Videos shared online and eyewitness accounts attest to an emerging Russian offensive tactic in Ukraine: the deliberate targeting of agricultural equipment, farms and grain supplies through shelling and looting. The attacks on Ukraine, known as “the breadbasket of Europe”, have been precise enough to constitute “very deliberate attempts by Russia to curtail Ukraine’s agricultural production”, according to a food security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ukraine’s agricultural activities have already been severely interrupted since the Russian offensive in the country began on February 24. Last year, Ukraine harvested 106 million tonnes of grain, a record for the country. But Ukraine’s agriculture minister lamented that up to half of Ukraine’s harvest could be lost due to the various impacts of the war this year.
On top of this, Ukraine’s farms and grain storage facilities appear to have been directly targeted by the Russian military in attacks and operations.
Videos show rocket attacks on fields, farms and silos
Videos and satellite imagery documented the destruction of a silo – capable of holding 30,000 tonnes of grain – and facilities at an agricultural plant run by Golden Agro in Rubizhne, in eastern Ukraine (geolocation here). The facility reportedly exploded on April 9 when a tank of nitric acid, used in some fertilizers, was struck.
New @planet very high resolution image shows how this explosion , allegedly from fertilizer/ ammonium nitrate, at the Agro LLC in Rubizhne destroyed the entire facility, including the grain storage silo’s, leaving a deep crater. https://t.co/ebT5aDUa9i pic.twitter.com/276RTgX7fL
— Wim Zwijnenburg (@wammezz) April 29, 2022
Satellite imagery taken on April 21 (left) at the Golden Agro plant in Rubizhne, Luhansk, Ukraine shows a crater after an explosion destroyed the facility.
Another video, published on March 31 on Telegram, shows cows roaming among the destroyed remains of the Agromol dairy farm in Shestakove, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine (geolocation here).
A video shared on Telegram on March 31, 2022 shows the impacts of shelling on the Agromol dairy farm in Shestakove, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. In the video, cows roam free among the debris of the farm.
There were reportedly over 1,000 animals on the farm, and only a handful survived the bombing. Photos shared on social media show the bodies of cows killed in the shelling.
Finally, security camera footage captured the moment that a rocket struck a grain elevator near Synelnykove in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine. The Head of the Dnipropetrovsk Regional State Administration Valentyn Reznichenko posted the video on Telegram on May 2, adding that there were no casualties in the blast.
A video posted on Telegram on May 2 shows a rocket strike on a grain facility near Synelnykove in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine. Farm equipment such as tractors is visible near the explosion site.
US officials have reported documenting at least six grain storage facilities damaged by Russian attacks as of late March. Footage of the attacks prove that there have been “very deliberate attempts by Russia to curtail Ukraine’s agricultural production”, according to Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“Some of these attacks are so precise – it’s just a warehouse, for example, that’s destroyed with no collateral damage on the homes around it,” Welsh told the FRANCE 24 Observers team.
German Agriculture Minister Cem Oezdemir worried that these attacks on Ukrainian grain infrastructure could be attempts by Russia to reduce competition in export markets. Russia is the world’s top wheat exporter, while Ukraine sits at number five. Together, the two countries account for 29% of global wheat exports.
‘Since civilians are the ones who are ploughing those fields, I think that does constitute a war crime’
The tactics have also renewed fears in Ukraine of an organised effort by Russia to incite fear and hunger amongst Ukrainians. The strategy harkens back for some to the Holodomor, where up to five million Ukrainians died in a famine that many insist was a genocide orchestrated by the Soviet government from 1932 to 1933.
>> Read more on The Observers: Fears of food shortages after Russian attacks on grocery stores in Ukraine
John Herbst was the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, currently heading up the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. He explained that targeting agriculture isn’t simply an economic attack – it also impacts Ukrainian civilians and morale.
Ukraine has been famous for its black earth for centuries, among the most productive, properly cultivated, perhaps the most productive farmland in the world. A very important part of Ukraine’s economy and one that before this major new escalation by Moscow was doing reasonably well. Now, obviously, like the entire economy, it’s cratered. [Putin is] deliberately trying to destroy the Ukrainian economy. That includes Ukraine’s substantial agricultural centre. And they are in no way put off by the global impact of stopping Ukrainian grain exports.
We knew that when [Russia] launched their offensive, part of their plan would be to bomb the civilian population into submission. Their failure on the siege of Kyiv […] has led them to take on additional targets, not just by concentrating in the east, in the south, but also by finding other ways to ‘punish Ukraine’. And since civilians are the ones who are ploughing those fields, I think that does constitute a war crime because targeting civilians deliberately is a war crime.
As well as targeting civilians with military strikes, requisitioning foodstuffs from occupied territories during wartime could amount to a war crime under Article 55 of the 1949 Geneva Convention. Russia, however, has denied targeting civilian areas.
Looting grain supply and agricultural equipment
Russian troops, or their Chechen allies fighting in southern Ukraine, have been accused of looting grain and agricultural equipment.
A video shared on social media showed Russian vehicles transporting agricultural equipment such as tractors from Melitopol, in southern Ukraine, taking it toward Chechnya (geolocation here).
Russian occupiers are taking Ukrainian agricultural equipment from the #Donbas across border to #Russia. This is yet another way in which Russia destroys #Ukraine‘s economy and aims to deprive Ukrainian civilians of means of agricultural production and food itself. #genocide pic.twitter.com/gawvqmmnba
— Olga Klymenko (@OlgaK2013) May 1, 2022
As explained by Twitter user, @Kargolow, it is possible to use visual clues from the video to confirm that these were indeed Russian vehicles headed to Chechnya. The convoy of trucks – marked with the letter “Z” (visible at 0:07 and 0:12 in the video above), which is typical for Russian military vehicles that were used in the Ukraine war – is escorted by Russian police cars (visible at 0:15 in the video).
The cars are driving east, toward Chechnya, through a region of Russia between Ukraine and Chechnya.
During the search, I’ve finally found the appropriate building (see image) on the previously proposed road in the Baruski town, Republic of Ingushetia.
Geolocated as: Baruski town, Republic of Ingushetia, Russia.
Grid: 43.25707, 44.82187.@GeoConfirmed pic.twitter.com/GodDgYCqm2
— Karolgoal (@kargolow) May 4, 2022
On May 2, locals reported to CNN that Russian forces had looted $5 million (€4.7 million) worth of equipment from the Agrotek farming equipment dealership in Melitopol, including two harvesters, a tractor and a seeder.
The same forces had reportedly already cleared out grain warehouses in the city, which has been occupied by Russian troops since early March, loading the product into trucks for transport, according to Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov.
“We’re hearing that Russia is also stealing Ukrainian agricultural products and stealing grain and shipping it to Russia or Russian controlled territory so it can sell it on global markets for high prices,” Caitlin Welsh explained.
Despite the local and global impacts of Russia shattering Ukraine’s agricultural sector, Herbst believes it may not have the intended impact of forcing Ukrainians into submission:
They hope to intimidate the Ukrainian people. What they’ve done is they’ve persuaded the Ukrainians that they’re fighting for their existence as Ukrainians. So that has only led to doubling down on the Ukrainian side on victory.
International officials also worry that the war in Ukraine will have significant impacts on food security and hunger around the world, particularly in the global south. Exports of Ukraine’s agricultural products have been greatly curtailed – up to 4.5 million tonnes of grain have been blockaded from export at its Black Sea ports, according to the United Nations.
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