Vessels linked to Russia’s biggest grain trader shipped thousands of tonnes of stolen Ukrainian grain to global buyers, using a sophisticated system of collector vessels and floating cranes, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.
The vessels are tied either by management or ownership to companies controlled by Russian businessman Peter Khodykin, who in turn owns RIF Trading House LLC, the country’s largest grain exporter and a major player on the world grain markets, according to corporate and legal documents reviewed by the newspaper.
The Journal has previously reported on large-scale grain and land thefts in Russian-occupied Ukraine, including detailing a complex system whereby smugglers smuggle in large quantities of stolen grain from newly occupied farms in eastern Ukraine to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
The next step in the smuggling process: transporting this stolen Ukrainian grain from Crimea to global buyers. According to the Journal’s investigation, a fleet of small ships transports smuggled grain, usually from the Crimean port of Sevastopol, to larger freighters waiting at sea, where they transfer their cargo using ships fitted with cranes . These larger ships then set sail for distant ports.
Such transfers at sea can obscure the true provenance of the ships’ cargoes, which buyers could avoid if they suspected the grain came from eastern Russian-occupied Ukraine. Transfers allow large container ships, easily recognizable at the port or from satellite images, to avoid calling at Sevastopol. Sometimes stolen Ukrainian grain is mixed with Russian grain, to further conceal the origins of the shipment.
“It’s wheat bleaching,” said Yoruk Isik, director of Bosphorus Observer, an Istanbul-based independent consultancy. “They made tracking really difficult.”
June 5: Ship tracking data shows that the Emmakris II, a large bulk carrier, arrived in the Black Sea, after leaving Saudi Arabia. The M. Andreev, a small supply ship, had been operating the previous days around the Kerch Strait.
June 11: A few days later, Petra II, a crane ship, is captured by satellite imagery sandwiched between the Emmakris II and another supply ship. Ukrainian secret services and maritime experts say he was loading grain at sea.
June 14: Ship tracking data and satellite imagery show that the M. Andreev, Emmakris II and Petra II operate near the Kerch Strait. Ukrainian intelligence says the Mr. Andreev was loaded with barley from Sevastopol.
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June 15: Ship tracking data showed the three vessels side by side for seven hours. Here, the barley was loaded from the Mr. Andreev, according to maritime experts and Ukrainian intelligence services. Satellite imagery then picks up the breakup of Mr. Andreev.
September 4: The Emmakris II indicates its intended port of destination in Iraq, having sailed from the Kerch Strait through the Bosphorus and the Suez Canal. He never recorded a stopover.
Ukrainian authorities and maritime and grain market analysts have identified Sevastopol as a key warehouse for stolen grain imported by truck or train from eastern Ukraine. Sevastopol shipped about 848,400 tonnes of cereals, such as wheat and barley, from early March to October, almost 15 times more than the same period last year, according to Geneva researcher AgFlow.
In one such transfer at sea of goods from the port this summer, a crane ship run and owned by companies linked to Mr Khodykin loaded a large freighter, also run and owned by the same companies, with grain near of the Kerch Strait. , a narrow waterway connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, according to Ukrainian intelligence reports, satellite images, navigation data and maritime analysts.
Mr Isik’s Bosphorus Observer helped identify some of the vessels involved in smuggling through the Kerch Strait by matching verified photos and videos with satellite imagery, using features such as the location of cranes and hatches on ships. The Initiative for the Study of Russian Piracy, a Washington-based group of researchers and former US officials funded by a Ukrainian industry group, also provided ship tracking data and corporate documentation. The data and documents have been corroborated by the Journal.
Mr. Khodykin could not be reached for comment. The RIF said it had nothing to do with the Ukrainian grain theft. “We value our reputation and abide by the legislation of the Russian Federation and all international rules,” the company said via email. RIF said it carefully checks the origin of all its shipments. Russian officials have also denied stealing Ukrainian grain.
The RIF, based in the city of Rostov-on-Don on the Sea of Azov, is Russia’s largest grain exporter, according to the country’s main grain trade body. According to Russian company documents dated as recently as April this year, Mr Khodykin is the owner of RIF.
From April to September, Sevastopol shipped 662,000 tonnes of grain, compared to 36,000 tonnes the previous year, according to AgFlow. Companies controlled by or benefiting Mr Khodykin were involved in about a third of this year’s surplus exports, according to ISRP researchers. That estimate took into account bulk carriers, tugs, cranes and other auxiliary vessels tracked by ISRP owned or operated by companies linked to Mr. Khodykin that delivered grain or assisted in transshipments.
For example, on June 14, the M. Andreev, a small Russian-flagged supply ship, arrived near the Kerch Strait loaded with barley from Sevastopol, according to a Ukrainian intelligence document. Near the strait, it came alongside the Panamanian-flagged Emmakris II, which had arrived earlier in the month, according to ship tracking data from Spire Global.
The Emmakris II has been handled since 2020 by Dubai-based MCF Shipping DMCC, according to Equasis, a shipping database. It is listed as belonging to a subsidiary of MCF Shipping. MCF Shipping, in turn, shares a corporate registrant and website administrator with GTCS Trading DMCC, another Dubai company that a 2019 Moscow Arbitration Court document identified as beneficially owned by Mr. Khodykin of the RIF. The company also goes through GTCS Trading JLT.
MCF Shipping is located in an office building in Dubai next to GTCS Trading. Employees of both companies indicate on their LinkedIn profiles that they work for both companies. A GTCS employee reached by phone by the Journal said the two companies were identical. GTCS was also the majority owner of RIF until April this year when ownership passed to Mr Khodykin, according to a database that aggregates information on Russian companies.
On June 15, the two ships, the Emmakris II and the M. Andreev, appeared side by side on ship tracking sites, along with another ship with a mounted crane. The three ships were nested together for more than seven hours, according to ship tracking data and a Ukrainian intelligence document, which indicates that the Mr Andreev unloaded his grain at this point.
The crane vessel, Petra II, is also managed by MCF Shipping, the Dubai-based company linked to Mr Khodykin, according to shipping database Equasis. It is owned by a subsidiary of MCF Shipping.
The flotilla was joined by two other supply ships, this time from Russia. They moored alongside the Emmakris II, according to Planet Labs PBC satellite images that were reviewed by the Journal. Ukrainian officials say Russia is mixing Russian grain with stolen Ukrainian grain to make it harder to track.
Emmakris II then started, moving first in the Black Sea and then in the Bosphorus on July 10, according to ship tracking data from Spire Global.
The ship then sailed to the Persian Gulf, where its tracking transponder stopped transmitting, rendering it invisible to ship trackers. When the ship reappeared on September 4, its destination was Umm Qasr, Iraq. However, the ship never recorded a stopover in Iraq, according to ship tracking data. His final destination on this trip could not be determined.
Since September, the Emmakris II has made two more trips across the Black Sea to the Kerch Strait, according to ship tracking data. The ship returned to the Persian Gulf on the first of these voyages. The ship left the Black Sea again earlier in November and transited through the Suez Canal en route to the Red Sea.
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