Russia Denies Claim of Vessel Detention Over Ukrainian Grain Theft

The Port of Berdyansk in occupied eastern Ukraine (Andrew Butko / CC BY SA 3.0)

Published Jul 6, 2022 5:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Russian government has denied Ukrainian claims that a ship full of allegedly stolen Ukrainian grain has been detained at a Turkish port. 

The Russian-appointed governor of the occupied Zaporizhzhia region, Yevhen Balytskyi, confirmed the departure of the Russian bulker Zhibek Zholy from the occupied port of Berdyansk on June 29. Balytskyi said that the Zholy would be carrying 7,000 tonnes of Ukrainian grain to "friendly" nations. 

Zholy's AIS signal reappeared on the 29th near Kerch Strait, headed southbound. The ship crossed the Black Sea and made for Turkey's northern coastline, where she anchored off the small port of Karasu on July 1. 

According to Amb. Vasyl Bondar, Ukraine's representative in Ankara, Turkish authorities detained the Zholy after an urgent request from Kyiv. "We have full cooperation," he told Ukrainian media. A Turkish official confirmed the vessel's detention on July 4, and as of the evening of July 6, the Zholy was still moored off Karasu. 

However, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexei Zaitsev told Reuters Wednesday that the vessel was merely "undergoing standard procedures" and that reports of the vessel's detention were incorrect.

Ukrainian prosecutors have also asked Turkey to investigate the movements of three further Russian ships, the Mikhail Nenashev, Matros Pozynich and Matros Koshka. The vessels all departed Russian-occupied Sebastopol in recent months and are believed to have carried stolen Ukrainian grain. 

Negotiations over Ukrainian grain exports show movement

At a press conference Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the negotiations on a safe passage agreement for legitimate Ukrainian grain exports are moving ahead, and he predicted an intensification of the talks within 7-10 days. 

Russia has imposed a naval blockade on all Ukrainian ports, including the key agricultural export hub of Odesa. An estimated 22 million tonnes of grain are stuck in Ukraine because seaborne commerce is fully cut off. Ukraine cannot sell its crops, and import-dependent nations like Lebanon and Egypt cannot buy them. The problem is set to worsen by the end of summer because there is no room in the silos to store the next harvest. The shutdown of normal food export routes from Ukraine to the Mideast and Africa is raising the cost of grain in the region, which reduces the ability of food-aid programs to reach the neediest populations. 

Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and representatives of the UN have been engaged in talks on lifting the Russian blockade and allowing foreign-flag bulkers to pick up grain at Odesa. Turkey's role in the deal would be to provide neutral inspections for assurance that inbound ships are not carrying arms to Ukraine, plus security escorts to bring those ships safely to Ukrainian ports. 

Crucially, the plan would not require Ukraine to remove the naval mines emplaced around Odesa, which Russia has previously demanded. The mines were set at the beginning of the invasion to deter any possible Russian attempt at an amphibious assualt. 

Russia has not yet agreed to the UN-Turkish-Ukrainian plan, and its sign-off is the next step, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said at a joint press conference with Erdogan. "I hope that Russia can give the green light to this initiative as a calming signal for future peace negotiations," Draghi said. "The United Nations, Ukraine and Turkey are waiting for the final approval of the Kremlin."