Ship-to-ship transfer in the Kavkaz anchorage between the Kavkaz I, a bulk cargo vessel owned by Aston Foods, ADM’s partner in Russia, the Diana Maria, another grain freighter, and a third unknown vessel, transmitting no AIS signal


Hunterbrook Media’s investment affiliate, Hunterbrook Capital, did not take any positions related to this article.

During the early months of the invasion of Ukraine, a peculiar scene unfolded in the heart of Ryazan Oblast, a province in Russia’s historic western center.

The Governor of Ryazan Oblast, Pavel Malkov, wearing gleaming silver aviators, strode through the corridors of the Ibred corn processing facility.

Governor Malkov (right) on a visit to another facility in the area the same day; his tour was covered by a local outlet, Ryazpressa

The plant hummed, churning out sweeteners for soft drinks, jams, and confections across the Russian market. To the casual observer, this visit might have seemed like business as usual: a Russian official touring a Russian factory at a time of heightened nationalism.

But Malkov isn’t an ordinary Russian official. He is now sanctioned by a host of Western nations for his alleged role in the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. And the Ibred plant isn’t an ordinary Russian enterprise. It’s a joint venture between Aston Foods, a Russian conglomerate, and a seemingly unlikely partner: Archer-Daniels-Midland (NYSE: $ADM), the American agricultural giant rooted in the Midwest.

Malkov wasn’t just there to show his face, he also talked business — allegedly offering assistance to the plant, according to the local Ministry of Agriculture.

As Russian forces pushed deeper into Ukraine’s fertile heartland, capturing vast swaths of agricultural territory, the question of who would control the region’s bountiful harvests loomed. Reports began to surface of Russian agents systematically pillaging Ukrainian grain, with stolen produce either passed off as Russian or blended with legitimate Russian harvests. 

Now, a Hunterbrook analysis of AIS data, overhead imagery, and ground-based spotter information indicates that Aston — ADM’s partner in Russia — may be involved in the widespread theft of Ukrainian natural resources. 

Early in 2023, facing increasing international pressure over Western business partnerships with Russian companies, ADM was reportedly “weighing options” to leave the Russian market. But ADM has retained its 50% stake in a joint venture with Aston, according to SEC filings.

The Ibred corn wet mill

The Ibred wet mill sits roughly 300 kilometers from the center of Moscow. In 2020, the plant reportedly produced more than $42.6 million in goods and services. In 2023, per Russian sources, the plant brought in more than $82.8 million in revenue, with more than $24 million in profit. 

In addition to the Ibred facility, ADM and Aston own a corn wet mill in Novlyanka

A technician at the Ibred mill monitors an ongoing process. His PPE is emblazoned with the words АСТОН (Aston) ADM
The Aston-ADM Ibred mill, as seen from above in 2020. Map data: Google, ©2024 CNES/Airbus

The Ibred mill can process more than 575 tons of corn grain per day, primarily producing starches and syrups. Bulk sweeteners produced at the facility can be purchased online through Russian distributors.

14kg container of Aston’s glucose-fructose sweetener sold by

Ship-To-Ship transfers, dark AIS signals, and other signs aston may be stealing Ukrainian grain 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine marked the starting point of a massive theft of Ukrainian resources, especially from the agricultural sector, by the Russian government and state-connected companies. 

The Ukrainian government pled for international help in a 2022 statement on the grain theft: “The criminal seizure, export and consumption of Ukrainian [sic] is another example of Russia’s destructive acts, which, in particular, contravene the fundamental principles of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – achieving food security for all and overcoming hunger.”

Bloomberg News identified the open seas off the Russian port of Kavkaz as a major location for laundered Ukrainian grain. Ian Ralby, chief executive of I.R. Consilium, said: “They’re using ship-to-ship transfers between legitimate and illegitimate products to mix them in order to try to launder them into a legitimate supply chain.”

Pole Star Global, a major maritime intelligence firm, recommended that “traders should exercise caution when dealing with low to medium tonnage general cargo vessels or bulk carriers who disable their AIS transponders for greater than five days in the vicinity of Kavkaz.”

All four Aston-owned bulkers examined by Hunterbrook, Kavkaz I-IV, have disabled their AIS transponders in the vicinity of the Kavkaz anchorage for more than five days at a time. At least two had disabled their AIS transponders while loading cargo from smaller bulkers. Ships frequently disable their AIS transponders if they are attempting to conceal their location and activities, often to evade sanctions, regulations, or oversight while engaging in illicit trade or transfers.

On September 4th, 2023, the Traveler Shipping LTD-owned cargo vessel Diana Maria pulled alongside the starboard side of Kavkaz I with a load of grain from Aston’s elevator in Rostov-on-Don. Both vessels had their AIS transponders active, and showed a fairly normal ship-to-ship transfer, with a clear provenance for the grain. But when Sentinel-2 overflew the area the next day, a third, larger cargo vessel was spotted alongside the pair. 

This vessel was completely dark; it did not broadcast any AIS signal. 

MarineTraffic AIS coverage for the Aston-owned Kavkaz I and Diana Maria in the Kerch Anchorage from the 4th to the 5th of September, 2023.

Additionally, while Kavkaz IV conducted a ship-to-ship transfer with the light freighters Olga V and Beta, it only broadcast two detectable AIS signals over a short 22-minute window, at 06:33 UTC and 06:55 UTC. For context: The International Maritime Organization recommends ships at anchor or moored broadcast their AIS at least every three minutes.

Yörük Işık, a Black Sea maritime researcher focused on maritime activity on the Turkish Straits, has been tracking ships suspected of stealing grain since early in the conflict. “Kavkaz IV was one of the distribution vessels in Russia’s grain smuggling operation at the Kerch anchorage, where smaller bulkers transported grain from occupied Sevastopol to the Kerch Strait, then performed ship to ship transfers with vessels like Kavkaz IV, which in turn will deliver the grain to other vessels to be transported to international markets,” Işık told Hunterbrook. 

“This operation likely helped disguise the origin of grain from occupied parts of Ukraine by mixing it with grain coming from Russia.”

While Aston vessels that may carry stolen grain continue to ply global waters, effective sanctions have sidelined some Russian oil tankers. Per a Bloomberg report from earlier this month, when the US Treasury Department placed sanctions on 40 Russian tankers, 97.5% were forced offline, remaining “idle and empty.”

The United States has also sanctioned various Russian companies responsible for the theft of Ukrainian grain, including the Pawell, a Russian freighter responsible for exporting stolen grain to secondary markets.

In its justification for sanctioning the Pawell, the US State Department stated: “The PAWELL routinely engages in maritime evasion techniques, to include disabling the vessel’s onboard automatic identification system (AIS) in order to conceal its location and the origin of its cargo.”

Neither the State Department nor Aston responded Hunterbrook’s request for comment.

Asked specific questions about its relationship with Aston, ADM responded with a general statement saying it is a “pillar of the global food system,” staying “current on local laws and regulations.”

“We are constantly monitoring and evaluating our activities and presence around the world and are fully committed to compliance with all applicable laws and regulations in the jurisdictions in which the Company operates,” ADM said.

In a separate investigation published today, Hunterbrook revealed ADM has a major stake in two facilities in Xinjiang, the region in China known for Uyghur forced labor.

Blake Spendley joined Hunterbrook from the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), where he led investigations as a Research Specialist for the Marine Corps and US Navy. He built and owns the leading open-source intelligence (OSINT) account on X/Twitter, called @OSINTTechnical (>925K followers), which now distributes Hunterbrook Media content. His OSINT research has been published in Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, among other top business outlets. He has a BA in Political Science from USC.

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