Russia’s suspected grain laundering fleet undergoes major reshuffle, but only on paper
Fleet nearly unrecognisable after a series of name, flag and ownership changes, but the ships still ply the same trade routes and engage in suspicious shipping practices
Ships facilitating Russia’s export of Ukraine-origin grain have gained plenty of attention over the past year and are subject to intense scrutiny and investigation. The renaming and offloading of ships appear to be an attempt to hide past and true identities
VESSELS accused of participating in Ukrainian grain transport have systematically changed name and ownership in recent months after intense media scrutiny and public investigation, but the reshuffling appears to just be a technicality.
Lloyd’s List has tracked vessels known to be complicit in Russia’s grain plundering operations, proving they continue to work in the same networks and engage in the same trades despite their new identities. This indicates a concerted effort to disassociate from the trade, and will require risk and compliance teams to update records to avoid risking association with the fleet.
Since mid-2022, CNN, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Lloyd’s List in collaboration with Bellingcat and Scripps News, have detailed Russia’s complicated and opaque methods of exporting Ukrainian-origin grain from ports in annexed-Crimea and other Russian occupied territories.
This attention has put many ships and companies under intense scrutiny, and evidence suggests these vessels are now being renamed and placed with different entities to disguise true identity.
Over the past 11 months, eight ships that have been identified for their role in Russia’s grain laundering operations have changed either their name, ownership or flag. Sometimes all three.
The majority of name changes took place after July.
Istanbul-based geopolitical consultancy Bosphorus Observer analyst Yörük Işık: “What we are dealing with is the ghost fleet version of agricultural commodities operations. Despite all the changes over the past several months, evidence suggests that the changes are in name only. It is the same ships, working the same routes and the same places and acting the same in every way. It has just gone from one company to another. Right now, it is several unrelated groups making these changes.”
General cargoships San Cosmas (IMO: 9274343) and San Damian (IMO: 9274331), both sanctioned by the US government since August 2015 for their role in supporting the Assad regime, changed their names and ownership on July 25 and September 18 respectively.
San Cosmas also re-flagged to Tanzania while San Damian remains Syria-flagged.
The vessels were previously Laodicea and Souria.
The 12,700 dwt pair had been regular Crimea callers and routinely ferried grain from the sanctioned port of Sevastopol direct to foreign markets such as Syria.
Satellite imagery reviewed by Lloyd’s List confirms the vessels have docked and loaded a substance resembling grain under their new guise during gaps in their Automatic Identification System transmissions.
Another US blacklisted vessel, one sanctioned in May for its direct role in the “transportation of stolen Ukrainian grain”, embraced an entirely new identity on September 14.
Pawell (IMO: 8315499), a small 3,043 dwt general cargoship, became Cometa and re-flagged from Syria to Cameroon.
The ship’s ownership is now unknown, having been beneficially owned and operated by the Russian company RostShipService Ltd.
The vessel remains sanctioned.
On September 29, Cometa entered the Black Sea. It stopped transmitting an AIS signal on October 1 while south of Crimea. Its current location is unknown.
Bulk carriers Venera (IMO: 9100097), Barla (IMO: 8902462), Twin Star (IMO: 9101637), Ice Queen (IMO: 9254575) and Horasan (IMO: 8902474) have been named in media investigations or have been identified by Lloyd’s List for their involvement in Russia’s grain plundering operations.
Over the past 11 months, the ships have been re-named and moved to a Türkiye -based entity called Alemax Denizcilik ve Gemi Isletmeciligi Ticaret Limited Sirketi.
Turkish company registration documents reviewed by Lloyd’s List show Alemax was created in 2022.
Russia national Aleksandr Alekseev is listed as the company’s founder. The Turkish trade registry indicates Alekseev became a Turkish citizen in October.
Some ships involved in Russia’s illicit grain trade move cargo directly from Crimea to foreign markets. Others, such as the five aforementioned, have acted as feeder vessels.
They engage in ship-to-ship transfers with vessels that have called occupied territories, either moving the cargo between ships or receiving it for transport to the destination.
Such a practice is difficult to confirm due to practical issues relating to AIS and satellite imagery.
The allegations made against Venera (IMO: 9100097), Barla (IMO: 8902462), Twin Star (IMO: 9101637), Ice Queen (IMO: 9254575) and Horasan (IMO: 8902474) relate to activity in 2022 while the ships were managed and ultimately beneficially owned by Dubai-based GTCS Trading DMCC.
GTCS Trading DMCC denies ever owning the vessels.
A spokesperson for the company told Lloyd’s List: “Our company, GTCS Trading DMCC, categorically states that we have never owned the mentioned or any other vessels. Our core activity has always been exclusively in trade, and we have abided by and continue to adhere to all international and national laws, standards and sanctions.”
It further stated: “We uphold the highest standards of integrity and transparency in our operations and are confident in our compliance.”
Ollie Ballinger, a lecturer in geocomputation at University College London, created an interactive tool to understand the relationships between vessels conducting STS transfers in Kavkaz anchorage.
Ballinger said: “If you map STS transfers as a network within the grain trade, you get two distinct communities. Ships predominantly conduct STS with other ships within their community and relatively rarely with members of the other community.”
Vessels suspected of calling at Crimea were primarliy localised in the region of the network dominated by GTCS Trading DMCC, now Alemax, ships.
Twin Star, Ice Queen and Horasan have each been tracked conducting STS transfers with Russia-flagged general cargoships Amur 2501 (IMO: 8721272) and Kapitan Korchin (IMO: 8959219), two ships “arrested” by Ukrainian authorities for the participation in “the transportation of Ukrainian grain stolen by the occupiers” and accused of being “instruments of crimes”.
Ukrainian officials claim these vessels engage in deceptive practices to load at the port of Sevastopol and export grain to third countries.
Bafra (IMO: 8902436) and Roda (IMO: 9077305), two other former GTCS Trading DMCC bulkers now under the management of Alemax, also recorded STS transfers with Amur 2501 and Kapitan Korchin while under their new agents.
Nearly the entire GTCS Trading DMCC affiliated-fleet has been moved to Alemax.
Alemax told Lloyd’s List that it only carries out shipmanagement and agency services for the vessels listed in the table above, and that it has no affiliation with GTCS Trading DMCC.
Asked about the possibility of loading or transporting Ukrainian-origin grain, Alemax said: “All necessary measures to ensure all cargo loaded in Kavkaz is Russian origin are employed according to procedure of ISM code.”
Presented with specific examples of STS transfers with known Crimea callers and the vessels identified by the Ukrainian government, Alemax said: “As per the documents represented by the sellers all cargo grain loaded to the vessels has Russian origin.”
Işık told Lloyd’s List: “GTCS Trading DMCC was operating these alleged grain plundering vessels and suddenly all the ships are picked up by one company. We can see the new names freshly painted but the rest of the colour schemes are the same, such as the chimney logos. It is not a coincidence.”
Most of the STS transfers in Kavkaz and grain trade out of Russia’s Sea of Azov and Black Sea ports is legitimate, and not every transaction — even those involving Amur 2501 and Kapitan Korchin and other regular Crimea callers — can be linked to Russia’s grain laundering operation.
This is because Russia’s export of grain from the occupied territories has been integrated into its legitimate supply chain and works under its cover.
There is no suggestion that the former GTCS Trading DMCC vessels were ever deployed exclusively in facilitating the export of Ukrainian grain from occupied territories. While they engage in the same trade under Alemax, Lloyd’s List has found no evidence to date of these vessels acting as feeder ships via STS for Crimea callers.