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Cargo ship proves an enigma after symbolic voyage from Ukraine

When the Razoni left Odessa early this month, the first ship to leave Ukraine carrying a cargo of food since the large-scale invasion of Russia was hailed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres as carrying two commodities that were in short supply: “corn, and heap”.

But the world’s most controlled ship has since turned out to be an imperfect symbol of the road to solving the global food crisis.

After navigating the mines in and around Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, the Razoni never arrived at its originally stated destination, Tripoli in Lebanon. The shipment’s buyer turned down the 26,500-ton maize cargo on quality reasons and the ship was left stranded until new buyers were found and 1,500 tons of the grain had been unloaded in Turkey.

En route to its next indicated destination, Egypt, the ship stopped transmitting from its transponder, which transmits position and route information, on Friday, with the last signal being sent from the northwest coast of Cyprus earlier that morning and its subsequent location unclear.

The Razoni’s journey has highlighted the complex and secretive nature of commodities trading and the intermediaries, agents and insurers involved.

“[Grain trading] is very complicated. The UN is relying too much on the private sector with a very half-baked initiative,” said Jean-Francois Lambert, a consultant and former commodity trading banker.

Maps comparing bulk carrier journeys since the grain shipment initiative began August 1 to the same week in 2021

Under an agreement brokered by the UN and Turkey last month, Kiev and Moscow agreed to open a humanitarian corridor that would allow the passage of cargo ships carrying Ukrainian grain, stranded in the country’s ports because of the war, through the Blacks. Sea to Istanbul makes possible. The two countries agreed not to attack ships or ports covered by the 120-Day Initiative, with the UN hoping grain exports will reach about 2 to 5 million tons per month once the operation is fully implemented.

The UN-led Joint Committee (JCC) overseeing the deal said the Razoni was chosen as the first ship based on information provided by Ukrainian port authorities, including its readiness to sail.

The ship is known in the shipping industry as one of the ships that regularly sails between the riskier ports of the Mediterranean, for example in countries affected by conflict.

“These are difficult locations,” said Yörük Işık, a geopolitical and maritime analyst based in Istanbul. “Ships operating in the region tend to have more adventurous crews. The Razoni is a ship that works between the more challenging routes.”

The shipment of maize was originally sold by an Austrian commodity trader VA Intertrading, first spotted by price reporting agency Agricensus. Under an agreement commonly known as “free on board,” the company said it loaded the corn onto the Razoni in February, which had been chartered by the unidentified buyer.

Satellite images appear to show the Razoni calling at the Syrian ports of Tartus, left, and Latakia, right, with transponders disabled © Planet Labs

The buyer, who is said to be Lebanese, has now resold the grain. The change of destination and buyer during the voyage was “a fairly common commercial process,” according to the JCC.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Agriculture said all grain shipped out of the country underwent quality inspections according to international standards and rejected suggestions that grains kept in ports since the outbreak of the war were rotten. Aside from the original purchaser’s rejection of the Razoni shipment, “there have been no negative reviews so far,” it said.

If the identity of the buyer of the Razoni cargo remains a mystery, the ship itself remains a mystery, even within the grain trading community.

Map showing three voyages made by the Razoni bulk carrier in 2021, with the vessel disabling the geolocation transponder for up to 30 days.

Sailing under the Sierra Leone flag, a practice known as a “cheap flag” where an owner registers a vessel in a country other than his own, is owned by Razoni Shipping Ltd, according to industry databases. However, the contact details are not available and the FT was unable to reach the company or the ship’s crew. The shipping agent in Turkey said the captain and most of the crew were Syrians.

The ship, which was mainly active in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, made three voyages last year with the transponders disabled. After a while they were sent back near Cyprus, according to data from the sea platform Sea/.

Photos from Planet Labs, a satellite photography platform, appear to show the Razoni calling at Syrian ports during the time of darkness. The grain and food trade with Syria does not violate Western sanctions imposed on the Damascus regime because of the country’s long-running civil war. But some ships are avoiding openly sailing to land because of financial institutions’ regulations, grain traders said.

Questions have also been raised about the insurance of the Razoni. It has no entry in the ship search offered by the International Group of P&I Clubs, a group of 13 mutual-ownership insurers that provide liability coverage for approximately 90 percent of the world’s ocean-going tonnage. The list shows which ship is covered by which insurer and is regularly updated, according to a trusted person. Many ports will not allow ships if they do not have liability coverage.

Earlier this week, Frederick Kenney, the UN’s interim coordinator at the JCC, said the organization was not responsible for checking ship ownership. “We are not serving as a port state control authority,” he said, adding that this was a role for the ship’s flag state and the countries the ports were in.

The JCC says its role is to ensure safe passage of ships carrying Ukrainian food exports between the grain corridor and Istanbul and to check whether ships had unauthorized crews or cargo.

“We are not involved in conducting food inspections, this is not part of the agreement,” an official said. “We do not monitor where the ship is going when it leaves Istanbul and the destination may change depending on commercial activities beyond our control.”

The UN’s goal is to alleviate the global food crisis by lowering prices by increasing Ukrainian stocks. The country is the world’s fifth largest exporter of wheat and a leading supplier of corn and sunflower oil. It accounts for 80 percent of Lebanese wheat imports and is a leading supplier to countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Grain prices, also for maize and wheat, have now fallen to pre-war levels, partly in anticipation of a larger supply from Ukraine.

So far, 12 ships, including the Razoni, have departed from the three Black Sea ports designated under the deal — Odessa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi — carrying more than 375,000 tons of food items, mainly maize. The priority is to “clear up space in the Ukrainian ports and get all those ships there frozen over the past few months to leave Ukraine with cargo, so [they] bring in new ships,” the UN official said.

Despite the problems with the Razoni journey, commodity traders using the grain corridor remain optimistic. “It’s a learning curve for everyone. Things will be perfected over time. The Razoni was a leader to get out of the corridor,” said Gaurav Srivastava, chairman of merchant Harvest Commodities, which was transporting maize from Ukraine earlier this week on the vessel Riva Wind.

Many shipowners are reportedly reluctant to return ships to Ukraine, fearing that the war will leave them stranded again. But Srivastava said he would continue to do so.

“This may be the first step towards some kind of peace. That’s the hope as an outsider,” he said. “That gives us a perspective as a company and that business will go back to normal.”

Additional reporting by Ian Smith, Harry Dempsey and Chris Cook in London, Raya Jalabi in Beirut and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul

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