A joint investigation by the AP and PBS “Frontline” used satellite imagery and open source video and photos, as well as ship-tracking data to document a massive operation in which Russia has been stealing Ukrainian grain and selling it to countries in the Middle East.
Ukrainian officials in June accused Russia of the practice, but Russia denied it, and countries including Lebanon and Syria said they were skeptical. AP's news verification reporter Beatrice Dupuy and global investigative reporter Michael Biesecker set out to find the truth.
Biesecker used satellite images and an online service that logs ships’ radio transponder signals, tracking the movements of a fleet of cargo vessels docking at grain terminals in Russian-occupied Crimea and then sailing to ports in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. He then accessed business records to determine both the ownership of the ships and the businesses that bought the grain.
Dupuy gathered videos posted to social media showing long lines of trucks hauling grain from areas of Ukraine invaded this year to Crimean ports Russia illegally annexed in 2014. She also found a Turkish hobbyist who had made photos and videos of the massive ships entering a port in Istanbul, then unloading the stolen grain.
Biesecker also worked with Beirut-based global investigative reporter Sarah El Deeb, who obtained the manifest of a grain ship docked in Lebanon. That document turned out to be a key piece of evidence, linking the shipping company to grain transported by rail from a Russian-occupied city. The journalists also found that the manifest listed a Russian port of origin, but satellite imagery showed the ship had actually been loaded in Crimea.
Biesecker compiled a spreadsheet with more than 50 voyages carried out by three dozen ships, using their listed cargo capacity and converting the figures: a total more than 1.1 million metric tons of grain with a market value of more than $530 million.
Video journalist Serginho Roosblad and news verification reporter Arijeta Lajka produced a video that laid out the visual evidence, featuring slick motion graphics and illustrations by “Frontline,” narrated by investigative reporter Juliet Linderman.
Other news organizations have reported on the grain theft, but AP and “Frontline” were first to detail the smuggling operation, from silos in occupied Ukraine all the way to grocery store shelves in Turkey and Syria. The jnvestigation was also the first to name names, tracing the owners of the companies that were shipping and receiving the grain, and their ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Readers responded enthusiastically and Biesecker appeared on the BBC to discuss the team’s work. Dr. Annie Kemp, of the International Journal of Maritime Crime & Security, wrote, “THANK YOU, thank you, thank you, for the most incredible research and coherent reporting and bringing this almost unbelievable, incredulous story to light. I hope (United Nations Secretary-General) Guterres has a copy!”