By Alex Marquardt and Tim Lister | CNN
Russia’s theft of Ukrainian grain appears to be on the rise as its war against the country continues, according to new satellite photos of the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
Footage shows two Russian-flagged bulk carriers docking and loading what is believed to be stolen Ukrainian grain. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of “gradually stealing” Ukrainian food products and trying to sell them.
The new images from Maxar Technologies, dated May 19 and 21, show the ships, the Matros Pozynich and the Matros Koshka, berthed next to what appear to be grain silos with the grain pouring out of a belt into an open hold. Both ships have already left port, according to ship tracking site MarineTraffic.com, with the Matros Pozynich sailing the Aegean Sea claiming to be on its way to Beirut and the Matros Koshka still in the Black Sea.
It’s hard to know for sure if the ship is being loaded with stolen Ukrainian grain, but Russian-annexed Crimea produces little grain itself, unlike the agriculturally rich Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia immediately to the north. Ukrainian officials and industry sources told CNN that Russian forces in the occupied areas emptied several silos and trucked the grain south.
Earlier this month, Matros Pozynich undertook a similar mission: loading grain and sailing from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. He was initially headed for Egypt with his cargo, but was turned away from Alexandria after a warning from Ukrainian officials, according to the country’s government. He too was barred from entering Beirut, eventually docking in Latakia in Syria, where Russia has been supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime for years.
At the same time, Russia has been preventing Ukraine from exporting goods from its ports, fueling fears of a global food crisis.
“The world community must help Ukraine to unblock the seaports, otherwise the energy crisis will be followed by a food crisis and many more countries will face it,” Zelensky said on Saturday. “Russia has blocked almost all ports and, so to speak, all maritime opportunities to export food: our grain, barley, sunflowers and more. A lot of things.”
Last week, CNN reported that the US and its allies are discussing how to develop safe routes to transport grain from Ukraine amid concerns about the global food supply. Evidence that Russia is stealing grain only complicates those efforts.
Before the war, Russian and Ukrainian wheat supplies accounted for almost 30% of world trade, and Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of corn and the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat, according to the US State Department. The United Nations World Food Program, which helps fight global food insecurity, buys about half of its wheat from Ukraine each year and has warned of dire consequences if Ukrainian ports are not opened.
The ships have a capacity of 30,000 metric tons, and earlier this month Ukraine’s Defense Ministry estimated that some 400,000 tons had been stolen and taken out of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion.
Mykola Solsky, Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine, said that “it is sent in an organized way in the direction of Crimea. This is a great business that is supervised by people of the highest level.”
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, taking the key Black Sea port of Sevastopol with it. Since launching a new invasion in February, Russia has deprived Ukraine of access to two key ports: capturing Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, and attacking and blockading Odessa, also on the Black Sea. Ukraine’s inability to export from those ports is not only affecting food levels around the world, it is having a devastating impact on the country’s economy.
There are an estimated 22 million tons of grain in Ukrainian silos, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.
“The Russian Federation falsely claims that the sanctions of the international community are to blame for the worsening of the world food crisis. Sanctions do not block Black Sea ports, trap ships full of food and destroy Ukraine’s roads and railways,” Blinken said. “Russia is”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier called allegations that Russia was stealing grain from its neighbor “fake news,” according to Russia’s state news agency TASS and other news agencies.