Tracking Russian ships using satellite images

13 December 2023 15 minutes Author: Cyber Witcher

Exposure of Russian ghost ships in Crimea

In this article, you’ll find a unique look at the methods researchers use to track the covert activities of Russian ships in the Black Sea. This detailed investigation uses satellite imagery to track the movement of grain from occupied Crimea, revealing secret routes and methods by which Russia circumvents international sanctions. The article provides a clear picture of the scale and methods of illegal grain export, which is important for understanding the current geopolitical conflict.

In addition to tracking and analyzing the movements of Russian ‘ghost ships’, this article also highlights the use of advanced technology in satellite reconnaissance and its importance in detecting and documenting violations of international law. The investigation provides valuable insights into the mechanisms that allow Russia to evade economic sanctions and plays a key role in identifying global trade and security issues. In this article, you will find an in-depth study of Russia’s use of so-called ‘ghost ships’ to transport grain from occupied Crimea. Using satellite imagery and other open sources, Bellingcat provides a detailed analysis of activity at the grain terminal in Sevastopol, revealing covert operations. The article includes evidence regarding the presence of vessels at the terminal without turning on their AIS transponders and indicates possible violations of international sanctions.

Let’s start hunting

The main grain terminal in the port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea has quieted down in recent years, at least according to vessel monitoring services.

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

International sanctions against the city of Sevastopol and the Avlita terminal (also referred to as Aval in some media and registries) may explain why traffic appears to have been so low.

But other open sources paint a radically different picture of the events at the terminal. Satellite imagery services such as Planet, social media posts and the new Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) show that the vessels have in fact secretly continued to make regular visits.

It revealed at least 179 days in the first 12 months of the full-scale Russian invasion when ships were present at the Avlita terminal with their AIS transponders turned off.

This appears to confirm the findings of several media outlets, which have claimed that activity at the terminal is continuing at a brisk pace.

The Financial Times, Bloomberg, CNN, Reuters, the BBC, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press have reported on the apparent grain exports at the terminal since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, even covering some of the ships involved. Some have even pointed to evidence that the terminal was used as an exit point for grain exported from the territories of occupied Ukraine, which Ukrainian ministers have claimed is “outright robbery”, but which Russia denies.

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

For example, the SeaKrime monitoring project of the controversial Ukrainian activist group Myrotvorets has published a list of ships it says visited the Avlita terminal to take out stolen grain. However, only a few of the vessels on this list are documented with accompanying images. And while media reports have raised the issue, most have focused on individual ships or incidents rather than providing a full picture of the scope of the operation.

We can now add more information about the frequency of ships visiting the Avlit terminal during the first year of the Russian invasion, and help identify more dates when the ships were there.

Satellite imagery service Planet has provided  access to images from the first 12 months of the full-scale Russian invasion.

In total, based on images of the planet alone, the ships were present at the terminal for 148 days. Planet Bellingcat is publishing each of these images with permission. You can see them in the interactive window above, and the individual links are at the bottom of this story.

A further 31 days when ships were present at the terminal were also identified by the Ship Detection Tool (SDT) using synthetic aperture radar captured by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite, providing additional coverage during optical satellite imagery. inaccessible.

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

According to Kateryna Yaresko, an analyst who provided data for the SeaKrime project, after media reports about the problem, most countries began to refuse to accept grain that can be proven to come from Crimea. However, she added that some vessels were still heading to Syrian ports.

Meanwhile, so-called ship-to-ship transfers remain a pressing problem, mainly in the Kerch Strait between Russia and Crimea, she added. Reports from Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal have previously described the issue, which sees ships loading grain in Sevastopol before transferring that cargo to another grain carrier at sea. This process can help hide the true origin of the grain.

Bridget Deakoon, a ship-tracking reporter for the shipping news magazine Lloyd’s List, reported that details of some ships leaving the Avlita terminal (including those on the US State Department list reported by the New York Times). – but much remains to be confirmed about the operation.

“It’s difficult,” Diakun said, not least because of the ship-to-ship transfer issue mentioned above.

Dyakun explained that the port appears to have a fleet of grain export vessels, with some heading south to the Bosphorus and others heading east to the Kerch Strait, where grain is transported. However, satellite images can help clarify what’s going on, she added.

A year in Sevastopol

Satellite images from Planet give a clearer picture of the events at the Avlit terminal during the first year of the full-scale Russian invasion.

These images can be compared to ship listings, including those posted by Jaresko on her social media channels and the SeaKrime project. Video from ship spotters, including Yoruk Ishik, who watches ships passing through the Bosphorus, can help determine the movements of vessels that have disabled AIS transponders.

For example, on July 24, 2022, on social networks and the SeaKrime project claimed that a ship named “Mykhailo Nenashev” was docked at the grain terminal.

Once you have summarized the post, you can check the original post from X

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This matches the satellite images provided by Planet that day.

Image of the ship at the Avlita terminal in Sevastopol on July 24, 2022. Courtesy: Planet Labs.

Note the coloring on the ship’s side, as well as the four cranes on deck and the white and yellow paint on the chimney, which can be seen in both images. This also matches the images of Mykhailo Nenashev seen on MarineTraffic.com.

An image of the craft, which the SeaKrime project says was taken on July 24, 2022 (left), appears to match a satellite image of the planet (right) taken on the same day.

In a separate example from February 19, 2023, Planet images show another large vessel moored near the terminal.

Image of the ship at the Avlita terminal in Sevastopol on February 19, 2023. Courtesy: Planet Labs

Five days later, social media photos posted by Yoruk Isik showed a ship called the Matros Pozynich moving through the Bosphorus. The appearance of this ship matched the ship seen in satellite images at the Avlita terminal a few days earlier.

By following the link, you can read the original post in X

click here

Note the four cranes, the blue chimney, and the pylon at the front of the vessel, which can be seen in both images below.

A satellite image from Planet (left) taken on February 19 is compared with images (courtesy of @YorukIsik) of the same ship transiting the Bosphorus five days later.

AIS data available on MarineTraffic shows that Matros Pozynich was seen in the Black Sea, south of Crimea on 14 February. However, the AIS alerts ceased before reappearing on 23 February as the vessel headed south towards the Bosphorus.

The owner of Matros Pozynich is listed in the shipping database Equasis as Crane Marine Contractor (CMC). Until February 2023, Equasis also listed CMC as the owner of Mykhailo Nenashev. CMC did not respond to Bellingcat’s emailed questions about whether any vessels docked at the Avlita terminal on the dates indicated, what they were carrying and why their AIS transponders appeared to be turned off in Sevastopol. A call to the CMC office was answered, but the caller immediately hung up when he heard the subject of our investigation.

Other resources for the triangulation of vessel movements to and from the Sevastopol grain terminal (seen in the satellite images posted at the end of this article) include reports by Yaresko and open source researcher MT Anderson, as well as Yoruk Ishik. AIS data, such as MarineTraffic, Spire or VesselFinder, is also shown, whether it shows the exact position of the vessel or the period of time during which AIS has been disabled. Other satellite images of ships at sea or in other ports (if available) can also potentially be used for visual comparison.

Ship detection tool

Although this is an incredibly valuable and vibrant resource, it should be noted that there may still be some black spots in the coverage of optical satellite imagery. Visibility is limited when it is dark and cloudy. Satellite revisit time (the time between satellite images of the same location) also means that complete coverage is not always possible.

But you can look beyond the clouds and increase coverage with the right research methods. Bellingcat used a ship detection tool that uses publicly available Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images created when the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite sends a pulse of radio waves to gather information about the Avlita terminal.

The tool was developed as part of the Bellingcat Tech Fellowship and can be found here. A complete guide to using SDT, as well as other possible applications, can be found here. At the end of this story, Bellingcat also lists every day that SDT has documented a ship at the Avlit terminal.

Although the image produced by SDT is very different from the optical images provided by other satellite imaging services, it is no less effective in confirming the presence or absence of a ship.

How does SDT work?

Instead of relying on reflected sunlight like optical satellites, Sentinel-1 sends out a pulse of radio waves and uses the resulting echo to gather information and create an image. Radio waves not only penetrate clouds, but can also reveal what is happening at night.

It’s similar to how bats use echo sounders to “see” in the dark: they make calls and listen for echoes.

The graph shows how SAR differs from optical satellite images.

Moreover, when Sentinel-1 sends a pulse of radio waves onto a flat surface like the sea, there is little that reflects the waves back to the satellite. A low return signal means that any SAR image has a darker color. But when the radio waves hit the ship, they bounce back to the satellite and generate a higher return signal, and therefore a much brighter color.

This makes spotting ships fairly easy if they are known to be located in a specific set of coordinates, such as the Avlita terminal.

A satellite image taken by Planet appears to match what can be seen on SDT on the same day.

The above images were taken on September 29, 2022. They show a large bulk carrier moored at the Avlit terminal. Meanwhile, the two images below show a scene where the ship is gone.

Satellite and search-and-rescue images show the scene at the Avlita terminal when the ship is gone.

It should be noted that Sentinel-1 images have not been as frequent since late 2021 due to the failure of one of the two satellites in the constellation. This means that more vessels may be registered in the years up to 2021. This does not mean that maritime traffic has declined in recent years.

Over the past year, SDT took pictures of Sevastopol on 120 separate days. Eighty-six of these corresponding days were recorded with images of the planet, while 31 were recorded on days when no images of the planet were available.

For example, on June 25, 2022, the SeaKrime project reported that there was a ship called Matros Koshka at the Avlita terminal. SDT shows that the ship was indeed present that day, something that would otherwise be impossible to know because no satellite images were taken at that time.

On June 25, 2022, SDT spots the vessel at the Avlita terminal.

Although visual confirmation of the ship’s name could not be obtained using SDT alone, it is worth noting (although not conclusive) that public data on the size of the ship, which Marine Traffic says is 169 meters, is consistent with the details recorded by the instrument when the option is followed the minimum length of the vessel.

On July 25, 2022, the minimum length of an SDT vessel was set at 160 meters.

The Matros Koshka is also listed on Equasis as owned by Crane Marine Contracting, and the company did not respond to requests for comment on whether the vessel was at the Avlita terminal on June 25.

AIS tracking data available on MarineTraffic showed that the Matros Koshka transmitted its presence north of the Bosphorus on June 12, en route to Sevastopol. It then faded before reappearing on July 7 as it approached the Bosphorus again.

SDT has the added advantage of being a fully automated tool, and is open source and free to use.

It should be noted that some vessels detailed by satellite imagery and SDT may be the same vessels returning to the terminal over time, or, in other cases, the same vessel may have remained in port for several days and appeared in successive images.

However, despite these caveats, it is clear from the images that a variety of vessels capable of carrying grain have been arriving and departing from the terminal since the beginning of the conflict and in previous years, although AIS tracking data has yielded few results.

If all these ships were working at full capacity, then perhaps millions of tons of grain could leave Crimea through the terminal and Sevastopol. With data from 2015, when Russia first annexed Crimea, SDT details the activities at the port long before the conflict began. It can also be insightful to focus elsewhere.

Alternative functions of SDT

Given that SDT can acquire data over a long period of time from a wide range of interests, new clues may be revealed to help identify ship-to-ship transport, previously highlighted as an ongoing problem by Jaresko, Dawkin and detailed in the aforementioned Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal reports.

Although there is a lot of data to analyze, SDT can record the shape and position of vessels in any defined area at sea or in a dock as the Sentinel-1 satellite passes overhead.

With reports of ship-to-ship transfers occurring in the Kerch Strait, the first logical step is to identify the area of interest using SDT. However, given the sheer number of ships that pass through this area, researchers should note that finding the exact moments of the ship-to-ship transfer on the SDT will likely require a lot of patience.

The area of interest (in red) details all ships present in the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia during a certain time period. The zone of interest does not cover the entire Kerch Strait.

As SDT collects more and more SAR images over time, it is possible that new clues will emerge that can be compared with satellite images or other open source information to help determine which ships loaded grain into Crimea before exchanging with others vessels at sea to conceal his true origins.

However, Lloyd’s List’s Diakun cautioned that investigators should be cautious as there may also be ship-to-ship shipments of products other than grain or unrelated to grain exported from Ukraine in the region.

As with previous media investigations, it is impossible to know for sure whether each vessel captured at the Avlit terminal and beyond by satellite or SAR imagery was actually loading grain, or the origin of any grain that may have been loaded .

However, the fact that grain has been transported to and from the Crimea since the beginning of the full Russian invasion does not seem to be in doubt. In June of last year, the Russian news agency TASS reported that grain was brought to the region from the Kherson region. Local news from Sevastopol also documented the operation of the Avlita terminal.

Questions emailed to Avlita were not answered by the time of publication, and calls to the company’s offices in Moscow and Sevastopol went unanswered. The Russian government did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Bellingcat will now begin the task of matching as much information as possible from SDT and satellite images from Planet with local and ship-based spotter reports posted on social media.

It invites the open source community to use the SDT tool and the satellite images below to begin building an even bigger picture of events in Sevastopol, the Kerch Strait and elsewhere in the Black Sea. Images of the planets are available at a resolution of three meters (PlanetScope) and 0.5 meters (SkySat), with SkySat images offering sharper and more detailed images.

Information was taken from open sources “Bellingcat”

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