Grain ship Zhibek Zholy at the heart of Black Sea dispute
Zhibek Zholy, a disputed cargo ship carrying allegedly stolen grain from Ukraine, has returned to Russian territorial waters, Turkish sources told AFP on Thursday, drawing widespread condemnation from Kyiv.
The marinetraffic.com website showed Zhibek Zholy moving at least 20 kilometres (12 miles) away from Turkey’s Black Sea port of Karasu before apparently switching off its transponder and disappearing from view.
An unnamed crew member of the Zhibek Zholy told Russia’s TASS news agency that the ship was supposed to offload the grain to another vessel so that it would “not lose money”. But one of the Turkish sources said the ship still appeared to be carrying the grain. “As far as we know, it is waiting (at the Russian port) loaded,” the Turkish source said.
Kyiv alleges that the Russian-flagged vessel had set off from Ukraine’s occupied port of Berdyansk after picking up confiscated wheat. Russia, for its part, changed its story several times, first stating that the boat would be deliving grain to “friendly countries”, such as Syria and Iran.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, then claimed that the ship belonged to Kazakhstan, which had to conclude a grain export contract with Turkey before eventually acknowledging that the cargo was Russian, but that a Kazakh company had made the delivery on behalf of Estonian and Turkish clients.
Ukraine has demanded that Turkey impound the vessel and return the allegedly stolen grain.
“The issue of food security is a very sensitive one in the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations,” says Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian security issues and an external consultant for the New Lines Institute in Washington.
The Holodomor – the great famine that ravaged Ukraine in the early 1930s – was “partly caused by the Soviet Union’s decision to export Ukrainian grain reserves”, recalls Hawn. Russia risks losing what little credibility it has left among a certain segment of the Ukrainian population if it is seen once again as a plundering country.
But Russia claims to have “nationalised” Ukrainian state assets and to be buying crops from local farmers. NATO member Turkey has been trying to negotiate a solution that could preserve its good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv.
Turkey had detained Zhibek Zholy since Monday, promising to investigate the provenance of the 7,000 tonnes of grain onboard. The boat in question had ignited a fresh dispute between Ukraine and Russia, as Ukraine accused Russia of plundering its reserves, a claim Moscow denied.
This issue of allegedly stolen grain was important to both Ukraine and Russia. Hawn says that “Kyiv [could] use it to portray Moscow not only as the aggressor but also as a plunderer, which in terms of war propaganda can be very effective.”
While the grain delivery “is important for Russia because it is a way of trying to make the occupied territories economically self-sufficient,” notes Hawn. If these Russian-controlled regions are able to generate their own income from these exports, then it would take an economic burden off Russia’s shoulders, as it is currently obliged to fund 100% of the occupation.
Ankara has not issued an official statement about the Zhibek Zholy since it arrived in Karasu last Friday.
But the Ukrainian foreign ministry on Thursday summoned Turkey’s ambassador to demand an explanation for the ship’s return to Russia.
“Ignoring an appeal from Ukraine, the ship was released on the evening of July 6,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry said in a statement.
It said it was “deeply disappointed” that Turkey had not seized the ship, as per its request.
We regret that Russia’s ship Zhibek Zholy which was full of stolen Ukrainian grain, was allowed to leave Karasu port despite criminal evidence presented to the Turkish authorities. Türkiye’s Ambassador in Kyiv will be invited to @MFA_Ukraine to clarify this unacceptable situation
— Oleg Nikolenko (@OlegNikolenko_) July 7, 2022
“We regret that Russia’s ship Zhibek Zholy which was full of stolen Ukrainian grain, was allowed to leave Karasu port despite criminal evidence presented to the Turkish authorities,” Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month that Ankara was investigating reports of Russian-seized Ukrainian grain that had reached its Black Sea shores. He added that Turkey had been unable to find any stolen Ukrainian grain shipments.
Ankara said Cavusoglu discussed “grain exports” with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba over the phone on Thursday but provided no further details.
Turkey’s reticence underscores the difficulty of its position in the war. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had a tumultuous but close working relationship with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. He has tried to use that access to thrust Turkey into the middle of diplomatic negotiations and talks on resuming grain shipments from Ukrainian ports.
But his Russian relationship is complicated by Turkey’s international commitments as a member of the NATO military alliance. Ankara also supplies combat drones to Ukraine that have proved effective in helping slow Russia’s advance across the Donbas region.