It started as one man’s hobby, but watching Russian cargo ships on the Bosphorus Strait and spotting those that are busting sanctions by carrying illegal cargo from occupied ports in Ukraine has become a crucial resource for global media and others who monitor compliance.
From his terrace, Yoruk Isik captures with his camera another Russian cargo ship passing Istanbul's Bosphorus waterway from the Black Sea to European markets and beyond. It started as a hobby, but for Isik, a regional political analyst, monitoring the ships has become a personal passion.
“I am interested in Russian foreign policy, and watching ships on the Bosphorus really gives clues about Russian foreign policy and what they are engaging in, what they are planning to do in the coming months,” he said.
With the Bosphorus waterway narrowing to a few hundred meters, monitoring ships is relatively easy. Isik records the name of the ships, the cargo, and the flag it is sailing under. He works with an international network of volunteers and nongovernment organizations that share data online on the movement of Russian cargo ships.
The information is crucial for world media and others who monitor compliance.
Isik’s website, bosphorusobserver.com, has become an important go-to resource for media including Reuters news agency, which uses his photos. With sanction-busting ships often turning off their Automatic Identification System or AIS that allows them to be tracked by international authorities, monitoring efforts by people like Isik are vital, said George Voloshin, a global financial crime expert at ACAMS, a U.S.-based watchdog.
“I think this (ship monitoring) is very valuable because, actually, a common technique is to manipulate your AIS signal by resample just turning down your transponder or trying to manipulate it, interfere with it so that a ship appears to be in a different place in a different location. So, all those leads are potentially valuable,” he said.
Voloshin said such monitoring helped expose Russia's exports of stolen Ukrainian grain and coal from Black Sea ports that it occupied in Ukraine, much of which Isik recorded passing through the Bosphorus waterway.
Moscow denies accusations that it is busting sanctions.
The waters off Istanbul are under limited Turkish jurisdiction and are an international hub for hundreds of empty cargo ships and tankers that frequently change owners. Experts say this makes tracking difficult and creates conditions favorable to those seeking to circumvent a long list of sanctions.
Adding to the difficulties in applying the sanctions is Turkey’s refusal to enforce them. Ankara says it is not bound by them.
Trade between Russia and Turkey has surged since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia is the world's most sanctioned country. So, most of the people who are engaged in trade with Russia, they are trying to hide their activities because they are worried that somehow some sanctions will come back and haunt them," said, the Bosphorous Observer analyst Yoruk Isik.
In 2015, Isik exposed Russia's export of arms by sea to the Syrian government for its fight against rebels. Now, he spends most of his spare time tracking ships, which he expects to continue for many years, as Russia shows no signs of changing its behavior.