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Cargo ship proves an enigma after symbolic voyage from Ukraine

When the Razoni left Odesa at the start of this month, the first ship to sail from Ukraine with a cargo of food since Russia’s full-scale invasion was hailed by UN secretary-general António Guterres as carrying two commodities in short supply — “corn, and hope”.

But the world’s most closely monitored vessel has since proved an imperfect symbol of the path towards solving the global food crisis.

After navigating through the mines in and around the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, the Razoni never arrived at its originally stated destination, Tripoli in Lebanon. The shipment’s buyer rejected the 26,500 tonne corn cargo on quality grounds and the vessel remained stranded until new buyers were found and 1,500 tonnes of the grain was unloaded in Turkey.

On its way to its next stated destination, Egypt, the vessel on Friday stopped transmitting from its transponder, which broadcasts position and route information, with its last signal sent earlier that morning from the northwest coast of Cyprus and its subsequent location unclear.

The Razoni’s voyage has put a spotlight on the complex and secretive nature of commodities trading and the layers of middlemen, agents and insurers involved.

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

Under a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey last month, Kyiv and Moscow agreed to open a humanitarian corridor allowing the passage of cargo ships carrying Ukrainian grain, stranded in the country’s ports because of the war, through the Black Sea to Istanbul. The two countries agreed not to attack vessels or ports covered by the 120-day initiative, with the UN hoping grain exports will reach about 2mn-5mn tonnes a month once the operation is running in full.

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

The vessel is known in the shipping industry for being one of those that moves regularly between the Mediterranean’s riskier ports, for example in countries affected by conflict.

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

Its cargo of corn was originally sold by an Austrian commodities trader VA Intertrading, first noted by price reporting agency Agricensus. Under an agreement commonly known as “free-on-board”, the company said it had loaded the corn on to the Razoni, which had been chartered by the unidentified buyer, in February.

Satellite images appear to show the Razoni calling at the Syrian ports of Tartus, left, and Latakia, right, while its transponders were switched off © Planet Labs

The buyer, who is reportedly Lebanese, has now sold the grain on. The change of final destination and purchaser during the voyage was “a fairly common commercial process”, said the JCC.

Ukraine’s agricultural ministry said all grain shipped from the country underwent quality inspections under international standards and dismissed suggestions that its grains kept at the ports since the outbreak of war were rotten. Apart from the original buyer’s rejection of the Razoni shipment, “so far, there have been no negative reviews”, it said.

If the identity of the Razoni cargo’s buyer remains a mystery, the vessel itself is also an enigma even within the grain trading community.

Map showing three journey made by the Razoni bulk carrier in 2021 where the vessel turned off it geolocation transponder for up to 30 days.

Sailing under a Sierra-Leone flag, a practice known as a “flag of convenience” where an owner registers a vessel in a country other than their own, the ship is owned by Razoni Shipping Ltd, according to industry databases. However, its contact details are unavailable and the FT has been unable to reach the company or the vessel’s crew. The ship’s agent in Turkey said the captain and most of the crew were Syrian.

Mainly operating in the Black Sea and Mediterranean region, the vessel last year made three voyages where its transponders were turned off. After a time they were turned back near Cyprus, according to data from marine platform Sea/.

Photos from Planet Labs, a satellite photography platform, appear to show the Razoni calling at Syrian ports during the times it went dark. Trading grain and food with Syria does not contravene western sanctions imposed on the Damascus regime over the country’s long-running civil war. But some vessels avoid openly sailing to the country because of the stipulations of financial institutions, according to grain traders.

Questions have also been raised about the Razoni’s insurance. It has no entry in the ship search provided by the International Group of P&I Clubs, a group of 13 mutually owner insurers that provide liability cover for around 90 per cent of the world’s ocean-going tonnage. The list shows which ship is covered by which insurer and is regularly updated, according to a person familiar with the matter. Many ports will not allow vessels to enter if they have no liability cover.

Earlier this week, Frederick Kenney, interim co-ordinator for the UN at the JCC, said the organisation 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 flag state of the vessel and the countries in which ports were located.

The JCC says its role is to ensure the safe passage of vessels carrying Ukrainian food exports between the grain corridor and Istanbul and to check whether vessels had any unauthorised crew or cargo.

“We are not involved in conducting food inspection, this is not part of the agreement,” said an official. “We do not monitor where the vessel goes when it departs Istanbul and its destination may change depending on commercial activity that we do not control.”

The UN’s aim is to ease the global food crisis by bringing prices down through increasing Ukrainian supplies. The country is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat and a leading supplier of corn and sunflower oil. It accounts for 80 per cent of Lebanon’s wheat imports and is a leading supplier for countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Grain prices, including for corn and wheat, have now fallen to prewar levels, partly in anticipation of increased supplies from Ukraine.

So far 12 vessels, including the Razoni, have set sail from the three Black Sea ports designated under the deal — Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi — carrying more than 375,000 tonnes of food commodities, mostly corn. The priority is “to free up space in the Ukrainian ports and get all those vessels frozen there the last few months to leave Ukraine with cargo, so [they] can get new ships in,” said the UN official.

Despite the issues with the Razoni voyage, commodities traders using the grain corridor remain optimistic. “It’s a learning curve for everybody. Things will be perfected over time. The Razoni was a leader in getting out of the corridor,” said Gaurav Srivastava, chair of trader Harvest Commodities, which transported corn out of Ukraine on the vessel Riva Wind earlier this week.

Many ship owners are reportedly reluctant to send vessels back to Ukraine amid concerns that the war could leave them trapped again. But Srivastava said he would continue to do so.

“This is potentially the first step towards having some sort of peace. That as an outsider is the hope,” he said. “That gives us a perspective as a business and that business will get 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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