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An investigation by the Associated Press and television series Frontline has found that Russia used a smuggling operation to steal Ukrainian grain worth at least US$530M and used the cash to fund its war efforts, World Grain reported.

Using satellite images and marine radio transponder data, AP tracked more than three dozen ships carrying grain from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to ports in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and other locations, according to the 3 October report.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the country imposed a Black Sea blockade that was partially lifted by a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in July. Ukraine’s grain storage and export infrastructure has also been devastated by the conflict.

The theft was being carried out by wealthy businessmen and state-owned companies in Russia and Syria, the investigation found.

For example, investigators found that the bulk cargo ship Laodicea docked in Lebanon last summer was carrying grain stolen by Russia, with it likely that the vessel had started its journey in the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, which Russia had seized at the start of the war.

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov told AP that Russia was moving vast quantities of grain from the region by train and truck to ports in Russia and Crimea, a strategic Ukrainian peninsula that Russia has illegally occupied since 2014.

When it arrived in Lebanon two weeks later, the Laodicea had reportedly claimed to be carrying grain from a Russian port on the other side of the Black Sea.

The shipper was listed as Agro-Fregat and the buyer was Loyal Agro Co, a wholesale grocer headquartered in Turkey, according to the investigation.

AP said Agro-Fregat had not responded to e-mailed questions and a phone number listed on its website was out of service at the time of the report.

A spokesperson for Loyal Agro was quoted as saying that the ship’s cargo came from Russia. However, AP said that the Laodicea could not have picked up its cargo in Kavkaz – the Russian port listed on the bill of lading – as its hull, which reached 8M below the surface, would have run aground in the relatively shallow port.

Another company involved in smuggling grain was United Shipbuilding Corp, a Russian state-owned defence contractor sanctioned by the USA for providing weapons to the Russian war effort, AP said.

The company, through its subsidiary Crane Marine Contractor, bought three cargo ships in the weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine, according to AP, with the vessels making at least 17 trips between Crimea and ports in Turkey and Syria.

Although Turkish authorities had pledged to stop illegal smuggling, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying in a June news conference that his country had not found any evidence of theft, World Grain wrote.