The Russian freighter "Mikhail Nenashev" is an imposing ship with a length of 170 meters: four deck cranes and a towering bridge at the stern. But the "Mikhail Nenashev" has an unusual quality: it regularly disappears from the scene; the crew turns off the transponder and the ship stops transmitting location data.
Freight lists that a reporter team from German NDR broadcasting station was able to see reveal the reason for this practice: The "Mikhail Nenashev" is part of a fleet of freighters that the Russian occupiers use to export stolen grain from Ukraine. According to internal Russian documents, Russia intends to export at least 1.8 million tons of grain from there this year.
A million tons have been shipped
Since the beginning of the war, according to the freight lists, around 20 ships, mostly flying the Russian flag, have already exported around a million tons from the port of Sevastopol in the annexed Crimea. The destinations are mostly in Russia, Turkey and Syria. The lists also show that almost 40 further transports from Sevastopol are planned by the end of the year. The documents also show the loading data and quantities for future trips for the first time. This suggests that the Russian occupiers have already organized the logistics for future grain theft.
According to research, the Russian transport ships issue their transponders before loading. Even before they called at the Crimean ports, they had disappeared from the maps of location services such as FleetMon.com. This makes it difficult to trace the destination ports. However, the movements of the grain fleet can be traced through the evaluation of satellite images, the images of ship observers and the fragmentary transponder data. American media had already linked some Russian cargo ships to the wheat theft. The ships mentioned there also appear on the freight lists of the port of Sevastopol, which the NDR was able to see.
The bulk carrier "Mikhail Nenashev" has already been loaded six times at the Sevastopol grain terminal since the Russian invasion, according to the cargo lists. The ship sails under the Russian flag and is registered under a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation. We were able to reconstruct a voyage of the "Mikhail Nenashev": On September 11, for example, the freighter sailed through the straits near Istanbul in the direction of Crimea. At the Bosphorus, the ship is recorded on video by a Turkish ship spotter as it passes through. On the evening of September 11, the crew of the ship north of Istanbul turned off the transponder. The ship disappears from the tracking systems.
The ship disappears
Our satellite research shows the "Mikhail Nenashev" being loaded at the Sevastopol grain terminal. According to the freight lists, the ship will be loaded with 27,000 tons of wheat that day. The transponder is not switched on again until seven days after the ship has disappeared from the tracking system. The ship is apparently on its way back and is now sailing about 200 kilometers south of Sevastopol through the Black Sea towards Istanbul. When crossing the Bosporus again, the ship, which is now apparently loaded with grain, is photographed again. This time it's heading south. About 220 kilometers off the Syrian coast, the crew switched off the tracking system again. A few days later, as shown by a satellite image, the freighter is lying in front of the Syrian port of Tartus. Ever since Russia supported the Syrian regime in the bloody civil war there, Syria has been a close partner of Russia.
Tagesthemen (from minute 14:12)
ARD, NDR Recherche
Remote Sensing Analysis: Vertical52
Research & Production: NDR Research