The Liberian-flagged handysize bulker MARIA GS , recently sold by its Greek Owners to Russian state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation’s Astrakhan-based subsidiary Crane Marine Contractors (CMC), has turned off its AIS en route to Crimea. This action and its recent re-flagging indicate it has joined Russia’s immense plundering operation of Ukrainian goods.
On January 24th, 2023 the MARIA GS departed Chalkis, Greece and assumed a new name, the MATROS SHEVCHENKO under the Russian flag while in the Marmara Sea. According to its submitted transit plan, the vessel was en route to Port Kavkaz near the Kerch Strait, connecting Crimea and Russian Krasnodar Krai. However, after transiting the Bosporus Strait on February 9th, 2023, the vessel turned off its AIS and is now transiting without declaring its location.
This behavior fits perfectly with traditional Russian commercial tactics in extracting plundered goods, especially grain, from Ukraine. According to a comprehensive study by DCI Group AZ, the following activity indicates Russian smuggling operations from occupied Ukraine:
- Changing the intended port of destination during a flight or stopping or diverting to another
destination before reaching the indicated port;
- Turning off vessels’ AIS transponders when entering or leaving a port where they may load or unload stolen product;
- Turning off vessels’ AIS transponders during a flight (“going dark”) to obscure their actual destination, departure point, and route;
- Keeping AIS transponders off after entering a port, creating the appearance that a ship is moored in a port for a much longer period than it actually is;
- Paralleling other vessels, including pleasure craft as well as other cargo ships, to transfer stolen product to a second vessel for transshipment.
According to them, these ships stop transmitting their locations in order to come into ports not on their transit plan or anchor off of occupied ports to be loaded by unregistered cargo ships. Since 2014, several Russian and Syrian-flagged vessels have used this method to smuggle hundreds of thousands of tons of stolen scrap metal, grain, rubber, and other materials. DCI Group AZ provided this vignette to demonstrate how stolen grain is loaded onto these ships:
“Amur 2501, IMO 8721272, provides examples of the practices of “going dark” to obscure movement and anchoring to allow for transshipment. The ship left the Russian port of Azov on June 25. The ship turned off its AIS transponder in the early morning hours on June 26 as it traveled west, obscuring its route across the Sea of Azov as indicated by a dashed line on the screenshot of the Marine Traffic below. Late that night, as the ship approached the Kerch Strait, it turned its AIS transponder back on before anchoring and loitering north of the Kavkaz anchorage point between June 27 and July 1, an indication of transshipment activity. The ship then passed south through the strait before turning its AIS transponder off again, reappearing at Sevastopol where it is believed to have taken on a load of grain.”
The MATROS SHEVCHENKO will now reportedly join these illegal operations, looking to leverage the immense territorial gains made by the Russian Federation in Southern Ukraine. According to investigators more than 11,000 metric tons of steel and scrap metal were plundered from the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol since the city fell in 2022. Additionally, more than 500,000 metric tons of food items have been taken from Ukraine by these Russian and Syrian-flagged vessels. The transit of this vessel and its eventual AIS re-activation will be interesting to watch over the next few days.