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[ANALYSIS] How the Erdoğan-Putin network brings Ukrainian grain to Turkey

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Fatih Yurtsever*

A four-way meeting with UN officials and military representatives from Russia, Ukraine and Turkey was held in İstanbul on July 13 to establish a corridor to transport grain waiting in silos from Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa to world markets. Following a bilateral meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin that will take place in Tehran on Tuesday, the multilateral meeting will resume in Istanbul.

After the Istanbul meeting, the parties are expected to sign an agreement on establishing the grain corridor. Under Erdoğan’s mediation, the agreement between Russia and Ukraine to transport Ukrainian grain from the port of Odessa to the international market via the Black Sea grain corridor will be recorded as a gain for Erdoğan since it will ease the global food crisis. However, Ukraine claims that Turkey is buying stolen Ukrainian grain from Russia.

How does the Erdoğan government, which insists it is pursuing a balanced policy between Russia and Ukraine, become the buyer of Ukrainian grain illegally seized by Russia? How does the system work?

Russia transports most of Ukraine’s grain from the occupied region by truck to Crimea for export. Satellite images distributed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) show queues of trucks, and traffic from the occupied part of Ukraine to Crimea is increasing. Anatoly Tsurkin, the head of a Crimean trucking company and a former Kremlin-appointed transport official in Crimea, claims that more crossing points are being built for the growing traffic to Crimea from other parts of occupied Ukraine. “It’s worth noting that the crossing points are prepared to handle 100 trucks a day, but there are currently 400 [trucks],” he said.

The next stop for the grain is the Avlyita terminal in Sevastopol, Crimea. Russian captains turn off the ships’ Automatic Identification System (AIS) devices that transmit the IMO (International Maritime Organization) number and location of the ship on the high seas before entering the port of Sevastopol so that the location and identity data of the vessel cannot be tracked during the loading of grain onto the ships.

According to a June 5, 2022 report in the New York Times, “In mid-May, the United States sent an alert to 14 countries, mostly in Africa, that Russian cargo vessels were leaving ports near Ukraine laden with what a State Department cable described as ‘stolen Ukrainian grain’.” Three Russian ships, the Matros Pozynich, Matros Koshka and Mikhail Nenashev, were suspected of transporting stolen Ukrainian grain. On June 13, 2022 Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office asked Turkey’s Justice Ministry to investigate the three vessels and provide evidence of the transport of grain allegedly stolen from recently occupied Ukrainian territories such as Kherson.

The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office claimed that the ships were en route from Crimea’s main grain terminal in Sevastopol in April and May and urged Ankara to obtain documentation on their cargo and arrival at Turkish ports. To keep their position secret, the ships switched off their AIS while docking at the Avlyita grain terminal in the port of Sevastopol. Since Turkey does not officially recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it does not allow merchant ships leaving Crimean Peninsula ports to enter its ports. In this regard, the Istanbul and Marmara, Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions Chamber of Shipping issued a circular in 2017. All three bulk carriers — Mikhail Nenashev, Matros Pozynich and Matros Koshka — are owned by a subsidiary of a Western-sanctioned, Russian state-owned company, United Shipbuilding Corporation, according to Equasis, a shipping database. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said Turkey was investigating Ukraine’s claims that its grain has been stolen by Russia and sold to third countries via Turkish ports. “Turkey would never allow stolen Ukrainian grain to come to us,” he said.

One of the three ships, Mikhail Nenashev, was at Sevastopol’s Avlyita grain terminal from June 14 to 16, according to satellite imagery captured by Planet Labs PBC. This private satellite operator shows the ship docked beside grain silos with cranes towering above. The vessel arrived eight days later at the MMK Atakas Port in İskenderun, Turkey, operated by Russian oligarch Viktor Rashnikov, according to Refinitiv Eikon ship-tracking data.

Since March, the Mikhail Nenashev has visited the Sevastopol grain terminal on at least three other occasions before arriving in Turkey five to 15 days later, satellite imagery and vessel tracking data show. In one case the ship unloaded 27,000 tons of wheat on April 22 at the Turkish seaport of Derince, operated by Safi Holding, according to Refinitiv Eikon data, which show the cargo was loaded in Sevastopol, Crimea.

MMK Atakas port authorities did not respond to Reuters inquiries about the shipments or the precautions taken in light of the Ukrainian claims. In contrast, Derince port authorities confirmed that they had received “Russian vessels carrying grain.”

Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing its grain during the invasion and blockading its ports to prevent grain from leaving the country, contributing to a global food crisis. Satellite photos and GPS data support the accusation that Russia moved grain out of Ukraine through the Crimean port of Sevastopol, which Moscow denies. The ports of MMK and Derince were among those used by ships to unload grain allegedly stolen from Ukraine.

As the allegations indicate, the Erdoğan government has cooperated with Russia in the trade of Ukrainian grain by allowing merchant ships carrying grain from the port of Sevastopol to enter Turkish ports, which contravenes the circular published by the Istanbul and Marmara, Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions Chamber of Shipping in 2017.

On the other hand, Erdoğan is mediating with UN officials for the establishment of a grain corridor in the Black Sea between Russia and Ukraine so that Ukrainian grain can reach world markets. There is a great Turkish proverb that explains Erdoğan’s efforts to cooperate with Russia in trading stolen Ukrainian grain while trying to establish a grain corridor: “Eat the lamb with the wolf and cry with the shepherd.”

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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