According to Hellenic Shipping News, Russia is stealing of Ukrainian grain, and subsequent potential smuggling via cargo ships have received a significant and justified amount of mainstream media attention. Windward’s exclusive Maritime AI™ technology has identified a worrying new phenomenon: the suspected Russian grain laundering.
This analysis covers how it’s happening based on our proprietary insights. Windward’s report offers previously unreported information on five vessels that engaged in shadowy activities and ship-to-ship (STS) operations in the Kerch Strait in June 2022 as part of what appears to be a coordinated effort to launder allegedly stolen grain. from Ukraine. There has been a 160% increase in dark activities in the Black Sea by bulk carriers flying Russian or Syrian flags when comparing July 2020-June 2021 with July 2021-June 2022. Of the events that occurred between July 2021 and June 2022, 73% took place after the war started. There is a second component: ship-to-ship (STS) meetings.
Most Russian-flagged cargo ships and other vessels operating under flags of convenience appear to encounter one to four cargo and service vessels simultaneously in the Kerch port offshore holding area. This analysis will take a close look at these two aspects and detail the voyages and behaviors of the vessels involved in the coordinated effort. The report ends with brief guidance for the maritime industry regarding risk mitigation in this evolving environment.
Trade Flow Summary
Windward’s proprietary AI-powered data has identified the main suspects in a possible grain smuggling in Ukraine. The Trade Flow Map (below) helps visualize the common routes traveled by ships that Windward’s technology has marked and tracked.
An analysis of the routes shows that the grain smuggling trade flow passes through the Kerch Strait and the Bosphorus. The grain is allegedly smuggled from Ukraine to Syria and Turkey mainly. But how, exactly?
Dark activity soars
One of the most basic deceptive shipping practices used to hide the location of vessels, operations at sea, and illicit activities is “obscuring” (temporarily or permanently disabling the automatic identification system). Unlike cases where the vessel loses its signal due to lack of reception, bad weather, legitimate security considerations, etc., going dark is an intentional choice to avoid transparency. Insights into Windward’s behavior indicate that the old behavior is now being applied in a new way. Dark activities have traditionally focused on crude oil smuggling, but we are seeing ships go dark to load smuggled grain from Ukraine and then make a visible port call or dark cargo discharge in Turkey or Syria.
Our Maritime AI TM technology shows a 160% increase in dark activities in the Black Sea by bulk carriers flying Russian or Syrian flags when comparing July 2020-June 2021 with July 2021-June 2022. Of the events that occurred between July 2021 and June 2022, 73% took place after the war began.
The change in dark activities was not only noticeable in the location of the event, but also in the identity of the vessel. Windward data indicates that in 2020-2021, there was a monthly average of 0.83 dark activities in the Black Sea by Russian- or Syrian-owned bulk carriers. That number increased to a staggering monthly average of 2.25 dark activities in 2021-2022, with an increase in March 2022.
Going back to the trade flow map above (image 1), the first area of operations for out-of-area ship trips would be the Bosphorus Strait. Windward data shows that the number of visits to the area by bulk carriers has doubled since February 2022. From July 2021 to February 2022, the average number of monthly visits was 4.75. Since the invasion, that monthly average has risen to 10 visits to the area.
To gain a deeper understanding of the dark activity trend, we analyzed all general cargo ships and bulk carriers, regardless of flag, from March 1, 2022 to July 15, 2022. The Windward platform marked a total of 170 events in which cargo ships and bulk carriers ships went dark in the Sea of Azov and then resurfaced on their way through the Bosphorus Strait. One hundred fifty-six (156) of the events showed a similar pattern: vessels arriving at port with allegedly smuggled grain while their AIS was on. Of these calls in visible ports, 71% were in Turkey and 20% in Bulgaria. The remaining 14 events showed a different pattern. Cargo ships and bulk carriers went out twice during their voyages, once in the Sea of Azov and once at their destination port. In 85% of these identified events, the destination of the allegedly smuggled grain was Syria. During the same period last year (March-mid-July 2021), for comparison, Windward only identified one dark-to-dark activity (a ship going dark to load grain and then unload it). This type of behavior is emergent, which means Windward expects to see the trend grow as the conflict continues.
Go beyond the dark activities to STS…
Grain smuggling goes beyond mere shadowy activities to conceal the origin, transportation, and destination of stolen grain. The Windward platform identified an additional behavioral trend: “grain washing.” It features a mix of dark activities and ship-to-ship (STS) meetings on the open sea. It appears that most Russian-flagged cargo ships and other vessels operating under flags of convenience meet with one to four cargo and service vessels simultaneously in the Kerch port offshore holding area.
Some vessels remain in the area and only make trips north and then back to the Kerch area, while others make the trip out of the disputed area to distribute potentially stolen grain.
Meeting in June
By overlaying Windward’s ship behavior data and information with daily satellite images from Planet Labs, an intriguing example of the new grain typology was discovered.
As of June 10, 2022, there were five vessels conducting ship-to-ship operations in the Kerch Strait: three cargo ships that Windward flagged for suspected grain smuggling (vessels “D”, “L” and “K”), and two service boats. All ships sail under the Russian flag, except for one cargo ship under the Belize flag. Let’s dive into the details of this event: Vessel D Vessel D is a bulk carrier that sails under the flag of Belize. Since June 2022, it is owned by a Turkey-based company. On May 21, the ship made port in Misurata, Libya, and remained there for nine days. After the port call, the ship changed her reported draft from 10.1 to 6.2, indicating that she likely unloaded cargo from her. Following this port call, the ship had six meetings over six hours in the Kerch Strait area, including the specific meeting that is the focus of this analysis. On June 13, the ship updated her reported draft from 6.2 to 9.9. After the June 10 meeting, she called the port of Metalurji, Turkey, and updated her draft to 6.2, indicating a possible cargo discharge. Vessel D is currently in Libya (as of July 19, 2022) following another trip to the Kerch Strait and various ship-to-ship engagements. The analysis shows that following the possible ship-to-ship grain smuggling, where she collected Ukrainian grain through an STS gathering in the Black Sea, she distributed the cargo mainly to Turkey and Libya.
Next Steps for Risk Mitigation
The first step in mitigating risk is to fully understand both recent history and the current situation. The maritime domain has changed substantially since OFAC’s initial introduction of deceptive shipping guidelines in 2020. Not only have bad actors continued to evolve and seek new ways to hide their illicit activities, but the scope of deceptive practices has grown. well beyond the initial “crude tankers + smuggling oil to avoid sanctions”. In addition to a proliferation of shadowy activities in the Black Sea area since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are now witnessing coordinated ship-to-ship cargo meetings that involve multiple ships in what appears to be a clear attempt to evade restrictions and sanctions through smuggling.It is now clear to all shipping stakeholders dealing with the trade that deceptive shipping practices and mitigation of risks are relevant for all ships and product types: oil is no longer the main driver of the maritime economy. ima. Knowing who you are doing business with and where your counterparties have been prior to your current deal is crucial if you are looking to protect your business from reputational, financial and legal/criminal risk in this new era of suspected grain laundering and others. forms of smuggling and deception. The main question that needs to be addressed is: “How can we protect our business?” Government and law enforcement entities should, of course, lead the way, but all players in the maritime ecosystem should proactively seek real-time predictive information that helps significantly reduce and manage their risk.