- US firms are continuing to purchase large quantities of birch plywood from Russia, including from companies owned by Russian oligarchs close to Putin and sanctioned by the EU and UK.
- One of the largest suppliers is a Russian firm recently found to have started clearcutting 300-yr-old intact forest in a planned wildlife reserve.
- The Ukrainian Parliament has recently called for the international community to ban Russian wood, a call already heeded by the UK and EU but so far ignored by the US government.
- Russian ply with a retail value of $341m has been imported into the US in the last five months. The high-value wood is used in furniture and kitchen cabinets in millions of US homes.
Atlantic Action II, offloading Russian plywood at the port of Philadelphia, May 2023
US plywood imports rise
American consumers fitting new kitchens are unknowingly helping fund Russian aggression in Ukraine, and at the same time destroy precious Russian forests, Earthsight can reveal. Russian birch plywood, commonly used to make kitchen cabinets fitted in US homes as well as in construction and furniture, continues to flood into the country due to the US government’s failure to sanction the high-risk goods.
Earthsight first drew attention to US imports of Russian conflict timber in March 2022 and did so again, more extensively, on the anniversary of the invasion in February 2023. Despite damning press coverage, shipping records obtained and analysed by Earthsight reveal imports since have continued to rise. Birch ply with an estimated retail value of $340.6m has landed in US ports since our report was published this year – an average of $2m a day.
A specialized fleet of large cargo vessels ply back and forth across the Atlantic with the controversial goods. The most recent ship to arrive, Atlantic Action II, offloaded 340 shipping containers of plywood at Baltimore and Houston between 10th and 18th August.
All of these goods are providing tax revenues to the Russian regime, which they are then free to spend on bombs and missiles. Some are especially dirty, since they are being supplied by companies owned by Russian oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin.
"The US government, the importers, and those companies handling these goods have blood on their hands"
- Yehor Hyrnk, a Ukrainian environmental activist
Russian supplier destroys ancient forest
The fourth largest Russian supplier of this plywood in recent months, the documents show, has been the company Segezha. One of Russia’s largest logging firms, Segezha’s biggest shareholder is Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a billionaire who was among a group of oligarchs who met with Putin on the day of the Russian invasion. He also toured Russian-occupied Crimea with Putin in 2015. Yevtushenkov has been sanctioned by the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine and Czechia but has yet to be added to US sanctions lists.
Official filed reports show Segezha paid record dividends to shareholders in 2022. As holder of 40.1% of the firm’s shares, Yevtushenkov and his family members will have received $103 million that year.
Segezha exported 1374 cubic metres of plywood to the US in June, the last month for which data is available. One of the US companies continuing to purchase Segezha’s plywood is Georgia-based PG Wood Imports. PG is the largest importer of Russian ply into the USA, receiving almost 6000 cubic metres in the six weeks to 10th Aug 2023 – 30 per cent of all the Russian ply imported during that time.
Under pressure from concerned customers in Europe, Segezha had previously agreed to voluntarily halt all logging in the most precious Russian forests it controls. But in late 2022, it reneged on the deal, and opened up 1.5 million hectares of centuries-old Taiga forest for logging – an area larger than Connecticut. These are some of the last large areas of Russian forest untouched by man, inhabited by many rare and threatened species. Some of the trees are more than 300 years old.
The destruction has already begun. Early in 2023, local environmentalists found forests being clearcut by Segezha in the Maksimyarvi Wildlife Sanctuary in Karelia, north-west Russia. More than 680 hectares – a thousand football fields of ancient old-growth – had been cut during the first three months of this year. The activists allege that this cutting doesn’t just breach Segezha’s old moratorium – it is also illegal.
Maksimyarvi Wildlife Sanctuary in Russia, where US plywood supplier Segezha has begun destructive logging of precious forests
Calls for change are growing louder
Calls for the US to halt its consumption of Russian conflict timber are growing louder. Soon after the invasion, a coalition of 130 non-government organisations from around the world issued a call for sanctions and boycotts of Russian wood. More recently, Ukrainian legislators have lent their support. On 2nd May 2023, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a Resolution calling on foreign governments to ban imports of Russian wood. Existing Executive Orders empower the US Secretary of the Treasury to add new products to US trade sanctions on Russia – no legislation is required.
In the absence of action by the US authorities or the US importing companies, activists are expanding their attention to the companies involved in moving the goods. Atlantic Action II and her sister vessels are controlled by Atlantic Ro-Ro Carriers (ARRC), a subsidiary of Canadian firm CISN Shipping Group. With the bigger multinational shipping firms refusing to ship to or from Russia since the war, Earthsight’s analysis shows that this one small shipping company is handling 96 per cent of the Russian plywood to have arrived on US shores so far this year. Also in the firing line are the companies running the ports in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Houston where ARRC’s ships offload their controversial cargo.
“The US government, the importers, and those companies handling these goods have blood on their hands” Yehor Hyrnk, a Ukrainian environmental activist who led the original call for bans on Russian wood, told Earthsight. “This scandalous trade must stop at once”.
Given an opportunity to respond to these findings in advance of publication, ARRC told Earthsight that it is “deeply committed to robust compliance with the law, including Canadian, American, UK and European Union sanction laws. At no time does the company engage with sanctioned individuals, entities, or cargoes.” PG Wood did not reply.