On 22 July, a deal was announced that would allow millions of tonnes of wheat, corn and other grains trapped in the Ukraine since Russia invaded in February to be exported via the Black Sea. World wheat prices fell 2% in response, but a Russian missile attack on the port of Odessa just a few hours later saw prices climb again. There is widespread concern around potential risks in using the designated route, or even that the deal may not survive its initial 120-day term.
If the future remains fog-bound, the stakes are all too clear. Ukraine has c.$10bn (£8.4bn) worth of produce it desperately needs to sell to finance its war effort – one that now looks to be long term. There are concerns too that the 22 million of tonnes of grain being stored may start to spoil. What’s more, with silos still full with last year’s harvest, farmers have nowhere to put this year’s crop – if and when they can gather it.
Of course, the hold-up of isn’t just an economic issue. Many countries with large populations depend on wheat from Ukraine: Bangladesh imports 25% of the stuff, Egypt 26% and Pakistan 48%. In Africa, wheat prices have gone up by more than 60%. The World Food Programme calculated that 47m people might be at risk of ‘acute hunger’ as the consequences of the war ripple across the globe.
Lloyd’s List Intelligence journalist Bridget Diakun has been at the forefront of this complex, fast moving story, using her expertise in marine data to decode and interpret events.
On 21st June she wrote Russia accused of shipping stolen Ukrainian grain via Crimea, identifying Russian and Syrian bulk carriers suspected of moving stolen produce. Bridget also noted deceptive practices being employed among the fleet. The notion of a maritime ‘corridor’ for Ukraine wheat was the focus of a report on 6th July, Ukraine corridor hangs in the balance amid shipping disputes, while Bridget’s piece the next day highlighted an increase in probable dark port callings (where ships turn off their Automatic Identification System – AIS – and there is a likelihood they called at a port during the time they were off the radar) reinforcing suspicions that Russia is using Crimean ports for suspicious activity: Dark port calls grow amid stolen grain shipment claims.
Making sense of a spider web of digital information, false leads and anecdotes involves persistence, intuition and the ability to dive deep into the world’s preeminent store of marine data.
“I have tracked Ukrainian trade and trade in the Black Sea since the war broke out, looking at (the data) almost on a daily basis to see what’s moving. I have ideas about what I think is interesting. I latch onto these and start exploring and digging. It’s also about understanding what’s possible with the data and how I can offer a new take on the situation.
“With the dark port calls it started with tracking broader media coverage. It was clear that there were several vessels known to the public that were engaging in suspicious activity, but the scope of this was still a question mark.
“Our database identifies probable dark port calls based on a number of criteria, so it was a matter of limiting the results to Crimean ports. I then grouped the data and compared pre- and post-invasion activity to see if there was a trend. We found that dark port calls to Crimea are fairly common, which is not surprising given the Russians have been operating them for quite some time. What was interesting, though, is that the volume of calls is not only increasing, but a new pattern emerged after the war started where more vessels started shutting off their AIS while in Russian waters.
“The analysis was important because it added context to the situation, shedding light on whether or not the behavior was typical in the region.”
“It’s important to note that there can be legitimate reasons for turning off AIS, but given the political situation, lengthy AIS gaps in the region do raise a red flag, that's for sure. I’m still tracking the AIS data to see if any unusual patterns are emerging. I have a hunch that there is more activity going on under the radar that we don’t know yet.
“There's a predictive element to it where you’re taking a shot in the dark, but the thought process is that if I explore a certain question I have then I may uncover something interesting. So you keep looking. And then the temporal aspect of, ‘OK - that's what I can see; what's is there a baseline which tells me how strange this behavior is?’ It’s always important to sense check what you’re looking at, so you know if it is an anomaly.
“I of course use other media sources as a jumping off point, but I never want to replicate something that CNN's written because there's no need for me to - they've done a really good job. The difference is: we have this data, and I know that I can often get deeper into the problem. The other media outlets can't do that.
“Another thing to remember is that data is only really valuable when you add the human element to it. A lot of time and effort goes into cleaning the data and understanding it before I start to draw conclusions.”
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