By Jonathan Saul and Nigel Hunt
LONDON (Reuters) – Russia’s lack of ships and Western grain traders’ shrinking appetite for business with Moscow are adding to rising costs of moving Russian wheat, at a time when the war in Ukraine has spilled perilously close to vital Black Sea supply routes.
President Vladimir Putin promised to replace Ukrainian grain with Russian shipments to Africa after Moscow in July ended an arrangement that gave Ukraine’s food cargo safe passage in the Black Sea, imposing a de-facto blockade on its neighbour and attacking storage facilities, in an escalation of the war.
Ukraine’s response, sea-drone attacks on a Russian oil tanker and a warship at its Novorossiysk naval base, next door to a major grain and oil port, has added to these new dangers for transport in the Black Sea.
Eduard Zernin, head of Russia’s Union of Grain Exporters, cited a potential aggravation of what he called “hidden sanctions” that “may lead to an increase in freight and insurance costs” for Russia.
This “will be reflected in the price level of wheat and other grains on the world market”, Zernin told Reuters.
Even though agriculture exports are not subject to direct European and U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Moscow says restrictions placed on banking and Russian individuals are “hidden sanctions” on the food trade.
The financial and security risks associated with trading with Russia – compounded by the Black Sea corridor collapse – are driving up costs of freight for Moscow and pushing it toward older and smaller vessels run by less established shipping operators, Reuters reporting based on conversations with 10 marine insurers, traders and shipping companies showed.
The situation is raising doubts about whether Russia can keep up a record pace of exports and if not resolved could push global wheat prices higher, the sources said.
Already, prior to the expiry of the deal, grain carriers and commodity houses had reduced exposure to Russia.
Global commodity houses are no longer helping Russia with the mechanics of trading its grain. Cargill, Louis Dreyfus and Viterra stopped such work on July 1, adding more pressure on Moscow to handle all aspects of grain deals including transport.
Cargill has said it would continue to ship grain from Russia’s ports. It declined further comment.
Dreyfus, Viterra and ADM declined to comment, while another major international group, Bunge, did not respond to a request for comment.
“It is not going to be easy for them (Russia),” said one industry executive with knowledge of grains exports.
Last year, Russia exported a record volume of wheat on ships chartered from international companies and traders. While exports remain strong, in the past few months it has had to source more of its own freight, increasingly relying on a “shadow fleet” of older vessels typically operated by companies based in Turkey and China, three shipping industry sources said.
“There is very little coming out now for international companies”, said the executive, who, like other industry sources consulted for this story, asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Most of what is coming out is dealt with by Russian traders using (shadow) fleet ships, which international traders would not touch”.
In a sign of Russia’s growing hunt for vessels, its requests for charters doubled to 257 in July compared with the same month last year, according to data from maritime platform Shipfix that collates from hundreds of market participants.
The data does not show how many of the requests were fulfilled, or which ship operators were involved.
The requests for ships were up 40% from June, and are likely to climb further as the export season gathers pace.
Denmark’s NORDEN and two other Western shipping groups that declined to be named told Reuters they stopped working with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022.
Without the Black Sea corridor in place, both Russia and Ukraine warned in July that ships destined for each others ports could be treated as legitimate military targets, which three marine insurance source said was a further blow to Western companies’ risk appetite.
Insurance for ships heading to Russia’s Black Sea ports currently costs tens of thousands of dollars in additional premiums daily, the three sources said, with rates ticking higher following Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s other waterways through the Danube in recent days and Kyiv’s response.
The Black Sea remains a critical area for Russian exports, with other locations more complicated and costly.
One shipping source familiar with the matter said even before insurance, ship operators were charging up to $10,000 more daily for Russian cargoes than for cargoes leaving nearby ports in Bulgaria and Romania, as the collapse of the deal and Black Sea escalation weighed.
Mike Salthouse, head of external affairs with leading ship insurer NorthStandard, said that ever since the United States and Europe imposed sanctions, some traders and insurers fear the ultimate beneficial owners of Russia’s ports and terminals could be connected to designated individuals.
“The ownership structure is not readily apparent from routine or even enhanced due diligence,” he said, leading to “a level of reluctance with engaging in Russian trades.”
The industry executive said another risk was if a vessel needed to buy fuel from Russia, a situation the source said could create problems with Western sanctions enforcers, making it harder to then conduct non-Russian business.
“It’s not easy to flip into the normal trade after that”, the executive said.
Russia’s Black Sea terminals handle about 70% of the country’s grain exports. They include the Novorossiisk and Taman ports.
Despite the tensions, global wheat prices remain well below the peak after Russia’s invasion last year triggered fears of a global hunger crisis. The removal of more Ukrainian grain from the world market could add to supply pressure unless Russian exports or large crops from other producers make up the difference.
Two sources said the escalation of tensions in the Black Sea was likely to impact Russia’s export numbers, and was discouraging shipping companies from bringing vessels to Russian ports, especially newer ships that carry more.
In a statement to Reuters, Russia’s agriculture ministry forecast grain exports will fall about 8% during the 2023/24 season from Russian last year’s high of 60 million tonnes. It did not give a reason for the drop.
Wheat exports will be down a little less, to 44-45 million tons, Zernin said, in line with estimates from the International Grains Council.
The ministry in December announced a plan to build a fleet of 61 new grain ships, citing “sanctions pressure and the refusal of many international carriers to cooperate with Russia”.
Russian exporters need 34 grains ships with a carrying capacity of 60,000 tonnes and 27 with capacity of 40,000 tonnes, the ministry said in December. It did not say when they could be built by Russian shipyards.
Russia’s state-owned agricultural leasing company Rosagroleasing said in March of this year it had placed orders for a fleet of grains ships that it planned to launch within three years.
No orders have currently been reported for Russian companies either domestically or internationally, according to data from valuation company VesselsValue. New ships typically take up to three years to build.
Many of the Russian operated current fleet of 31 mainly smaller dry bulk carriers are over 30 years old, VesselsValue data showed, making it harder to access some ports with stringent requirements for ships over a certain age.
“We don’t see Russia building its own fleet from scratch in the short term in order to meet its immediate needs. The primary focus is going be on chartering from the commercial market,” said Victoria Mitchell, analyst with Control Risks consultancy.
(Reporting by Jonathan Saul and Nigel Hunt in London, Reuters reporters, additional reporting by Polina Devitt in London and Gus Trompiz in Paris; editing by Frank Jack Daniel)