Beirut: When the bulk cargo ship Laodicea docked in Lebanon last summer, Ukrainian diplomats said the vessel was carrying grain stolen by Russia and urged Lebanese officials to impound the ship.
Moscow called the allegation false and baseless, and Lebanon's prosecutor general sided with the Kremlin and declared that the 10,000 tons of barley and wheat flour wasn't stolen and allowed the ship to unload.
But an investigation by the Associated Press and the PBS series Frontline has found the Laodicea, owned by Syria, is part of a sophisticated Russian-run smuggling operation that has used falsified manifests and seaborne subterfuge to steal Ukrainian grain worth at least USD 530 million cash that has helped feed President Vladimir Putin's war machine.
AP used satellite imagery and marine radio transponder data to track three dozen ships making more than 50 voyages carrying grain from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to ports in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and other countries.
The ongoing theft, which legal experts say is a potential war crime, is being carried out by wealthy businessmen and state-owned companies in Russia and Syria.
Meanwhile, the Russian military has attacked farms, grain silos and shipping facilities still under Ukrainian control with artillery and air strikes, destroying food, driving up prices.
The grain and flour carried by the 138-meter-long (453 feet) Laodicea likely started its journey in the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, which Russia seized in the early days of the war.
Video posted to social media on July 9 shows a train pulling up to the Melitopol Elevator, a massive grain storage facility, with green hopper cars marked with the name of the Russian company Agro-Fregat LLC with a logo in the shape of a spike of wheat.
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov told AP the occupiers are moving vast quantities of grain from the region by train and truck to ports in Russia and Crimea, a strategic Ukrainian peninsula that Russia has illegally occupied since 2014.
A July 11 satellite image shows the Laodicea tied up at a pier in Feodosia. The ship's radio transponder was turned off. Two weeks later, when it arrived at the Lebanese port city Tripoli, it claimed to be carrying grain from a small Russian port on the other side of the Black Sea.
A copy of the ship's manifests obtained by AP claimed its port of origin was Kavkaz, Russia. The shipper was listed as Agro-Fregat, the same name on the train cars in Melitopol. The buyer was Loyal Agro Co Ltd., a wholesale grocer headquartered in Turkey.
Agro-Fregat didn't respond to emailed questions and a phone number that had been listed on its website was out of service last week.
A spokesman for Loyal Agro said the ship's cargo came from Russia.
But the Laodicea couldn't have picked up its cargo in Kavkaz, the Russian port listed on the manifest. The ship's hull, which reaches 8 meters (26 feet) below the surface, would run aground in the relatively shallow port, which has a maximum depth of 5.3 meters (17.5 feet).
The port in Feodosia is more than twice as deep easily able to accommodate the big ship.
Another company involved in smuggling grain is United Shipbuilding Corp., a Russian state-owned defense contractor sanctioned by the United States for providing weapons to the Russian war effort.
The company, through its subsidiary Crane Marine Contractor, bought three cargo ships just weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine, in a departure from its core business providing heavy lift platforms to the oil and gas industry.
The three ships have made at least 17 trips between Crimea?and ports in Turkey and Syria.
When AP called Crane Marine Contractor a receptionist answered by saying the company's name. A man she transferred the call to, however, insisted AP had the wrong number.
You have reached the wrong place, we do not have such information, said the man, who refused to give his name.
During a typical voyage in mid-June, a 170-meter-long ship (560 feet) called the Mikhail Nenashev was captured on satellite being loaded at the Russian-controlled Avlita Grain Terminal in Sevastopol, Crimea. The ship's radio transponder was turned off, a tactic often used by smugglers known as running dark."
It arrived on June 25 in Dörtyol, Turkey, and docked at a pier owned by MMK Metalurji, a steel producer.
MMK Metalurji is controlled by Viktor Rashnikov, a Russian billionaire who is close to Putin. Rashnikov and his company have been sanctioned by the United States, European Union and United Kingdom.
In an email to AP, MMK said the grain came from Russia: The place where the said cargo is loaded is PORT KAVKAZ.
As with Laodicea, Nenashev's draught is too deep to dock at the Kavkaz port.
Turkey helped broker an agreement between Russia and Ukraine in July to allow both countries to export grain and fertilizer through safe corridors in the Black Sea. The deal did not address the grain Russia has taken from occupied areas.
Though Turkish authorities have pledged to stop illegal smuggling, Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a June news conference his country had not found any evidence of theft.
In our investigation on ships' ports and goods' origins, following claims about Turkey, we saw the origin records to be Russia, he said
Whatever the records say, the smuggling operation continues.
Crane Marine Contractor's ship Matros Koshka named for a Russian sailor lauded as national hero for his bravery during the Crimean War of 1854 cruised north last week into the Black Sea with a listed destination of Kavkaz before turning off its transponder and running dark.
Satellite imagery taken Thursday showed the 161-meter-long ship (528 feet) had docked once again at the grain terminal in the occupied Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, little more than a mile from a Soviet-era statue honouring its namesake....