Juris Maklakovs, retired major general, and former commander of the Latvian National Armed Forces told AF manganese can be used to improve the steel quality of armored vehicles and is particularly needed given the large amount of equipment Russia has had destroyed on the battlefield. 

Meanwhile, some businessmen involved in the transit of manganese to Russia say that it remains a legitimate activity while manganese ore remains off the EU's list of sanctioned items.

Ansis Zeltiņš, head of the Riga Freeport Authority drew a parallel with foodstuffs, which are also currently exempt from EU sanctions: "Question: are tomatoes a dual-use commodity? But you have to eat at the front. It cannot be reduced to absurdity."

On Krievu sala (ironically, the name means 'Russian island') near Bolderāja, railway tracks run through a wide area. Close to the left bank of the Daugava are terminals where several stevedores handle various bulk cargoes. Manganese ore is transported to Russia in large quantities through the ports of Riga and Ventspils.

Miķelis Lapše, chairman of the board of SIA Rīgas ogļu termināls (Rīga coal terminal), points out: "The first small pile of brownish cargo [over there] is manganese ore."

The ore pile stretches several dozens of meters wide and at least the height of a three-story house. According to Lapše it is about 4,000 tonnes in total and was brought from South Africa. It has been sitting here for more than four months.

"We do not know about this specific cargo, its further fate and routes. Our client, which is a European company, forwarder, will tell us that. This cargo is not subject to sanctions," says Lapše.

He explains that the ferroalloy produced from manganese ore is an intermediate product for further steel production and is used not only for military, but also for civilian purposes: "For example, these railway tracks, ports, cranes, even that ship you see there."

Rīgas ogļu termināls is a company of the Riga Port group, which is partly owned by the families of the former Prime Minister Andris Šķēle and former Transport Minister and now member of the Saeima, Ainars Šlesers (Latvia First party).

In 2022, Rīga coal terminal worked with a turnover of more than 26 million euros and a profit of almost 5 million euros.

"Basically, the dominant type of cargo in this terminal is coal. From different countries. Latin America or African countries, or Kazakhstan. The other type of cargo, which has been in parallel for the last three years, but not only, is manganese ore," says Miķelis Lapše.

How important are manganese ore cargoes to the company he runs? "Its share has reached a maximum of one qurter of the types of cargo handled at the terminal and no more," says Lapše.

He explains what the route of manganese ore cargo is: "So, cargoes of manganese ore come by ship from different places of origin or mines on the African continent. Then it is unloaded, and then the manganese ore goes to the ferroalloy processing plants on railway trucks. In our case it was the Chelyabinsk factory, the Novokuznetsk factory."

He is talking about the Russia-based Chelyabinsk Electrometallurgical Plant, to which so far the largest volume of manganese ore cargoes flowed through the ports of Rīga and Ventspils. Currently the transit flow from stevedores working in Latvia to Russia has slowed down, but not stopped entirely.

Going with the flow

The Estonian newspaper "Postimees" has analyzed that last year approximately 90% of a total of two million tonnes of manganese ore imported to Russia was transported through ports and by rail from Estonia and Latvia.

What checks does the port stevedore make to make sure who will ultimately receive the manganese ore transhipped in Latvia?

Lapše explains: "For manganese ore, we conduct a full investigation, starting from its place of origin, as well as the further shipping route, let's say, with what methods it is shipped and whether these are not sanctioned ships."

He says that the Customs Administration of the State Revenue Service also pays increased attention to the cargoes of manganese ore transhipped in the port. "Documents are always requested minutely, in detail, and in the end it is recognized that, yes, everything is in order."

However Lapše admits that it is difficult to establish with certainty what use shipments will ultimately be put to when they are across the border in Rusia. "We, of course, cannot get such data from Russia, be it reliable, confirming or denying, but that's why there are special services that will definitely get it, because stevedores really don't have the resources to be able to find out in the third or fourth processing cycle of an industrial product where this product ends up," says the chairman of the board of SIA "Rīgas ogļu termināls".

This year, fresh cargoes of manganese ore have not arrived at the Rīga Coal Terminal and the company will not transship what is there it in the coming months, until there is clarity about the inclusion of this raw material in the list of sanctions.

"If in the future this product will not be put on the sanctions lists after in-depth research, then we can see if this flow can be restored," says Miķelis Lapše.

Another stevedore - "KS Terminal" - has transshipped manganese ore in the territory of the Freeport of Riga in Krievu Island during the last two years. 

Meanwhile in the Ventspils Freeport, three companies are engaged in transshipment of manganese ore at this time: Eurohome Latvija, Stena Line Ports Ventspils, as well as Ventspils Commercial Port, which has transshipped the largest volumes of manganese ore since 2022.

Ivars Landmanis, member of the council of JSC Ventspils Commercial Port and head of the board of the Association of Latvian Stevedoring Companies, points out the pile of manganese ore among the other cargoes sitting at the port.

The Ventspils Commercial Port is controlled by a Swiss lawyer, Rudolf Meroni, and he manages part of the company as the custodian of the property seized in the criminal case involving former Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs.

In 2022, Ventspils Commercial Port had a turnover of 37 million and earned more than two million euros.

"It is not that manganese ore is a particular priority cargo," says Ivars Landmanis.

However, Landmanis does not say exactly how much of the turnover is provided by the transshipment of manganese ore. The priority at the moment "is cooperation with Central Asia" with coal cargoes he says.

The amount of manganese ore transhipped at the terminals of Ventspils Freeport increased significantly last year to almost a million tonnes.

Does the company see an increase in manganese ore demand, and what does Landmanis think about that?

He replies: "Then we have to report grain, then we have to report any commodity that is not on the sanctions list. In the case of war, maybe ballpoint pen balls can be used. We can't imagine where each and every thing can be used for military purposes."

Landmanis says that the stevedores properly report all information about the ships that have entered the port to the customs and border guards.

"Where do we go – to the parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, knock on the door and say – oh, something seems suspicious to us? It's not like that! We report all the time," says Ivars Landmanis. 

Does the Ventspils Trade Port keep track of where the overloaded manganese ore cargo goes?

Landmanis explains: "We do not have any direct contract with Russia. We work with international logistics companies that ensure the delivery of these cargoes from one point to another. We do not trade anything, we are a small link, like postmen, in international cargo flows."

He says that these cargoes are traded by large concerns in the USA and Europe: "Its traceability should probably be requested by logistics companies."

He also mentions the Russian-based Chelyabinsk Electrometallurgical Combine: "Such combines have large cooperation agreements with the same American companies, because ore is supplied, and then these alloys also go to America, to Japan, to Korea, to Luxembourg. And remains in Russia, of course, too."

Is anything wrong?

Although manganese ore is not included in the European Union's list of sanctions against Russia or in any list of goods of strategic importance, the cargoes that flow to the aggressor country still come under the scrutiny of customs officials. Have customs officials discovered any violations?

Sandra Kārkliņa-Ādmine, deputy director of the Customs Administration of the State Revenue Service (VID), says: "The controls we carry out are mainly focused on whether any persons subject to sanctions are involved in these shipments, and to the extent that we have been able to verify this information, we have not yet identified any violations."

The list of sanctions includes several other metallurgical ingredients that cannot be sent to Russia because they can be used in the military industry, such as natural magnesium carbonate, manganese oxides, aluminum hydroxide, as well as chromium oxides and hydroxides and others. In the last two years two years, customs officials have caught only one prohibited cargo and sent it back.

On the other hand, speaking of manganese ore, the director of the customs administration says that such cargoes were regularly transported to Russia even before the war in Ukraine.

"We don't see that it is such a huge increase – that it would be a three or four times increase and so on. There is an increase, but it did not start when the war started," says Sandra Kārkliņa-Ādmine.

According to her, manganese ore cargoes arrive in Latvia from countries such as Brazil, South Africa, Gabon, Kyrgyzstan and China, but the recipient countries are Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

"These goods also came before the war. And considering that these goods are not subject to sanctions and are not goods of strategic importance, the control is carried out in the usual way," she explains.

Have customs officials confirmed that manganese ore is being used by Russia in its military industry?

Sandra Kārkliņa-Ādmine admits: "Unfortunately, we do not have such confirmation, and Latvia also has the State Security Service and other services that are also assessing the situation."

She says that customs officials lack the necessary knowledge to analyze the further use of manganese ore for military purposes: "We are not technologists, and we cannot say whether this particular product is simply a metal used in machine building, or it can also be used somewhere else... if there are such indications and it will be evaluated and noticed in Europe, then this product will be included in the list of sanctions."

Meanwhile the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that it has asked the security services to assess the risk of whether manganese ore cargoes can be used in the production of military items.

But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also instructed the customs administration to thoroughly check the cargoes of manganese ore to make sure that their commodity code corresponds to the chemical composition of manganese ore.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs explains that it is currently looking for evidence that manganese ore transiting through Latvia is being used by Russia for military purposes. If and when the Ministry obtains such evidence, it will be possible to prepare a proposal to include the product in the sanctions lists of the European Union.

Also, in February, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked state institutions, including various other ministries, to submit proposals for strengthening sanctions against Russia and Belarus.

Latvian Radio found out that neither the Ministry of Transport, nor the Ministry of Economy, nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself thought that manganese ore should be included in the list of sanctions until about two months ago – and Latvian Radio and Latvian Television have reported extensively on the issue. There have even been public demonstrations against the continued transit of manganese ore.

If it is not possible to reach a consensus on the sanctioning of manganese ore at the European Union level, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is ready to support national action as well, prohibiting the transit and export of such goods through Latvia.

Off the rails?

The Ministry of Transport told Latvan Radio that last year, manganese ore was overwhelmingly dominant in cargo transportation through the interstate border points with Russia. Last year, 1.4 million tonnes of manganese ore was transported by rail to Russia and 6% of the cargo was transported by the state-owned company LDz Cargo, a big drop on the figure of 75% the year before.

Grains and grain processing products, seeds and fruits, vegetable oils, alcohol, chemical cargoes, oil and oil products, ferrous metals, minerals, mineral fertilizers and timber were carried in a much smaller volumes in transit by land.

Comparing the volume of cargo flow of these products through Latvia to Russia before the war in Ukraine and during more than two years of war, it can be concluded that the volume of manganese ore has increased three-fold.

Growth can also be observed in the chemical cargo segment, but the volumes of grain, oil and oil product cargoes have fallen by about half. Mineral substances and mineral fertilizers have also decreased significantly. Coal has completely disappeared from the cargo flow.

Although none of these products are currently subject to sanctions, this does not mean that these cargoes cannot end up on the list of prohibited goods, as the European Union regularly evaluates how to limit Russia's economic and military capabilities.

Latvian Radio asked analyst of military issues, and reserve captain of the National Armed Forces, Mārtiņš Vērdiņas, about whether politicians in Latvia and Europe are happy to make decisions that could greatly impact business in their countries.

He is sure that "the intelligence services have informed the governments of the respective countries about which cargoes are important and which are unimportant. This is known, and the next question is what the politicians do with this information."

Vērdiņš encourages us to think about whether something will change significantly as a result of these decisions.

"What can be said is that the costs associated with importing manganese ore will probably increase for Russia, and maybe the transshipment time will increase – it will remain more expensive and take longer. But given the geography where the manganese ore occurs, it could be significantly affected by a large, international coalition that includes, among other things, South American countries, African countries and China. If we could achieve such a coalition, then something would change," says Vērdiņš.