Russia’s unprovoked war of conquest against Ukraine, launched on February 24, is being fought on multiple fronts. Beyond the conflict’s conventional military aspect and the information war, Russia has now been found to be unlawfully seizing Ukraine’s agricultural goods and machinery. According to Ukrainian officials, the occupying forces have already stolen 400,000–500,000 tons of grain (approximate worth $100 million); furthermore, the Russian navy is blocking more than 90 million tons of cereal exports sitting in Ukrainian seaports (UNIAN, May 12). In an attempt to incur maximum damage to Ukraine’s agriculture sector—one of the central pillars of the Ukrainian economy and a key mainstay of global food security—Russia is pursuing two main courses of action.
First, its invading forces are deliberately destroying agriculture-related infrastructure. Starting from late March, multiple Ukrainian cities and regions that play an important role in the country’s agricultural industry suffered massive damage (Volynpost.com, May 12). Arguably, Luhansk Oblast—which features some of Ukraine’s most advanced production farms and largest food storage/preservation sites—has sustained the worst harm due to the war. Specifically, in Rubezhne, a modern grain elevator (capable of storing up to 30,000 tons) was obliterated by a Russian airstrike. The scope of the damage and the purposeful devastation of agricultural infrastructure and crops led the current Ukrainian governor of Luhansk Oblast, Serhiy Haidai, to contend that Moscow’s main goal is to bring about the repetition of the Holodomor—the Soviet-made famine that took place between 1932–1933, resulting in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians (UNIAN, May 3).
Second, Russia is illicitly appropriating Ukrainian foodstuff and farm machinery. Some of these resources (mainly grain) Russia then exports abroad. According to Ukrainian and international sources (such as the vessel-tracking intelligence platform MarineTraffic), Moscow has tried to ship Ukrainian grain to Egypt; yet after Cairo’s refusal to buy this smuggled loot, the cargo was allegedly re-directed to Lebanon and Syria (UNIAN, May 4). Later accounts stated that only Syria agreed to accept the stolen grain (Agroreview.com, May 10). The Ukrainian side has already warned that any country found to have purchased trafficked foodstuff (or any other goods originating from Ukraine) will face serious consequences.
Moreover, mounting evidence has emerged that the occupying forces have transported some of the stolen agricultural products from Ukraine to Russian territory for domestic use and consumption. Namely, the official website of Krasnoyarsk Krai (in Russian Siberia) claimed that the local Legislative Council allowed the transfer of grain and other agricultural products from parts of Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast. While this information was later deleted from the website, it can still be found on cached pages of the website (Novoeizdanie.com, April 28). Russian forces are also illegally transporting grain from Zaporizhzhia Oblast—an operation that Russia has euphemistically referred to as “strengthening economic cooperation with Crimean entrepreneurs” (UNIAN, May 11). And similar to Ukrainian crop yields, the invaders are also stealing the country’s most-up-to-date agricultural machinery. Specifically, GPS tracking has found farm implements being transported from Melitopol (Zaporizhzhia Oblast) to Chechnya (UNIAN, May 5).
Taken together this Russian destruction and theft of Ukraine’s agricultural production likely aims to achieve three key goals. First of all, by devastating the farming sector of Ukraine’s economy, Russia hopes to provoke commodity shortages that will lead to social unrest and instability inside the war-torn country.
Second of all, Russia wants to marginalize Ukraine as a key global supplier of grain and other agricultural commodities (RBC, May 12). Back in 2021, Ukraine set a historical record for production—its farms harvested a total of 106 million tons of cereals, worth approximately $500 million. Yet because a large portions of these yields are stuck at seaports, Ukraine cannot capitalize on this source of revenue (Epravda.com.ua, May 6). At the same time, as noted by Oleksander Perehozuk, of the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, Moscow’s overall goal may be even more far-reaching. According to this expert, Russia—which became one of the world’s top grain exporters in the last 15 years—wants to further solidify its position on the global food market by establishing a so-called “Back Sea pool.” The latter initiative, however, can only materialize if Russia can establish control over the grain flows coming out of Ukraine as well as Kazakhstan. Perehozuk notes that Russia’s first attempt at this dates back to 2007, when Moscow called for the creation of a Black Sea “grain OPEC” that would consist of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. At that time, however, Kyiv firmly rejected this initiative, stating its opposition to any cartel deals on the global grain market. Importantly, if Russia manages to accomplish its plans, it would de facto acquire a near-monopoly on grain supplies to African, Middle Eastern and Asian markets (Epravda.com.ua, March 21). Given the lack of alternative suppliers as well as the extremely low elasticity of grain consumption, Russia would, indeed, be able to enjoy almost complete dominance over the rapidly developing and demographically booming markets of the developing world. In effect, only Ukrainian agricultural producers currently block Russia from achieving this strategic goal.
And third of all, Russia is still interested in including grain in its “payment-for-rubles” scheme, which Moscow already introduced against “unfriendly countries” when it comes to purchases of Russian hydrocarbons. Russia’s leading grain producers, including RIF Trade House, Aston, Demetra Treading, Cargill and Viterra, have already asked the Central Bank to arrange payments in Russian national currency for exported grain. Russia hopes to implement this trading scheme with Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. But not all Russian experts are optimistic it will happen. For instance, Dmitry Rylko, from the Institute for Agricultural Market Studies, has argued that a forced payment in rubles might only be feasible in the case of Turkey, with which Russia has large volumes of trade (Kommersant, March 29).
Russia’s use of agriculture as another weapon of aggression against Ukraine threatens to spill over into starvation and instability in the Greater Middle East and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Such a human tragedy would be fully in line with Moscow’s interests as it seeks points of counter-leverage against the West—to force the latter into capitulating on Russian sanctions and continued support for Ukraine (see EDM, April 20).