Purchases by Russian defence contractor suggest Moscow was planning to steal vast quantities of Ukrainian grain months before troops ever crossed the border

Arpan Rai

Nov 16, 2023

The Independent


Russia was actively preparing to steal grain supplies and starve the Ukrainian population of food for months before Vladimir Putin ordered last year’s invasion, according to new evidence compiled by human rights experts.

When Russian tanks did roll across the border on 24 February 2022 they deliberately targeted grain-rich areas and food production infrastructure first, the new report by international human rights law firm Global Rights Compliance found.

GRC found that Russia’s defence contractor began purchasing trucks to transport grain, as well as three new 170-metre bulk carrier cargo ships, as early as December 2021, evidence of advance planning for the pillage of Ukrainian food resources “on an unprecedented scale”.

Russia began commandeering Ukrainian farms within less than a week of its invasion, and at its peak was exporting 12,000 tonnes of grain per day from across occupied territories.

The evidence of a “highly coordinated level of pre-planning” will be provided to the International Criminal Court and GRC hopes it will lead to a first international prosecution against Mr Putin for the war crime of starvation as a method of warfare.

It is “highly likely” Russia will be found guilty, Catriona Murdoch, a partner at Global Rights Compliance, said, and if so Mr Putin could face another ICC arrest warrant to go with the one issued in March this year for the unlawful deportation of children from occupied Ukrainian territories.

“Russia not only deployed a multi-pronged approach by besieging civilian populations and destroying critical infrastructure, but it also pre-planned the seizure and pillage of agricultural commodities in an insidious plan. Moscow has sparked a global food crisis and attacked Ukraine’s agriculture sector as a warfare tactic,” Ms Murdoch told The Independent.

The grain pillaged from Ukraine so far has an estimated market value of $1bn per year. Multiple private Ukrainian grain companies were forcibly incorporated into Russia’s state operator, the GRC said.

Beyond its impact on Ukrainian citizens, Russia’s invasion has affected millions around the world by increasing global food insecurity – Ukraine was the world’s largest wheat producer prior to the conflict.

A farmer in Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine said his grain farm was taken over by Russian forces five days after the full-scale invasion began.

“Multiple convoys of vehicles were seen carrying grain in the direction of the Crimean Peninsula in the following weeks, and GPS trackers on farmers’ stolen trucks show them driving through Crimea and into Russia,” the GRC said.

Satellite images shared with The Independent by the GRC showed grain trucks at a facility in Melitopol in Zaporizhzhia bearing licence plate numbers registered in occupied Crimea. Other images show train carriages labelled “grain” leaving Berdiansk train station in Zaporizhzhia.

And another image from March this year shows a newly constructed storage building in Melitopol with grain visible throughout the compound.

GRC said that despite the apparent planning that went into Russia’s theft of Ukrainian grain, job adverts seen in Russia suggest the government was unable to recruit truck drivers quickly enough to transport the vast quantities of stolen food.

The investigation into grain theft ran up to August this year. GRC said that while Russia has not captured any more grain-rich territory since then, it still controls all of the Crimean peninsula – one of the main regions from which grain is transported by sea to Russia and abroad.

Yousuf Syed Khan, senior lawyer at GRC, called Russia’s weaponisation of Ukraine’s grain industry “unprecedented in modern history”.

Russia is now appealing to the UN and other global powers to ease war-related sanctions so it can resume grain exports from occupied territory to developing countries hit hardest by the food crisis. The offer of grain to friendly third countries was also part of Mr Putin’s failed charm offensive to get back onto the UN Human Rights Council.

“Russia is doing this to represent itself as the legitimate authority of Ukrainian territory, in turn also weakening Ukraine’s national economy,” Mr Khan said.