Impact of Ukraine war on dry cargo and grain smuggling

AI insurtech Windward has identified general cargo and bulk carriers engaging in dark activities near the Crimea/Azov Sea, leading to STS engagements at Kerch Strait. It said that this typology remained elevated from July to November 2022, with a significant drop in December and then a small increase in January 2023.

Windward also noted that the number of dark activity incidents by cargo vessels in the Azov Sea had been at an all-time high in 2022-2023.

“While the STS operations at Kerch are in accordance with seasonal trends since 2021, the dark activity near Crimea right before the meeting is what raises the probability of illicit operations”, said Windward.

Another indicator that these STS engagements in Kerch were above and beyond the seasonality trend, and were in fact driving grain smuggling out of Ukraine, was the involvement of crane vessels in these meetings.

Prior to the war as a monthly average there were three bulk/general cargo vessel meetings with crane vessels in Kerch. That increased to an average of 5.2 meetings a month after the invasion.

Windward used its multi-source investigation tools to identify an alleged grain smuggling operation, and highlight the important role of crane vessels in these raids.

Windward’s Planet Labs layer identified a meeting at Kerch between six vessels – four cargo vessels and two crane vessels. One of the vessels was identified as the cargo vessel that brought in the smuggled grain – it engaged in a dark activity in the Azov Sea just days before the meeting. The other two cargo vessels then departed Kerch with the stolen grain and delivered it to Morocco and the Arabian Gulf.

Windward cited a recent article published in Bloomberg which noted that Russia and Iran were building a new trade route that would sidestep western sanctions.

The two countries are spending billions of dollars to speed up delivery of cargos along rivers and railways linked by the Caspian Sea. Ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg showed dozens of Russian and Iranian vessels – including some that are subject to sanctions – already plying the route. Bloomberg noted that this was an example of how great–power competition was rapidly reshaping trade networks in a world economy that looked set to fragment into rival blocs.

In other words, the fact that both are sanctioned by the USA has served to push Russia and Iran closer together – a move not dissimilar to the closer links between Venezuela and Iran after both were subject to tougher US sanctions during the 2016-2020 administration.

Windward said that its Maritime AI platform had also identified an increase in cargo ships engaging in dark activities in the Caspian Sea, with Iran as their next port, and then Russia.

Windward looked at the Volga and Don passages that connect Iran and Russia through the Caspian Sea. While 35 cargo vessels passed through these passages in 2021, this grew to 50 in 2022.