Russia’s ghost ships and the evolution of a grain-smuggling operation
A joint investigation with Bellingcat and Scripps News reveals Russia’s evolving tactics to export grain from occupied Ukraine, including a new direct route to southern Iran
The seaborne export of grain from Russia-occupied territories using deceptive shipping practices is becoming more complicated as the operation grows, analysis of open-source data and vessel tracking reveals
The video publication can be accessed here.
ON JUNE 3, 2023, bulk carrier Mikhail Nenashev (IMO: 9515539) was heading north in the Black Sea towards the Kerch Strait between occupied Crimea and Russia. The 169 metre-long handysize vessel has long been of interest to ship and sanction watchers. It is one of several that has been accused of transporting grain from occupied eastern Ukraine via the sanctioned port of Sevastopol in Crimea.
According to Automatic Identification System data, which allows the position of vessels to be monitored, Mikhail Nenashev’s destination was the port of Kavkaz in Russia. That same AIS data suggests the ship waited in anchorage in the southern area of the Kerch Strait, in what is known as the Kavkaz ship-to-ship transfer area, between June 3 and 16.
But on June 16 it disappeared from ship monitoring services, going dark and creating what is known as an AIS gap.
There are many reasons for a vessel to not transmit an AIS position, some of which are legitimate, such as technical issues and concerns over safety.
The deliberate disabling of AIS without legitimate cause is considered a deceptive shipping practice. It is a common tactic for those evading sanctions or engaging in illicit activities.
Lloyd’s List and its investigative partners checked satellite imagery from Kavkaz as well as other nearby Russian ports such as Novorossiysk during this period but could not see a vessel that was an obvious match for Mikhail Nenashev. Satellite imagery from its last known coordinates in the Kerch Strait also drew a blank.
However, Mikhail Nenashev had not disappeared completely.
At the port of Sevastopol, just under a day’s sailing time away from the Kerch Strait, a bulk carrier that had the same dimensions, colourings and features as Mikhail Nenashev appeared on satellite imagery outside the Avlita grain terminal — a site that has been targeted by Western sanctions.
Between June 21 and June 24, it appeared that the vessel was being loaded with grain. By June 25 it was no longer visible in satellite pictures and a different bulk carrier appeared in dock at the terminal.
On June 26, Mikhail Nenashev’s AIS signal reappeared just south of the Kerch Strait as it headed back out into the Black Sea.
It was soon captured on film as it passed through the Bosporus in Istanbul, Türkiye, on June 28.
AIS data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence showed that Mikhail Nenashev crossed the Mediterranean on July 5 before entering the Suez Canal and making passage through the Red Sea. It headed east through the Gulf of Aden on July 12 before moving on towards the Middle East Gulf.
On July 20, it arrived at its destination at the port of Bandar Khomeni in southern Iran.
Satellite imagery showed the vessel docked with its hatches open and grain visible. AIS data further confirmed its positioning there, and a comparison to the ship that had docked in Sevastopol again appears to match.
A change in draught from 9.6 metres when Mikhail Nenashev entered Bandar Khomeni compared to six metres when it left suggests its carrying weight had decreased — likely signalling at least part of its cargo was offloaded there. Trucks lined up beside the vessel and grain spilled along the pier also seems to signify this was indeed the case, as can be seen in a wider version of the image here.
Bellingcat sought to ask Crane Marine Contractor, which operates Mikhail Nenashev, about the vessel’s journey and what it was carrying but did not receive a response before publication. The port in Sevastopol did not respond to emailed requests for comment, nor did the Avlita grain terminal. Emails to the port authority in Bandar Khomeini bounced back while a listed phone number appeared to be disconnected.
Mikhail Nenashev is just one of many Russian vessels that have sought to surreptitiously transport grain from Crimea since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion, although this is the first known capture of one of these vessels seemingly going direct to Iran.
Investigations in 2022 by the likes of the BBC, CNN, Associated Press, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, Sky News and the Financial Times have all reported on grain being exported from sanctioned Crimea. Russia has previously denied exporting grain from occupied Ukraine and the Russian government did not respond to emailed request for comment regarding this article. But some in occupied Ukraine appear to have spoken openly about the practice. In June 2022, the head of Russian Crimea was reported to have stated that grain from occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia was being transported to and exported via Sevastopol. A March 2023 news report from a Sevastopol television station, meanwhile, detailed how grain grown in the occupied Melitopol region was being exported from Sevastopol. However, this is just a fraction of the full story.
Such actions are in contravention of United States, European Union and United Kingdom sanctions that have targeted exports from Crimea and Sevastopol. The UK has even specifically targeted grain stolen from eastern Ukraine.
A new investigation by Lloyd’s List, in partnership with Scripps News and Bellingcat, can further reveal:
- • The identity of at least 10 ships that have surreptitiously visited Sevastopol to load up on grain. Some, although not all, are likely being looked at in detail for the first time.
- • A small number of vessels have been going back and forth from Sevastopol to secretly deliver grain direct to ports. AIS tracking data and previous media investigations suggest these ships were likely going to Syria and Turkey in the first year of the invasion. But it now appears Iran is a destination for these vessels as well.
- • Smaller vessels (each around 100m in length) transported grain from Sevastopol to the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway situated between Crimea and Russia, where they performed ship-to-ship transfers with vessels that would then go on to deliver the grain elsewhere. This likely helped disguise the origin of grain from eastern Ukraine.
- • An analysis of satellite imagery and AIS data from Lloyd's List Intelligence shows STS transfers in the Kerch Strait have increased dramatically since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion, although there may be several reasons for this
- • Satellite images taken in 2023 show that Russian ships also appear to have been exporting grain from other ports in Crimea and occupied territories such as Feodosia, Mariupol, Berdyansk and Kerch
These findings appear to show the ever increasing complexity of Russia’s operation to move grain from occupied eastern Ukraine out into the wider world.
Russia recently exited the Black Sea grain deal that allowed certain agricultural products from Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest and most important grain exporters, to traverse the Black Sea unmolested. Since the collapse of the agreement in mid-July the number of ships leaving from Ukrainian ports such as Odesa has come to a standstill.
But grain ships are still travelling to and from Russian ports, as well as sanctioned ports in occupied Ukraine. Ships taking part in journeys to and from the latter also continue to go to significant lengths to mask their operations.
Direct to port
In many of the most prominent cases of grain being exported from sanctioned Crimea, media reports detailed how a fleet of handysize bulk carriers such as the Mikhail Nenashev, Matros Shevchenko (IMO: 9574195), Matros Koshka (IMO: 9550137) and Matros Pozynich (IMO: 9573816) were pictured in Sevastopol with their AIS disabled.
They would then head out into the Black Sea, where AIS would be switched on, before passing through the Bosporus and sailing down towards the Mediterranean. AIS signals for these ships would consistently stop just north of Cyprus for a period of a few weeks before coming back online as the ships headed back north (with a lighter draught) towards the Black Sea.
Many media reports have suggested these vessels were headed to Syria, while Syria-flagged vessels have also been spotted on satellite imagery loading grain at Sevastopol. The general cargoship Souria (IMO: 9274331) and bulker Finikia (IMO: 9385233), for example, were visible in images from Sevastopol observed by Lloyd’s List.
Some of these voyages were reported in the summer of 2022. The Financial Times, meanwhile, highlighted how a Russia-flagged 9,200 dwt bulk carrier named Fedor (IMO: 9431977) had seemingly transported grain from Sevastopol to Bandirma in Türkiye. Sky News also reported tracking one journey made by Mikhail Nenashev from Sevastopol to the Turkish port of Iskenderun. Lloyd’s List was able to identify Fedor at Sevastopol on a number of other occasions as well.
By the summer of 2023, Lloyd’s List and its partners had spotted at least two vessels that appeared to have gone from Sevastopol to Bandar Khomeini in Iran. As well as the Mikhail Nenashev, AIS data and satellite imagery allowed Bellingcat to track Matros Shevchenko all the way to Iran between early July and mid-August.
A satellite image captured on August 15 showed the vessel unloading grain at Bandar Khomeini. At this stage, the vessel had its AIS switched on. The key features of the ship, including the number of cranes, its colouring, fixtures and distinctive helipad matched on the ground images of Matros Shevchenko, as well as satellite images of the vessel being loaded at Sevastopol a few weeks prior (where it kept its AIS switched off). Both ships have a carrying capacity of 28,000 dwt so if they were operating at full capacity, and if they offloaded their full cargo, then 56,000 tons of grain from occupied Ukraine has been transferred to Iran in the past eight weeks alone.
Emails to the port of Bandar Khomeini as well as the port operator and terminal where Matros Shevchenko was docked went unanswered. A number for the port operator was also disconnected. Like Mikhail Nenashev, Matros Shevchenko is operated by Crane Marine Contracting which did not respond to request for comment.
On other occasions, Lloyd’s List and its investigative partners noticed a series of smaller vessels (roughly between 100m and 140m in length) pitching up at the Avlita terminal. Some of these are visible in this interactive which details satellite image captures from the Avlita grain terminal over the first year of Russia’s full invasion.
Bloomberg reported last year that one of these vessels, the 3,340 dwt general cargoship Amur 2501 had taken on grain at Sevastopol in early July before heading to the Kerch Strait where it conducted an STS transfer, effectively offloading the grain it was carrying on to another vessel while at sea. This other vessel then went on to deliver its cargo, masking the true origin of its cargo.
A slight variation on this practice would see ships waiting in the Kerch Strait before taking on grain from vessels arriving from Sevastopol and ports in Russia’s Sea of Azov. This scenario would see grain originating from both Ukraine and Russia mixed together on board before the receiving ship would head off to make a delivery.
This practice further obfuscates the origin of cargo and allows Russia to disguise its operations in exporting grain occupied eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
The Wall Street Journal reported late last year that the 138m-long 4,038 dwt general cargoship M.Andreev (IMO: 8946377) had met with the 76,600 dwt bulker Emmakris II (IMO: 9254575), (which has since been renamed Ice Queen) in the Kerch Strait on June 14, 2022. The newspaper highlighted intelligence reports that placed M.Andreev in Sevastopol in the days prior. Bellingcat analysed satellite imagery and found that a vessel consistent with the measurements and appearance of M.Andreev had indeed been present in Sevastopol on June 13.
Following its STS with M.Andreev, the Emmakris II appeared to conduct transfers with a number of other ships that had come from Russian ports.
In early July, Emmakris II set sail from the Kerch Strait, passing through the Bosporous and Suez Canal. However, it is not known where Emmakris II unloaded its cargo as it switched off its AIS on July 22 just off the coast of Oman. It reappeared suddenly in the Middle East Gulf at coordinates 27.24639, 51.93333 on September 5 before heading back to the port of Novorossiysk in Russia. The UAE-based MFCC Shipping DMC, which was listed as the third-party operator of the Emmakris II at the time, did not respond to request for comment from Lloyd's List. Nor did the owner or operator of M.Andreev.
Lloyd’s List and partners identified several other incidents where ships that had been captured on satellite imagery in Sevastopol turned up in the Kerch Strait a few hours or days later. It was not always possible to observe ship-to-ship transfers as, on many occasions, AIS appears to have been switched off by vessels while in the Kerch Strait. For example 3,330 dwt general cargoship Lavrion (IMO: 8729195), appeared to have docked at Sevastopol on satellite imagery on August 8, 2022.
The ship (seen above), is the same length and breadth as Lavrion. Key features — such as the number of holds, its colour, the shape of the bridge, the chimneys as well as the placements of the lifeboats — also match.
Furthermore, Lavrion was documented in an on the ground photo dated to August 8 that was uploaded to the Fleet Photo website (Lloyd's List cannot embed this picture for copyright reasons). This image even showed grain pouring into the hold of Lavrion. However, it was not possible to confirm where Lavrion delivered this grain or if it took part in a STS transfer. Lavrion did not transmit AIS until three weeks later when it appeared to be operating hundreds of miles away in the Sea of Azov, likely returning to the Kerch Strait after visiting Rostov-on-Don in Russia.
It is important to note that only a small number of STS transfers in the Kerch Strait details appear to be suspicious or an exchange of grain coming from occupied Ukraine. The vast majority of vessels that enter the Kerch Strait to carry out transfers appear to be coming from Russia. Alexandros Glykas, a director at Dynamarine co which specialises in risk assurance for ship-to-ship transfers, told Bellingcat this type of transaction regularly occurs in the Kerch Strait due to draught restrictions and because many large vessels cannot traverse the shallower waters there. They therefore need smaller feeder vessels to bring cargo from the Sea of Azov ports like Rostov-on-Don out to them.
This supply chain has been in operation for over 20 years and is used to export oil and oil products as well as bulk commodities, mainly grain, to foreign markets. However, this highlights another difficulty in picking out those STS transfers that may have originated from occupied Ukraine.
According to Glykas, the fact that there are so many legitimate ship to ship transfers occurring provides a useful cover for ships that are arriving from ports sanctioned by western nations in occupied Ukraine to carry out their own transfers.
Analysis by Lloyd’s List and its investigative partners found that since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine there have been over 6,000 STS transfers carried out in the Kerch Strait.
New tactics in 2023
Russia’s secret grain operation does not appear to have slowed down in recent months.
However, monitoring it in the same manner has become harder.
More and more ships appear to be turning off AIS tracking while in the Kerch Strait. This is perhaps understandable given the previous targeting of the Crimea Bridge and more recent attacks on a Russian tanker and warship at the nearby Novorossiysk port.
Rosmorrechflot, Russia's Federal Agency for Sea and Inland Water Transport was contacted about the significant decrease in AIS transmissions in the Kerch Strait but did not respond.
Yet Lloyd's List and its investigative partners also identified what appeared to be vessels loading grain at several other ports in either Crimea or occupied eastern Ukraine. Some of these observations seem to show evolving tactics for moving grain out of occupied Ukraine.
For example, a logistics route that ferries construction materials and agricultural goods between Mariupol and Rostov on Don was launched in May with the trade lane operated by RosKapStroy, a company that carries out construction work under Russia’s Ministry of Construction.
Vessels load building materials in Rostov which are delivered to Mariupol. The ships then return to Rostov loaded with grain from “the new territories of the Russian Federation”, according to a press release from RosKapStroy.
Russia-flagged 2,000 dwt general cargoship Mezhdurechensk (IMO: 8948167) was the first vessel employed on this route, according to the press release.
Mezhdurechensk’s early journeys to the occupied port of Mariupol took place off the radar, with no AIS data available for the vessel during the periods it is thought to have docked at the port.
However, in recent months the vessel can be tracked for parts or all of its voyage between Rostov and Mariupol.
A satellite image on July 29, 2023, showed Mezhdurechensk docked in Mariupol with its cargo hold open and a yellow, grain-like substance visible both inside and on the pier alongside it. Its position at the time the photo was taken matched AIS data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence.
Mezhdurechensk has made seven calls to Mariupol with its AIS on since mid-June, according to vessel-tracking data.
It is not known where the grain that may have been carried by the Mezhdurechensk ended up after it was shipped to Rostov on Don. But it is noteworthy that many vessels depart from Rostov on Don before carrying out ship to ship transfers in the Kerch Strait. On other occasions, vessels coming from Rostov on Don make delivery direct to other foreign ports.
In Berdyansk, which like Mariupol looks out along the Sea of Azov, ships could be seen on satellite imagery. In early July, the self-proclaimed governor of the occupied Zaporizhzhia Oblast Yevgeny Balitsky stated on Telegram that dry cargo ships with grain were leaving the Berdyansk dock. Lloyd’s List and its partners saw ships docked there in satellite images.
However, it was not possible to identify any of the vessels from satellite imagery alone. No AIS signals were available for the position of the ships in the images at the time the satellite images were taken.
In the Crimean ports of Kerch and Feodosia, meanwhile, ships could be seen loading yellow, grain-like substances throughout the summer of 2023. Several reports had noted these locations were being used to export grain from occupied Ukraine in 2022, but the process appears to be continuing. Lloyd’s List and its partners were able to obtain lower resolution satellite imagery of these shipments but other, higher quality versions are also available.
Interestingly, Lloyd’s List and its investigative partners noted fewer 100m to 140m vessels docking at the Avlita terminal in Sevastopol over the summer of 2023. However, larger vessels like the Mikhail Nenashev, Matros Koshka, Matros Pozynich and Matros Shevchenko all appear to continue to show up regularly in satellite images. This could suggest that fewer vessels are now conducting STS transfers after docking at the Avlita grain terminal.
However, another section of the Port of Sevastopol appears to also be quietly attracting ships in the 100m to 140m size range. The pro-Ukrainian, and often controversial, activist website Myrotvorets reported in 2022 that ships appeared to docking in Kamyshovaya Bay to pick up grain, something that was also noted by a report from the Initiative for the Study of Russian Piracy (which describes itself as “a group of former US government officials, international trade experts, national security experts, and research analysts concerned by the immediate and long-term impacts of Russia’s theft of Ukrainian assets”).
Bellingcat and its investigative partners first noticed an 89m vessel with a carrying capacity of 2,700 dwt named Altarf (IMO: 9100190) had visited this location in late October and November 2022 with its AIS switched on. There was no available satellite imagery on the dates it visited to provide a visual confirmation of its presence. However vessel tracking data shows it did head towards the Kerch Strait after leaving Sevastopol on both occasions.
Throughout the summer of 2023, ships could be seen coming and going from Kamyshovaya Bay.
As confirmation of the ship’s identities seen at this location could not be determined beyond doubt by time of publication, it was not possible to deduce or follow these ships to where their cargo had been delivered or exchanged.
AIS for these vessels remained switched off the entire time they were in Kamyshovaya Bay. Yet their presence, previous reporting and supporting satellite imagery, suggests this could be yet another exit point for grain coming from occupied Crimea. It must also be noted, though, that Kamyshovaya Bay is also reported to be a location where scrap metal and other goods are shipped from as well.
Bellingcat contacted the State Unitary Enterprise of the Crimean Republic Crimean Seaports to ask about the presence of ships at Sevastopol, Kerch, Feodosia, Mariupol and Berdyansk but did not receive a response before publication.
Authors: Ollie Ballinger, Yörük Işık, Jake Godin, Bridget Diakun, Eoghan Macguire and Youri van der Weide