With all eyes on Ukrainian grain exports, maritime AI company Windward is blowing the whistle on recent Russian efforts to launder grain.
Specifically, Windward says vessels are increasingly engaging in dark activities and also ship-to-ship operations in what appears to be a coordinated effort to conceal the origin, transportation and destination of grain allegedly stolen from Ukraine.
Windward’s report sheds light on one instance in June where five vessels engaged in dark activities and ship-to-ship (STS) operations in the Kerch Strait. It also pinpoints a 160% increase over the last year in dark activities in the Black Sea by bulk carriers flying either the Russian or Syrian flags.
Dark activities refer to when ships intentionally disable their automatic identification system (AIS) in an effort to avoid transparency. While “going dark” has traditionally related to crude oil smuggling, Windward says it is seeing vessels go dark to load smuggled grain from Ukraine and then either make a visible port call, or a dark discharge of cargo in either Turkey or Syria.
From March through June 15, Windward’s platform flagged a total of 170 events where cargo ships and bulk carriers went dark in the Azov Sea before resurfacing on their way out through the Bosporus Strait.
Going beyond dark activities, Windward identified a trend of “grain laundering,” which combines dark activities and ship-to-ship meetings at sea.
“It appears that mostly Russian-flagged cargo vessels and other ships operating under flags of convenience are meeting with one to four cargo and service vessels simultaneously in the Kerch Port offshore waiting area,” Windward said in its update.
“Some vessels stay in the area and only make trips up North and then back to the Kerch area, while others make the voyage outside of the disputed area to distribute the potentially stolen grain,” the update adds.
In once instance, on June 10, Windward spotted five vessels engaging in STS operations in the Kerch Strait, four of which were sailing under the Russian flag and one registered in Belize. Following the conclusion of the five-vessel meeting, a sixth vessel arrived from Azov. After the meeting, the vessel returned to Azov and update its reported draft, indicating it had loaded cargo before returning to meetings in the Kerch area.
“In addition to a proliferation of dark activities in the Black Sea area since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are now witnessing coordinated ship-to-ship meetings involving multiple ships in what looks like a clear attempt to evade restrictions and sanctions via smuggling,” Windward said.
“It is now clear to every shipping stakeholder dealing with trade that deceptive shipping practices and risk mitigation are relevant to all vessels and types of commodities — oil is no longer the main driver of the maritime economy.”
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