According to an investigation by the Associated Press and the PBS program “Frontline,” the ship the Laodicea, owned by Syria, is part of a highly organized Russian smuggling ring that has used forged manifests and seaborne deception to steal Ukrainian grain worth at least $530 million.
It has been found that this money has fuelled President Vladimir Putin’s war economy.
AP tracked 30 ships making more than 50 voyages, carrying grain from ports in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to ports in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and other nations, using satellite imagery and marine radio transponder data.
Reporters searched through shipping documents, perused social media posts, and spoke with farmers, shippers, and corporate executives to learn more about the vast smuggling operation.
Wealthy businessmen and state-owned companies in Russia and Syria are committing the recurring theft, which legal analysts suggest may constitute a war crime. Some of these individuals and organisations are already the target of economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union.
Since the beginning of the war, the Russian military has used artillery and air strikes to attack farms, grain silos, and shipping facilities that are still under Ukrainian control. This has caused food to be destroyed, prices to rise, and the flow of grain from a nation that has long been referred to as the breadbasket of Europe to be reduced.
The 453-foot-long (138-meter) Laodicea presumably began its journey in Melitopol, a city in southern Ukraine that Russia annexed in the initial stages of the conflict.
According to videos on social media, a train is seen rolling up to the enormous grain storage facility Melitopol Elevator on July 9. The train is hauled by green hopper cars bearing the name and logo of the Russian company Agro-Fregat LLC.
Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, told reporters that large amounts of grain are being transported by train and truck from the area to ports in Russia and Crimea, a vital Ukrainian peninsula that Russia has been illegitimately occupying since 2014.
United Shipbuilding Corp., a Russian state-owned defense contractor that has been blacklisted by the US for providing weapons to the Russian military effort, is another organization that is involved in grain smuggling.
In a shift from its primary business of providing heavy-lift platforms to the oil and gas industry, the corporation, through its subsidiary Crane Marine Contractor, purchased three cargo ships two weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine.The three ships have sailed at least 17 times between ports in Crimea and Syria and Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated in a June news conference that his government has not discovered any indication of theft, despite the fact that Turkish authorities have promised to prohibit unlawful smuggling.
In July, Turkey assisted in mediating a deal that allowed both Russia and Ukraine to transport grain and fertilizer through secure routes in the Black Sea. The pact included no mention of the grain that Russia has seized from occupied lands.
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