Visualizing hybrid war: Russian industrialized theft practices and the international food crisis
Economic war at the 10k-foot level
Summary: Three beneficial owners, two of whom are not sanctioned, are responsible for shipping over 80% of all recorded agricultural plunder from Ukraine. Plunder is a war crime that degrades and diminishes the international rule of law; sanctions against the entity chains responsible for resource extraction are advocated for here.
Twenty-first century warfare, as we are learning it in the Ukraine war, is increasingly non-linear and non-kinetic, it involves whole-of-society efforts, and as shown in the data on Russian "theft" in all forms - smuggling, expropriation and outright confiscation at gunpoint - it involves crime on a truly industrialized scale.
A substantial empirical record points to how this crime is done. Years of Ukrainian OSINT, or media coverage following up on its leads - for instance, Maya Gebeily and Laila Bassam in Reuters on July 28, tracking cargos into Syria - show a highly detailed, "high-integrity" fact-checked and verified picture of how this is conducted from major institutional media outlets. Statistical analysis and data visualization upon this work is possible, in fact, thanks to the largest dataset of smuggled food, from the SEAKRIME Project by the Ukrainian myrotvorets or "Peacekeeper" OSINT website.
Drawing on Kateryna Jaresko and Irina Tkach's reporting, verifying ship movements where possible, and tracing ship ownership to beneficial owners where available or, barring that, major foreign institutions (e.g., the Syrian government), patterns are visible that corroborate their individual findings and also point at a clear, unmistakeable pattern of opportunistic criminal exploitation with state sanction.
Jaresko and Tkach's work demonstrates that economic and political integration are irreducible to Russia's way of war because economic and political corruption are ubiquitous in Russian institutional culture, especially its military institutions, but also in commercial entities that interface with the state and its security apparatus.
What they're showing is what an FSB business runs like, essentially. This is what the people involved look like when you look at them; it's what the list-org pages for their companies suggests; it's what this entire "scene" looks like.
It's a legitimized crime ring operating on a state-sponsored scale.
When I extend upon their work and look for patterns in, specifically, the food shipments that Jaresko & Tkach document - discarding shipments of, for instance, ilmenite, or steel, going back to 2016 - the pattern that emerges is that the crime ring's operations are not merely a correlate of Russian military behavior; they appear to be a critical tool of Russian policy.
The notion of 'contested terrain' extends beyond the spatial; increasingly, hybrid war has come to involve contests to shape factors in the cultural and anthropological domains that play into conflict outcomes. The concept of "human terrain" extends now into what we could term economic, political, and even Internet-cultural terrain. To cite a few examples: respectively, the forcible economic integration of Kherson, the putative "statehood" of the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics somewhere north of SeaLand and well short of even Comoros (yes, a country), and the "NAFO" meme fad/movement, are all instances of more or less organized campaigns to determine whether local economies, sovereignty rhetoric or internet humor would support Russian or Ukrainian end-outcomes.
This is the same way the battle over contested economic terrain in Ukraine directly plays into the food crisis.
A series of disparate behaviors by Russian military, intelligence and public diplomacy assets can be "timelined" into this data that start to give perspective upon it, not just the start of hostilities on February 24th, but changing war aims after the Battle of Kyiv, as well as progress towards incorporation of occupied portions of Ukraine into Russia. A "finalized" visualization of this pattern would show at least some of these events.
If we zoom out, however, and look just at tonnage levels across time as a "heatmap" - displaying a bigger shipment as a darker shade - at a very gross level, what just jumps right out at you, as it were, is that there was some level of periodicity to grain smuggling out of Crimea before the war.
There appear to be two seasons in which grain shipments occur, and the shipments later in the year appear to be bigger and more consistent. If we assume that there are some shipments we are missing, for instance in 2021 and in 2020, then what we have starts to look like shipments for the spring and autumn wheat harvests... up until 2022, that is.
This much shipment activity - actually, any shipment activity - in May, June and July is anomalous for this data set.
The increase in volume in 2022, compared to other years, is also a signal. Each year, the recorded amount of grain shipped was:
2018: 33,156 tons
2019: 179,387 tons
2020: 53,152 tons
2021: 43,039 tons
2022: 651,484 tons
Before 2019, 77,183.5 tons of grain were shipped, on average, per year. That means somewhere in the neighborhood of 575,000 tons of grain this year are coming from somewhere they didn't before; by year's end, it's likely going to be closer to 1.25 million.
We can guess at where part of that 77k tons per year came from. If we draw on public records for separatist agricultural magnate Seitumer Nimetullaev, somewhere in the range of 40k tons per year comes out of the Commonwealth South property at Chongar that he's owned since 2016.
But this isn't direct, and it's far from conclusive; I've seen bill-of-lading documents for these ships, both public ones like this, and non-public ones.
For example, these images, from Crimea.Realities, “Satellite images prove that Russia regularly exports Ukrainian grain through Crimea to Turkey - "Schemes" (Спутниковые снимки доказывают, что Россия регулярно вывозит через Крым украинское зерно в Турцию – «Схемы»)”, Krym.Realii (Crimean project of the Ukrainian service of Radio Liberty), July 5, 2022,
They don't say Commonwealth South, or Seitumer Nimetullaev. We can make guesses from the overall data; but without investigation to fill in the "black boxes" that you can't see inside, guesses aren't even worth passing on for verification.
What does exist, though, is that this surge in shipments has to come from somewhere, and just "what we could round up at random" doesn't explain this volume.
The timing, and the way that it starts in April of 2022, is also a clear enough pattern to draw interest and, I think, demonstrate something else about the data in context of the ownership data.
Consider that as of May 12, 2022, fertilizer prices were already increasing because of COVID, the Russian war on Ukraine, and internal economic conditions inside China causing a decrease in fertilizer exports.
Quoting van Wyk, Barry, “Fertilizer prices are going through the roof: War and pestilence are constricting the world’s supply of fertilizers, making profits for Chinese companies but threatening tough times ahead”, supChina.com (China business/diplomatic news blog), May 12, 2022:
The industrial production of chemical fertilizers is a fundamental reason why the planet is currently able to feed almost 8 billion people. But in the era of COVID-19 and especially after the start of the Russia-Ukraine War earlier this year, fertilizers have been in short supply on the global market and their prices have increased sharply.
One factor: Russia was the largest exporter of fertilizers by dollar value in 2020, with $7 billion or 12.6% of global exports (China was the second-largest exporter with $6.6 billion).
The fertilizer price index calculated by the World Bank rose to 237.6 in March, up 1.3 times from the same period last year, a new high level since 2008.
Per China’s National Bureau of Statistics, as of the beginning of May, the price of small pellets of urea was 2,934.3 yuan/ton ($436/ton), a year-on-year increase of 32.7%, and the price of compound fertilizer was 3,861.4 yuan/ton ($574/ton), a year-on-year increase of 55.2%. The price of sulfur, one of the important raw materials of phosphate fertilizer, has increased by more than 70% since February.
Of China’s 25 listed fertilizer companies that have reported first-quarter results, 12 made a year-on-year increase in net profits of more than 100%, including:
Asia Potash International Investment Guangzhou 亚钾国际, with a year-on-year increase in net profits of 1,498.7%.
Kunming Chuan Jin Nuo Chemical 昆明绿岛环境科技, with a year-on-year increase in net profits of 1,192.74%.
Jiangsu Chengxing Phosph-Chemicals Co. 江苏澄星磷化工, with a year-on-year increase in net profits of 700.05%.
Yet domestic producers have other challenges, such as a government system to stabilize domestic supply and export controls, and difficulties in moving fertilizer around the country due to COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.
As a result, exports are down: In the first quarter of 2022, China exported a total of 4.15 million tons of various fertilizers, a year-on-year decrease of 33.2%, according to China Customs. (emphasis added)
It is difficult to assert that any specific strategic intent resides within the minds of Russian high command; it's even harder to argue that there are breakpoints, such that I could say "hey, look, something changed in April of 2022 and that was related to all the news that was going around about the food crisis".
I'd argue it's a problem that is (almost hideously ironically in my view) akin to art history; you can just wing it and make a subjective reading, and say that you're an expert and you think this is the way it always happens, but this is only so good (or so interesting) at the end of the day.
If you want to be scientific about it, or at least rigorous, you can arrive at such an assessment, at best, by eliminating other assessments. And this is where ownership starts to play in.
There are three entities that account for over 80% of all volume shipped since 2018:
Crane Marine Contractor, a front entity for JSC Southern Shipbuilding and Ship Repair, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of United Shipbuilding Corporation, which is (very) sanctioned
The Syrian Maritime Authority or SYRIAMAR, which is (unsurprisingly) owned by the Syrian government, and is also very, very sanctioned
Maxim Vasilievich Fisik, a Russian national who owns three different shipping companies, who appears not to be sanctioned (and should probably be worried about that)
All of Crane's shipments occur after the war starts and they dwarf anything that came before - and Crane Marine Contractor traces back to a partially-state-owned entity that appears to be operating as what I'd call an "autotomous" entity - a shell company that's meant to absorb sanctions exposure.
Again, step back from the data a bit and what you see is that after April, a major state-sponsored entity that looks like it was set up to absorb sanctions exposure started shipping massive volumes of expropriated Ukrainian grain.
This does not show that there is an intentional aspect to Russians "stealing" (expropriating, smuggling, seizing) grain to exacerbate an international famine strategy.
But if there was no intentional aspect to it - if this was all just small-time hustlers and exploiters and pilferers trying to adopt new gray-zone hustles in the middle of a war - then it doesn't seem very controversial to say that it wouldn't look the way it does.