Pillaging Ukrainian grain to fund war was Russia's plan from the outset, report says

Human rights group says it has found evidence Russian troops began raiding farms from beginning of invasion in Ukraine

A crane loads wheat grain onto a cargo vessel, in the occpupied Ukrainian port of Mariupol, before its departure for the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Reuters
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Russia planned to take $1 billion per year of Ukrainian grain from the very start of the invasion to fund its war effort, a report by an international human rights group has said.

It comes as the UK prepares to hold a global food security summit to tackle Russia’s “stranglehold” on grain exports from Ukraine, amid the continuing conflict.

The report, called Agriculture Weaponised, found evidence of planning to pillage grain on an “unprecedented scale”, including details of the preparation, set-up, and implementation of a complex large-scale grain extraction infrastructure by Russia in Ukraine.

It showed that within a week of the war breaking out, farms producing grain had been raided.

It has been produced by the Starvation Mobile Justice Team of the international human rights group Global Rights Compliance, in collaboration with the Centre for Information Resilience and Intelligence Management Support Services.

GRC's Starvation Mobile Justice Team is part of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group (ACA), backed by the US, UK and EU.

The ACA was launched in response to the need to increase capacity to investigate and prosecute atrocities perpetrated since the invasion by Russian Forces of Ukraine.

The report concentrates on the occupied grain-rich Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine, where the first mass extraction of grain was reported in mid-March 2022.

In addition to open-source research, investigators analysed and verified photographs, videos, public statements by officials and other digital data, which they collected between December 2021 and July 2023.

“Upon capturing territory, Russian forces seized grain facilities from Ukrainian farmers and corporations, taking control of the surrounding transport networks and rapidly establishing safe and fast passage for stolen Ukrainian grain into Russia,” the report says.

“The report highlights multiple convoys of vehicles seen carrying grain in the direction of the Crimean Peninsula in the following weeks, and GPS trackers on farmers’ stolen lorries show them driving through Crimea and into Russia.”

Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.

“Job adverts posted to Telegram by Russian logistics companies, and analysed by the investigators, show they could not get enough drivers in time to transport the vast quantities of stolen Ukrainian grain to Russia,” the report adds.

“One farmer in Zaporizhzhia reported that as early as 1 March 2022, five days after the full-scale invasion, his farm was taken over by Russian forces. By 13 March, Russian officials were making public statements that they had plans to rapidly increase grain export from the region, utilising occupied ports, such as that in Berdiansk, Zaporizhzhia.

“The speed at which Russia targeted and took over Ukraine’s grain infrastructure in these regions speaks to a highly co-ordinated level of pre-planning.”

It said that by May 2022, Russia was undertaking projects to refurbish disused railway infrastructure in Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia to increase the volume of Ukrainian grain that could be taken.

The report also documents trains carrying grain along these railways from June 2022.

It identifies three 170-metre grain carrier ships, purchased in the lead up to the invasion in December 2021 and February 2022 by Crane Marine Contractors, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned defence contractor, United Shipbuilding Corporation, indicating the planning involved the operation, it said.

“The highly systematised weaponisation of Ukraine's grain that we are documenting is unprecedented in modern history, and has involved extremely intricate pre-planning,” said Yousuf Syed Khan, senior lawyer at Global Rights Compliance.

“It is purposefully designed to deny food to civilian populations in third states.

“Russia is doing this to fund its unlawful war effort, to elicit sanctions relief on the world stage, to buy votes in international fora, and to represent itself as the legitimate authority of Ukrainian territory, in turn also weakening Ukraine's national economy.”

Evidence from the report will form part of a starvation war crimes dossier to be submitted to the International Criminal Court, which investigators believe has the potential to be the first international prosecution of starvation as a method of warfare.

“Disentangling Russia’s intent to weaponise food in its unlawful war against Ukraine requires a multipronged focus, looking at the tactics of besieging civilian populations, destroying critical infrastructure and the seizure and pillage of agricultural commodities,” Catriona Murdoch Partner and Head of Starvation Portfolio at Global Rights Compliance said.

“This report focuses on the latter – revealing an insidious backdrop whereby Russia has sought to dismantle Ukraine’s agricultural outputs, destroy livelihoods, and compound a global food crisis.

“It does this through systematic extraction of grain; transporting it to occupied areas inside Ukraine or cross-border into Russia; and then relentlessly attacking and destroying grain infrastructure and Ukrainian ports. International attention on this facet of the war must be raised during the upcoming Global Food Security Summit.”

The report has been released ahead of the Global Food Security Summit, which is being hosted by the UK next week.

It follows Russia’s decision to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in the summer – a UN plan to ensure food and fertilisers could leave Ukrainian ports – which has reduced global grain supply for vulnerable people around the world and contributed to further market volatility.

Updated: November 16, 2023, 12:11 PM