Satellite images showing the route of Russian looting to get the stolen grain out of Ukraine

A satellite image shows the Russian-flagged ship SV Nikolay at the Avlita grain terminal in Sevastopol, Crimea (Planet Labs/Reuters) (PLANET LABS PBC/)

At the end of last month, a Russian-flagged freighter carrying corn arrived at the Turkish port of Izmir, in the Aegean Sea. The SV Nikolai had loaded the grain in the port of Kavkaz, in Russiasix days earlier, on June 18, according to documentation provided by an employee of the Russian company that owns the ship.

An analysis of Reuters satellite imagery, ship tracking data, and open source photos and videos yields a different port of origin for the SV Nikolay. On June 18, according to the analysis, the ship was docked at the main Crimean grain terminalthe Ukrainian peninsula taken by Russia in 2014.

The reconstruction of the ship’s journey comes as the kyiv authorities allege that Ukrainian grain from territory recently occupied by Russia is being stolen amid the Ukraine-Russia war and then exported through Crimea to places like Turkey and Syria.

A Ukrainian official said the SV Nikolay is among the vessels that Ukrainian authorities believe are exporting what they describe as “plundered” grain. Moscow has denied the theft of Ukrainian grain.

The SV Nikolay’s tracking system was offline for several days around the date in question, making it difficult to locate the ship. The official said that was a tactic the ships are using to hide visits to Crimea, along with the use of documents that falsely identify the grain as being loaded at the port of Kavkaz.

An employee of Moscow-based Kama LLC said the company owns the SV Nikolay and denied the vessel was carrying Ukrainian grain or calling at Crimea. Alexander Ryndin, who works chartering for Kama, showed Reuters during a video call two documents in support of that version that he identified as a bill of lading, or itemized list of a shipment of goods, and a safety and quality certificate. Both documents listed Kavkaz as a cargo port, which is about 220 nautical miles from Sevastopol, across the Kerch Strait from Crimea. The safety and quality certificate also identified the cargo as corn from Russia..

Satellite image shows the freighter in Novorossiysk, Russia, in late May (Planet Labs/Reuters)
The satellite image shows the freighter in Novorossiysk, Russia, in late May (Planet Labs/Reuters) (PLANET LABS PBC/)

When asked about the satellite image showing a ship matching the description of the SV Nikolay at Crimea’s main grain terminal in Sevastopol on June 18, Ryndin he said the ship was not there. “You can take the pictures you want”, said. Rydin he also said there are legitimate logistical reasons for shipping Russian grain through Crimea.

Senior Kama representatives did not respond to requests for comment. Reuters was unable to independently trace the origin of the corn on board.

The conflict in Ukraine has increased the food safety concern both in the country and in the rest of the world, causing food prices in the world to reach record levels this year. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, but has had difficulty exporting its products due to the war raging on its southern coast and the blockade of many of its ports.

On Friday, Russia and Ukraine signed a landmark agreement to reopen Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to grain exports, raising hopes of easing the international food crisis exacerbated by the Russian invasion.


The analysis of Reuters focuses on a high-resolution image taken June 18 by private satellite operator Planet Labs PBC of the Sevastopol grain terminal. The image captures two moored boats. The ship above is slightly longer, with a flat stern and rounded bow, and has three partially filled cargo holds. The ship below is slightly shorter, with a red deck, a rounded stern, and a pointed bow.

Thanks to the satellite image, Reuters was able to measure the top ship with 139 meters long and 16 meters wide, which matches the specifications of the SV Nikolay. Photos and videos of the SV Nikolay taken over the years by yachting enthusiasts show that the top ship and the SV Nikolay have the same coloring and contours, including a flat stern and rounded bow, the same number of holds of cargo and the same placement of lifeboats and shape of the observation deck.

The SV Nikolay openly communicated that its destination was the port of Kavkaz before its tracking system went offline, which follows a pattern that Reuters it has observed with other freighters that kyiv alleges are involved in the export of Ukrainian grain through Crimea. To help identify the vessel on the satellite image, Reuters narrowed down the pool of potential vessels by searching for those that had issued Port Kavkaz or the surrounding areas as a destination at any time in June.

More than 380 bulk cargo ships stopped or announced a planned stop in or around the port of Kavkaz in June, according to Refinitiv Eikon ship tracking data. From them, Reuters found that only 38 ships had measurements similar to those of the top ship in the satellite image. All but two of the ships were able to be ruled out: Their tracking systems showed them to be elsewhere on June 17 and 18. Only one, the SV Nikolay, matched both the time and the shape and color of the superior ship in the satellite image.

Very few bulk carriers broadcast stops in Sevastopol, which is in the crosshairs of Western sanctions.

Using ship tracking data, Reuters identified a visit of SV Nikolay at the end of May to Novorossiysk (Russia). Planet Labs captured the ship’s visit in another satellite image. Comparing this image with the one from June 18 in Sevastopol, it was found that matched: The ships had the same observation deck shape, the same rounded bow and flat stern, the same lifeboat placement, and the same overall ship structure and coloration.

The comparison between the photos captured in Sevastopol and in Novorossiysk show that it is the same ship
The comparison between the photos captured in Sevastopol and in Novorossiysk show that it is the same ship (PLANET LABS PBC/)

Some aspects of the story of the employee of the company that owns the SV Nikolay could not be verified. Ryndin said the SV Nikolay was docked in the port of Kavkaz on June 18, but available satellite images from that day are too low-resolution to identify the ships present there.

There are also gaps in ship tracking data. Ships often openly communicate their position, which is collected in publicly accessible databases. But the SV Nikolay’s tracking system was offline for eight days on its June voyage. The vessels also report non-public position data to the country or flag state in which they are registered, but Reuters was unable to obtain that data from the SV Nikolay.

Furthermore, it is theoretically possible that another ship with the same dimensions, shape, coloration and other characteristics of the SV Nikolay exists and has been in Sevastopol. Nevertheless, Reuters has not found no independent evidence to contradict that the SV Nikolay is the ship seen in the June 18 satellite image.

Sean O’Connor, principal satellite imagery analyst at Janes, the defense intelligence provider, reviewed the analysis of Reuters and said that the evidence was “convincing” that the SV Nikolay was in Sevastopol on that date. He highlighted, in particular, the coincidence of the dimensions and the comparison with the May satellite image of the SV Nikolay.

A photograph published by the Ukrainian news website Myrotvorets reinforces Reuters’ analysis of the Planet Labs images. The caption identifies the ship as the SV Nikolay at the same Sevastopol grain terminal on June 17. The ship matches the specific contours and coloring and was docked in the same position at the terminal as the ship in the Planet Labs satellite image that appeared the next day.

At Aval, the company that operates the cereal terminal, a person who answered the phone said that the company did not have a press department before hanging up.

The Russian government did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Turkey’s.

The ship SV Nikolay is unloaded in Turkey (Reuters)
The SV Nikolay ship is unloaded in Turkey (Reuters) (YORUK ISIK /)

The Izmir port and Aegean navy directorate-general directed inquiries to the Turkish Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, which also did not respond to a request for comment.

The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the SV Nikolay’s movements. Ukrainian authorities have said they believe hundreds of thousands of tons of allegedly stolen grain have been exported.

kyiv has pressed Turkish authorities to investigate three Russian-flagged dry cargo ships that it alleges have exported grain through Crimea. Those three vessels are owned, according to the public shipping database Equasis, by a subsidiary of a Western-sanctioned Russian state-owned company called the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), as reported by Reuters.

On June 15, the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office said publicly that two of those three vessels had disabled tracking systems and entered “dummy information” about ships visiting Russian ports, rather than those in Crimea.

Neither USC nor the Russian government responded to requests for comment about those ships.

Representatives of the Sevastopol government and the port authorities of Sevastopol and the port of Kavkaz did not respond to requests for comment.


The vendor listed on the safety and quality certificate that Kama’s Ryndin showed to Reuters is Petrokhleb-Kuban LLC, a Russia-based grain trader. The company did not respond to questions about the shipment of the SV Nikolay. Petrokhleb-Kuban previously said that he has never bought or shipped grain from Ukrainian territory and that he exports products exclusively from Russian territory, produced by Russian farmers.

The safety and quality certificate that Ryndin showed to Reuters identified the buyer What Yayla Agro, a large Turkish agricultural company. Yayla Agro said that she bought 7,000 tons of corn delivered by the SV Nikolay, which arrived at the port of Izmir on June 24. Yayla said that all cargo documents and certificates listed the port of loading as “Kavkaz” and the origin of the product as Russian. He added that since the documents were issued by Russian authorities, “the accuracy of the information in the documents is respected.”

The company said it has not bought cargoes on occupied Ukrainian territory or shipped them from the Western-sanctioned port of Sevastopol. The company added that it complies “with the norms of international law as an absolute priority in its commercial activities.”

On June 11, the SV Nikolay left Samsun, Turkey, and set her destination at the port of Kavkaz, Russia, before her tracking system went offline. The ship began broadcasting again in the Black Sea at 1am GMT on June 20, according to data from MarineTraffic, a global provider of maritime analytics. A video captured and shared by Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst with consultancy Bosphorus Observer, shows the ship crossing the Bosphorus on June 21.

Satellite image from Planet Labs places the SV Nikolay in Sevastopol at 11:44 GMT on June 18. An analysis done for Reuters by the London Stock Exchange-listed maritime analysis firm Windward concluded that it was “highly unlikely” that the ship had also been in Port Kavkaz that day. The port of Kavkaz is a trip of at least 20 hours from Sevastopol taking into account that the maximum speed of the ship is 10 knots, according to Windward’s behavior analysis.

The SV Nikolay arrived in Izmir on Friday 24 June after midnight GMT, i.e. around 3.30am local time, according to Refinitiv Eikon ship tracking data. After remaining at anchor for most of the day, the ship entered the port around 6:00 p.m. local time.

Isik, the geopolitical analyst, said the next morning he watched as a port crane emptied load after load of what appeared to be corn from the SV Nikolay into a series of waiting trucks. He shared with Reuters images and videos of the ship being unloaded, with the letters SV Nikolay clearly visible on its stern.

(With information from Reuters/by Reade Levinson)


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