Actions by Russian forces could threaten this year’s harvest in one of the world’s most important grain-producing countries. The volumes involved are said to be huge.
Ukraine’s defense ministry said Thursday that around 400,000 tons of wheat have been stolen to date.
Farmers and others in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have provided CNN with details of multiple thefts.
In late April, Russian soldiers removed 1,500 tons of grain from storage units known as elevators in the Kherson village of Mala Lepetykha, using trucks with Crimean license plates. The next day, those same trucks – 35 in all – returned and emptied large storage units known as grain silos in nearby Novorajsk across the Dnieper River.
A precious commodity, looted on an “overwhelming scale”
Fedorov told CNN that the Russians “went around all the villages, every yard and looked for agricultural machinery, grain, which they subsequently looted.”
“The Chechen soldiers, fighting for Russia, behave like criminals in the 1990s. First they offer to buy grain at a ridiculously low price. But if you disagree, they take everything for nothing.
“The extent of the looting is simply overwhelming,” he said.
Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky said there has been a wave of farm robberies in the past two weeks. Ukrainian officials say the occupation forces have warned farmers and businesses that if they report the theft to the police, they and their families will be in danger.
For the occupants, grain is an attractive commodity. The price of wheat is around $ 400 per tonne in world markets and has risen significantly this year. It is difficult to trace its origins and can be easily shipped.
Nivievskyi says Middle Eastern countries are happy to buy Russian wheat, which they get at a 20% discount, and it doesn’t matter if it really comes from Ukraine.
Echoes of another dark period in Ukraine’s history
For Ukrainians, the grain seizure is reminiscent of a dark period in their history, when Stalin forcibly removed food supplies from Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s, resulting in the deaths of millions of people. Known as Holodomor (starvation) it is considered an act of genocide by many Ukrainians.
The head of the Luhansk regional administration, Serhiy Hayday, says that the target of the Russians is another Holodomor.
The Russians now occupy about 90 percent of Luhansk’s agricultural land and have taken about 100,000 tons of grain from the region, he estimates.
The silo was built just two years ago at a cost of $ 5 million. Detochka told CNN that when it was hit it contained about 17,000 tons of wheat and about 8,500 tons of sunflower seeds, worth a total of $ 13 million.
He is sure it was deliberately targeted as there are no other buildings in the area.
Detochka said at least two other elevators in the area were hit. CNN obtained video of another grain silo bombed at Sylnelkove in Dnipro.
“If they know their grain will be seized, farmers might say, ‘Here are the keys to the tractor, go and collect the crop yourself if you want,’” says Agriculture Minister Solsky.
The threat of hunger and failure
Trofimtseva said she had similar stories from Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. You said you heard that the Russians “proposed to buy for 10% of the real value. And if you don’t agree, they expropriate it for free. These are not isolated cases. This is a system.”
Grain theft on such a large scale – combined with the displacement of the war – could affect world markets. Fedorov, mayor of Melitopol, said: “If we don’t harvest (the) next crop, the effect of hunger can be significant. And the main export route is the ports that are currently blocked.”
Oleg Nivievskyi of the Kyiv School of Economics told CNN that the real risk is in the years and not the months. Farmers are losing money and could go bankrupt, he says.
“Even if these regions are liberated tomorrow, it will take time to restart the production cycle”, perhaps two to three years. Buying fertilizers and equipment and hiring workers would be difficult for farmers who have been wiped out by the Russians, because their grain is their working capital for the next season. “
Detochka, the owner of the Rubizhne silo, agreed. “We worked mainly for export. Producers were waiting for good prices, waiting for spring, because a significant part of the grain production is usually sold in the spring.
“Today almost all the elevators in Ukraine are full because they can’t sell these products anywhere.”
The stolen harvesters
CNN previously reported the theft of agricultural equipment, including seeders and reapers, from a John Deere dealership in the city of Melitopol.
Videos and images obtained by CNN since then show the equipment loaded onto flatbed trucks for a 1,126-kilometer (720-mile) journey to Chechnya.
Olga Trofimtseva, a former minister of agriculture in Ukraine, said she was informed of similar thefts in Donetsk and Kharkiv. “Their equipment was simply stolen and taken over the border: new tractors, combines. Unfortunately, this is their system.”
Further south, Vasiliy Tsvigun saw decades of work being destroyed to build his farm in Myrne in Zaporizhia. Tsvigun suffered threats and robberies in early March but decided to stay on his farm even as Russian forces approached.
When they arrived, “they fired a volley from a machine gun over my head,” he said. “They threw me to the ground and took our generator away.”
Tsvigun said Russian forces would soon return and held him at gunpoint as they ransacked the house. After he fled to Ukrainian territory, the locals told him that all the fertilizer had been stolen as well as the British-made agricultural loaders. He was able to track one of their long journeys to Kursk in Russia using GPS, he told CNN.
“They took away a new combine harvester, which was recently delivered to us. They took away the seeding complex, a big and expensive machine. And they overturned one of the tractors, turning drunk. Now it’s lying in a ditch.” Tsvigun said.
As for his grain – 2,000 tons – Tsvigun said “most likely they got it too. But as for the harvesters, this is already a fact.”
“The Russians live there now,” Vasiliy said with a tone of resignation. “Nobody can go there anymore.
“What they’ve already stolen has cost about $ 2 million. Not counting the grain, not counting the buildings.”
Now that Ukrainian ports like Odesa are essentially closed to merchant traffic, farmers in areas still controlled by Ukraine face an obstacle in exporting their grain.
There is a glimmer of hope. Some wheat is now going by train to Romania. At the end of April, a freighter – Unity N – left the Romanian port of Constanta, according to shipping sources, loaded with 71,000 tons of Ukrainian grain.
CNN has learned that Romania is ready to invest in rail improvements along the way and has launched a call for tenders for the works. But exporting grain to the rest of Europe by rail is not easy because the railway networks have different gauge, which means that not all trains can run on all railway lines.
Meanwhile, many of Ukraine’s farmers face a grim future, as do their consumers.
In Luhansk, “There is no bread now and it is not expected in the future,” says Hayday, recalling Holodomor. “The Russians will leave the Ukrainians in the occupied territories on the verge of hunger.”
But Vasiliy Tsvigun, whose years of work have been ruined, does not think about his farm. “The main thing now is the victory of Ukraine.
“There will be a victory: we will rebuild everything”.