Windward’s Maritime AI™ platform identified general cargo and bulk carriers engaging in dark activities near Crimea/Azov Sea, leading to ship-to-ship (STS) engagements at Kerch Strait. This typology remained elevated from July-November 2022, with a significant drop in December and a small increase in January 2023, based on data we compiled for our recent report. Windward’s report focused on the first year of Russia’s war with Ukraine, and looked at how the conflict has impacted deceptive shipping practices (DSPs), trade routes, and more.
Also, the number of dark activity incidents by cargo vessels in the Azov Sea were at an all-time high in 2022-2023. While the STS operations at Kerch are in accordance with seasonal trends since 2021, the dark activity near Crimea right before the meeting is what raises the probability of illicit operations.
Another indicator that these STS engagements in Kerch go beyond the seasonality trend, and are in fact driving grain smuggling out of Ukraine, is the involvement of crane vessels in these meetings. There were three (monthly average) bulk/general cargo vessel meetings with crane vessels in Kerch prior to the war. That increased to 5.2 meetings (per month) after the invasion.
Drilling Down into How Grain Smuggling Works
By using Windward’s multi-source investigation tools, we were able to identify an alleged grain smuggling operation, and highlight the important role of crane vessels in these raids.
We used the Planet Labs layer, with its integrated object detection capability, to look at the meetings happening at Kerch.
We were able to identify a meeting between six vessels – four cargo vessels and two crane vessels. One of the vessels was identified as the cargo vessel that brought in the smuggled grain – it engaged in a dark activity in the Azov Sea just days before the meeting.
The other two cargo vessels departed Kerch with the stolen grain and delivered it to Morocco and the Arabian Gulf.
With the increasing sophistication of illicit activities, traditional monitoring methods may not be sufficient in identifying and combating these crimes. Predictive analytics and artificial intelligence are essential in detecting patterns of illicit behavior and identifying the vessels involved in these operations. Continued vigilance and collaboration between stakeholders are needed to effectively monitor and prevent these crimes in the future.
Windward will continue sharing our thought leadership on how organizations throughout the maritime ecosystem can stay aware of mutating maritime risk.