As well as fighting on battlefields in Ukraine, Moscow and Kyiv are locked in a conflict over the Zhibek Zholy, a Russian cargo ship.
Kyiv and several analysts say the ship docked in the Russia-occupied port Berdyansk, in Zaporizhia, in late June and sailed towards Turkey carrying thousands of tonnes of Ukrainian grain.
Moscow-backed news channels celebrated what they called the first voyage of a commercial ship from the “liberated” port. While Zhibek Zholy may be the first to sail from Berdyansk since the war began, reports suggest other Russian ships have left other Ukrainian ports before, also carrying contested grain.
According to Ukraine, Turkey detained the Zhibek Zholy near its port, Karasu, on July 3 and the Turkish foreign ministry said it was investigating Ukraine’s claims over the grain.
But the ship left the Turkish port area late on Wednesday, upsetting a Ukrainian official who said the Zhibek Zholy was allowed to leave “despite criminal evidence presented to Turkish authorities”.
The ultimate destination of the ship is not known.
We regret that Russia’s ship Zhibek Zholy which was full of stolen Ukrainian grain, was allowed to leave Karasu port despite criminal evidence presented to the Turkish authorities. Türkiye’s Ambassador in Kyiv will be invited to @MFA_Ukraine to clarify this unacceptable situation
— Oleg Nikolenko (@OlegNikolenko_) July 7, 2022
Russia on Wednesday denied wrongdoing and even dismissed reports that the cargo ship had been detained at all, with a foreign ministry spokesperson in Moscow saying the Zhibek Zholy was “undergoing standard procedures”.
The dispute has highlighted global fears of a food crisis; Russia’s war on Ukraine, a leading wheat producer, has seen exports halted and growing accusations that Moscow is stealing its neighbour’s soft commodities.
Nikolay Gorbachov, president of the Ukrainian Grain Association, told Al Jazeera that Russian soldiers steal grain stored in silos and transport them by trucks or railway to ports in occupied Crimea – Kerch or Sevastopol – and load them on vessels while transponders are disabled.
“They steal the crops by brutal force and intimidation using their weapons,” Gorbachov said. “They force farmers to sow the lands and warn that they will take forcibly 70 percent of future crops for free.”
The Zhibek Zholy affair could also prove to be a test of Turkish loyalties. Ankara has played a mediating role in the war and has ties with both sides, while the UN has called on Turkey to help set up a corridor for grain exports.
Until now, Turkish authorities had avoided sparking a confrontation with Moscow by not detaining Russian vessels, despite claims that contested Ukrainian shipments had entered its ports.
Here is what you need to know about the dispute:
Where has the Zhibek Zholy been?
On June 22, the 7,146 deadweight tonnage (dwt) general cargo left the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, in Russia, and sailed towards the eastern shores of the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow invaded and annexed in 2014.
Marine traffic websites show it crossed the Kerch Strait on June 23 and docked in the early morning hours two days later, just down the coast in Port Kavkaz, in Russia.
As is often the case with Russian ships approaching Crimea, those sites showed the Zhibek Zholy stopped reporting its position shortly after, in breach of international law.
Its transponders, which automatically report a ship’s location and route to other vessels and ports, were switched back on four days later. The cargo ship resurfaced on June 29 in the Sea of Azov, crossed the Kerch Strait and sailed towards the Black Sea port of Karasu, Turkey.
While in the Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone on July 3, it was detained by customs authorities, Ukraine’s ambassador to Ankara said.
“According to information we possess, this ship was loaded with grain taken from different storages in the district of Berdyansk or around it,” Vasyl Bodnar told Al Jazeera.
“It was [headed] to port Karasu with documents from the port of Berdyansk,” he said, adding that Turkish authorities had opened an investigation.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general presented Ankara with a request to detain the ship as well as “full evidence” of the smuggling of grain, Bodnar said.
While Moscow denies wrongdoing, the Kremlin-affiliated, self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic has been keen to publicise the Zhibek Zholy’s mission.
On June 30, Crimea News reported on the arrival of the first cargo ship to the “liberated and peaceful” Berdyansk, a port built in June 1830 for the export of grain.
A reporter boarded the ship that brought what she called the “revival of centuries-old traditions”.
Despite the name of the vessel being blurred out in the Crimea News footage, marine tracking websites were able to identify it.
Why did Turkey detain the Zhibek Zholy?
Turkey has supported Ukrainian independence and the country’s territorial integrity while attempting to avoid confrontation with Russia.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said last month that Ankara was investigating claims that looted grain had entered its ports and would “not allow these goods to come to us”.
But in the end, Turkey found no evidence of such shipments, he said.
According to Yörük Işık, an Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst who runs the ship-spotting website Bosphorus Observer, about 20 vessels sailed in June alone from Sevastopol and Kerch to Turkish ports.
Turkey had so far avoided detaining Russian ships, but “because the so-called Donetsk Republic came out so publicly about opening the port of Berdyansk, [the Zhibek Zholy] attracted attention,” Işık told Al Jazeera.
The publicity could be a Russian attempt to garner international recognition for the Donetsk Republic by engaging in trade with other countries, but “this was one step too far for Turkey”.
The Zhibek Zholy has therefore become a “test case” of Turkish foreign policy, which has so far been “in the impossible position of being pro-Ukraine but not anti-Russia,” the analyst said.
Late on Wednesday, marine traffic websites recorded the vessel departing from its anchored location outside the port of Karasu towards an unspecified destination.
According to Işık, “the most favourable scenario for Turkey is if the Zhibek Zholy disappears into the night”.
What evidence is there of illegal shipments from Ukraine?
Monitoring groups including the Bosphorus Observer and the Ukraine-based SeaKrime have documented numerous vessels loading grain and other goods from occupied areas of Ukraine.
Russian bulk carrier Mikhail Nenashev recently headed to the port of Iskenderun in Turkey after loading at the Avlita grain terminal in Russian-occupied Sevastopol, according to SeaKrime.
Analysis of shipping data, pictures from ports, local TV news reports and satellite pictures by the Bosphorous Observer suggest three ships operated by the Syrian government’s official shipping line were in the occupied ports of Crimea and Abkhazia.
The Laodicea, Finikia, and Souria are understood to often carry construction material from Turkey to Crimea and Abkhazia, and usually bring back wheat or scrap metal.
These cargos are considered smuggled because their movement across Ukraine’s border is not registered in accordance with the law and Ukraine’s Customs service.