by Ollie Ballinger

The main grain terminal at the Port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea has fallen quiet in recent years – at least according to ship monitoring services.

Automated Identification Systems (AIS) tracking data, which provides open source information on the positioning and movement of ships, shows few vessels visiting the Avlita grain terminal since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2015. 

International sanctions on the city of Sevastopol and the Avlita terminal (which has also been referred to as Aval in some media reports and registers) could explain why traffic has seemingly been so low. 

But other open sources paint a radically different picture of events at the terminal.

Satellite imaging services such as Planet, social media posts and a new Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) tool built as part of Bellingcat’s Tech Fellowship scheme, show that vessels have in fact covertly continued to make regular visits.

Bellingcat identified at least 179 days in the first 12 months of Russia’s full-scale invasion where ships had been present at the Avlita terminal with their AIS transponders seemingly turned off. 

This appears to support the findings of several media reports that claimed activity at the terminal has continued apace.

The Financial TimesBloombergCNNReuters, the BBC, the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press have all reported on apparent grain exports at the terminal since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion, even highlighting some of the ships involved. Some have even pointed to evidence the terminal has been used as an exit point for grain taken from areas of occupied Ukraine, something Ukrainian ministers have claimed is “outright robbery” but which Russia denies.

Yet despite this coverage, many details about operations at the terminal remain unknown or are undocumented.

For example, the SeaKrime monitoring project of Ukrainian activist group Mytrovorets has published a list of ships it says have visited the Avlita Terminal to export stolen grain. However, only a handful of vessels on this list are documented with accompanying imagery. And while media reports have raised the issue, most have focussed on individual ships or incidents rather than providing a full account of the scale of the operation.

Bellingcat can now add further details about the frequency of ship visits to the Avlita terminal over the first year of Russia’s invasion, as well as help identify more dates when ships were present there. 

In total, there are 148 days that ships appear to have been present at the terminal, based on Planet imagery alone. With the permission of Planet, Bellingcat is publishing each of these images. They can be seen in the interactive above and are individually linked at the bottom of this story.

Bellingcat has also been able to identify a further 31 days when ships were present at the terminal thanks to a Ship Detection Tool (SDT) that utilises synthetic aperture radar captured by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite, providing extra coverage when optical satellite imagery is not available.

Bellingcat is also sharing all SDT images at the bottom of this story to allow open source researchers to further investigate the vessels and the path of potential grain exports from Sevastopol.

According to Katerina Yaresko, an analyst who has provided data for the SeaKrime project, most countries have begun refusing to accept grain that can be proven to come from Crimea following media reports about the issue. However, she added that some vessels are still travelling to ports in Syria.

So called ship-to-ship transfers, meanwhile, remain an ongoing issue primarily in the Kerch Strait between Russia and Crimea, she added. Reports by Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal previously detailed this issue, which sees vessels load grain in Sevastopol before transferring that cargo to another grain-carrying vessel out at sea. This process can help obscure the true origin of the grain.

Bridget Diakun, a reporter who specialises in ship tracking at the shipping news journal Lloyd’s List told Bellingcat that the identity of some ships operating out of the Avlita terminal are now known (including those on a US State Department list reported by the New York Times) – but much is to still to be confirmed about the operation.

“It’s complex,” Diakun said, not least because of the aforementioned ship-to-ship transfer issue. 

Diakun explained that there appears to be a fleet of vessels involved in grain export activities at the port, with some heading south towards the Bosphorus and others east towards the Kerch Strait where the grain transfers occur. 

Satellite imagery, however, can help illuminate what has been happening, she added.

A Year in Sevastopol

The Planet satellite imagery shared with Bellingcat provides a clearer picture of events at the Avlita terminal during the first year of Russia’s full-scale invasion. 

These images can be cross-referenced with ship lists including those published by Yaresko on her social media channels and by the SeaKrime project. Footage from ship-spotters including Yörük Işık, who monitors ships passing through the Bosphorus, can help triangulate the movement of vessels that have switched off their AIS transponders.


For example, on 24 July 2022, social media reports and the SeaKrime project claimed that a ship named the Mikhail Nenashev had docked at the grain terminal.

Satellite imagery service Planet provided Bellingcat with access to imagery over the first 12 months of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

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