Russian war and the blockade of the Black Sea ports. Causing alarming consequences for the countries vulnerable”.
Trading Economics noted on Wednesday that “wheat prices are 31% higher than before the Russian invasion, as the disruption of Black Sea exports significantly reduced global supply.”
As for the Russians, they seem ready to adapt to the new realities of world markets. The Russian Grain Union has a conference scheduled for June. One of the sessions, according to the Union’s Instagram account, is: “Restrictions to sanctions: how the grain sector adapts to the new reality and why the State reacts to a change of situation with unprecedented speed “.
— CNN’s Josh Pennington and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.