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Satellite imagery, ship data indicates path of Russian vessel Kyiv says shipped “looted” grain

Satellite imagery, ship data indicates path of Russian vessel Kyiv says shipped “looted” grain

Satellite imagery, ship data indicates path of Russian vessel Kyiv says shipped “looted” grain

Satellite imagery, ship data indicates path of Russian vessel Kyiv says shipped “looted” grain (credits:google)

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  • A Russian-flagged cargo ship carrying corn docked in the Turkish port of Izmir. According to Reuters’ analysis, the ship originated in a different port.
  • Kiev officials claim that Ukrainian grain from recently occupied Russian territory is being exported via Crimea. Moscow has denied stealing grain from Ukraine.
  • Analysis is based on a high-resolution image of Sevastopol’s grain terminal taken on June 18 by private satellite operator Planet Labs PBC. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, but with a war raging along its southern coast many of its ports closed.
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Reuters, July 22 – A Russian-flagged cargo ship carrying corn docked in the Turkish port of Izmir on the Aegean Sea late last month. According to documentation provided by an employee of the Russian company that owns the ship, the SV Nikolay loaded the grain six days earlier on June 18 at Port Kavkaz in Russia.

According to a Reuters analysis of satellite imagery, ship tracking data, and open-source photos and videos, the SV Nikolay originated in a different port. According to Reuters’ analysis of a satellite image from June 18, the ship was docked at Crimea’s main grain terminal, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russia in 2014.

 

The Reuters reconstruction of the vessel’s voyage comes as Kiev officials claim that Ukrainian grain from recently occupied Russian territory is being stolen and exported via Crimea to countries such as Turkey and Syria.

 

According to a Ukrainian official, the SV Nikolay is one of the vessels suspected of exporting “looted” grain. Moscow has denied stealing grain from Ukraine.

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The SV Nikolay’s tracking system was down for several days around the date in question, making determining the ship’s location difficult. According to the official, this is a tactic used by vessels to conceal visits to Crimea, along with the use of documents that falsely identify the grain as loaded in Port Kavkaz.

 

An employee of Moscow-based Kama LLC stated that the company owns the SV Nikolay and that the vessel did not transport Ukrainian grain or call at Crimea. Reuters was shown two documents in support of that account during a video call by Alexander Ryndin, who works in chartering for Kama and identified them as a bill of lading, or detailed list of a shipment of goods, and a safety and quality certificate. Both documents named Kavkaz as the loading port, which is approximately 220 nautical miles from Sevastopol and across the Kerch Strait from Crimea. The cargo was also identified as Russian corn in the safety and quality certificate.

 

When asked about the satellite image showing a ship matching the description of the SV Nikolay at Crimea’s main grain terminal in Sevastopol on June 18, Ryndin told Reuters the ship was not there. “You can take any photos you want,” he said. Ryndin also stated that there are legitimate logistical reasons for Russian grain to be shipped through Crimea.

 

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Senior Kama executives did not respond to requests for comment. Reuters was unable to determine the origin of the corn onboard on its own.

 

The Ukraine conflict has heightened concerns about food security in Ukraine and around the world, pushing global food prices to record highs this year. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, but with a war raging along its southern coast and many of its ports closed, the country has struggled to export goods.

 

Russia and Ukraine were set to sign an agreement on Friday to reopen Ukrainian Black Sea ports for grain exports, Turkey and the UN said, raising hopes that an international food crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion can be alleviated. more info

 

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IMAGE FROM A SATELLITE

Reuters’ analysis is based on a high-resolution image of Sevastopol’s grain terminal taken on June 18 by private satellite operator Planet Labs PBC. Two ships are berthed in the image. The top ship is slightly longer and has three partially filled cargo holds, as well as a flat stern and rounded bow. The ship below is a little shorter and has a red deck, a rounded stern, and a pointed bow.

 

Reuters was able to measure the top ship using the satellite image to be 139 metres long and 16 metres wide, which matches the specifications of the SV Nikolay. Photos and videos of the SV Nikolay taken by shipping enthusiasts over the years show that the top ship and the SV Nikolay share the same colour scheme and contours, including a flat stern and rounded bow, the same number of cargo holds, and the same lifeboat placement and observation deck shape.

 

The SV Nikolay openly broadcast its destination as Port Kavkaz before its tracking system went offline, following a pattern Reuters has observed with other cargo ships suspected of exporting Ukrainian grain via Crimea. Reuters narrowed the pool of potential ships by looking at those that had broadcast Port Kavkaz or the surrounding areas as a destination anytime in June to help identify the vessel in the satellite image.

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According to Refinitiv Eikon ship-tracking data, more than 380 bulk cargo ships stopped or broadcast a planned stop in Port Kavkaz or nearby in June. Only 38 of these had measurements similar to the top ship in the satellite image, according to Reuters. Except for two, all of the ships could be ruled out: Their tracking systems indicated that they were somewhere else on June 17 and 18. Only one ship, the SV Nikolay, matched the time frame as well as the shape and coloration of the top ship in the satellite image.

 

Few bulk carriers make stops in Sevastopol, which is sanctioned by the West.

 

Reuters identified a late-May visit by the SV Nikolay to Novorossiysk, Russia, using ship-tracking data. Another satellite image captured the ship’s visit there by Planet Labs. A side-by-side comparison of this image with the one from June 18 in Sevastopol revealed a match: the ships had the same observation deck shape, rounded bow and flat stern, lifeboat placement, and overall vessel structure and colouring.

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Some aspects of the account from the company that owns SV Nikolay could not be verified. The SV Nikolay was docked in Port Kavkaz on June 18, according to Ryndin, but satellite imagery from that day is too low-resolution to identify the ships present.

 

There are also gaps in ship-tracking data. Ships typically broadcast their location, which is recorded in publicly accessible databases. However, the SV Nikolay’s tracking system went down for eight days during its June journey. Ships also report non-public positional data to the country or flag state with which they are registered, but Reuters was unable to obtain this information for the SV Nikolay.

 

Furthermore, it is theoretically possible that another ship with the exact dimensions, shape, coloration, and other characteristics of the SV Nikolay exists and was in Sevastopol. However, Reuters has found no independent evidence to contradict that the ship seen in the June 18 satellite image is the SV Nikolay.

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Sean O’Connor, a lead satellite imagery analyst at Janes, a defence intelligence provider, reviewed the Reuters analysis and said the evidence that the SV Nikolay was in Sevastopol on that date was “compelling.” He emphasised the matching dimensions and side-by-side comparison with the SV Nikolay satellite image from May.

 

Reuters’ analysis of the Planet Labs imagery is supported by a photograph published by the Ukrainian news website Myrotvorets. On June 17, the ship was identified as the SV Nikolay at the same Sevastopol grain terminal. The vessel has the same contours and coloration as the ship in the Planet Labs satellite image and was docked in the same position at the terminal the next day.

 

Aval, the company that operates the grain terminal, had no press department, according to the person who answered the phone.

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Russia’s and Turkey’s governments did not respond to requests for comment.

 

The Aegean marine directorate general and Izmir port directed inquiries to Turkey’s Transportation and Infrastructure Ministry, which did not respond to a request for comment.

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The prosecutor’s office in Ukraine did not respond to requests for comment on the SV Nikolay’s movements. Ukrainian authorities believe that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of allegedly stolen grain have been exported.

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Kyiv has asked Turkish authorities to look into three Russian-flagged dry bulk ships that it claims exported grain through Crimea. According to public shipping database Equasis, those three vessels are owned by a subsidiary of a Western-sanctioned Russian-state owned company called United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), as previously reported by Reuters. more info

On June 15, the prosecutor’s office in Ukraine publicly stated that two of the three ships had turned off tracking systems and entered “fictitious information” about the ships visiting Russian ports rather than Crimean ports.

Both USC and the Russian government did not respond to requests for comment on the ships.

Requests for comment from Sevastopol’s government and port authorities in Sevastopol and Port Kavkaz went unanswered.

 

SHIPMENT DOCUMENTS

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Petrokhleb-Kuban LLC, a Russian grain trader, is listed as the seller on the safety and quality certificate shown to Reuters by Kama’s Ryndin. The company did not respond to inquiries about the shipment of the SV Nikolay. Petrokhleb-Kuban previously told Reuters that it has never purchased or moved grain from Ukrainian territory and that it only exports products produced by Russian farmers from Russian territory.

 

Ryndin identified the buyer as Yayla Agro, a large Turkish agribusiness, based on the safety and quality certificate he showed Reuters. According to Reuters, Yayla Agro purchased 7,000 tonnes of corn delivered by the SV Nikolay, which arrived at Izmir port on June 24. Yayla stated that the loading port was “Kavkaz” and the product’s origin was Russian on all cargo documents and certificates. It also stated that “the accuracy of the information in the documents is respected” because the documents were issued by Russian authorities.

 

According to the company, it has not purchased cargo from occupied Ukrainian territory or shipped from the Western-approved Sevastopol port. According to the company, “the rules of international law are an absolute priority in its commercial activities.”

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On June 11, the SV Nikolay left Samsun, Turkey, for Port Kavkaz, Russia, before its tracking system went down. According to data from MarineTraffic, a global maritime analytics provider, the ship resumed broadcasting in the Black Sea at 1 a.m. GMT on June 20. Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst at the Bosphorus Observer consultancy, captured and shared video footage of the ship crossing the Bosphorus on June 21.

 

Reuters’ analysis of a Planet Labs satellite image shows the SV Nikolay in Sevastopol at 11:44 a.m. GMT on June 18. Windward, a London-listed maritime analytics company, found it “highly improbable” that the ship was also in Port Kavkaz on that day in an analysis for Reuters. According to Windward’s behavioural analysis, Port Kavkaz is at least a 20-hour trip from Sevastopol at the vessel’s top speed of 10 knots.

 

According to Refinitiv Eikon ship-tracking data, the SV Nikolay arrived in Izmir on Friday June 24 after midnight GMT, or around 3.30 a.m. local time. After spending the majority of the day at anchor, the ship arrived in port around 6 p.m. local time.

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The next morning, Isik, the geopolitical analyst, observed a port crane emptying load after load of what appeared to be corn from the SV Nikolay into a series of waiting trucks. He sent Reuters photos and video of the ship unloading, with the letters SV Nikolay clearly visible on the stern.

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