Russian attacks on farms and silos ‘deliberately try to destroy Ukraine’s economy’

Videos shared online and eyewitness accounts testify to an emerging Russian offensive tactic in Ukraine: deliberately attacking agricultural machinery, farms and grain stocks through shelling and looting. According to a food security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the attacks on Ukraine, known as “Europe’s breadbasket”, are accurate enough to constitute “very deliberate attempts by Russia to curtail Ukrainian agricultural production”.

Ukraine’s agricultural activities have been severely disrupted since the Russian offensive in the country began on February 24. Last year, Ukraine harvested 106 million tons of grain, a record for the country. But Ukraine’s agriculture minister regretted that up to half of Ukraine’s crop could be lost as a result of the various effects of the war this year.

In addition, Ukraine’s farms and grain storage facilities appear to have been directly targeted by the Russian military in attacks and operations.

Videos show missile strikes on fields, farms and silos

Videos and satellite imagery documented the destruction of a silo – capable of holding 30,000 tons of grain – and facilities at a farm run by Golden Agro in Rubizhne, eastern Ukraine (geolocation here). The facility reportedly exploded on April 9, when a tank containing nitric acid used in some fertilizers was hit.

Satellite images taken on April 21 (left) at the Golden Agro plant in Rubizhne, Luhansk, Ukraine, show a crater after an explosion destroyed the facility.

Another video, published March 31 on Telegram, shows cows roaming among the destroyed remains of the Agromol dairy farm in Shestakove, in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region (geolocation here).

A video shared on Telegram on March 31, 2022 shows the impact of shelling on the Agromol dairy farm in Shestakove, Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. In the video, cows roam free among the rubble of the farm.

There were reportedly more than 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, CCTV footage captured the moment a missile hit a grain elevator near Synelnykove in Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region. The head of Dnipropetrovsk’s state regional administration, Valentyn Reznichenko, posted the video to Telegram on May 2, adding that there were no casualties in the explosion.

A video posted to Telegram on May 2 shows a rocket attack on a grain mill near Synelnykove in Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region. Farm equipment such as tractors are visible near the explosion site.

US officials have reported that at least six grain storage facilities were damaged by Russian attacks in late March. Footage from the attacks shows that there have been “very deliberate attempts by Russia to curtail agricultural production in Ukraine,” said 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 – for example, it’s just a warehouse that has been destroyed with no additional damage to the houses around it,” Welsh told the FRANCE 24 Observers team.

German Agriculture Minister Cem Uzdemir feared that these attacks on Ukraine’s grain infrastructure could be Russia’s attempts to reduce competition in export markets. Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter, while Ukraine ranks fifth. Together, the two countries account for 29% of global wheat exports.

‘Since it is civilians who plow those fields, I think that is a war crime’

The tactics have also heightened fears in Ukraine of an organized attempt by Russia to fuel fear and hunger among Ukrainians. The strategy, for some, harks back to the Holodomor, where up to five million Ukrainians died in a famine that many maintain was a genocide orchestrated by the Soviet government from 1932 to 1933.

>> Read more on The Observers: Food shortages fear after Russian attacks on supermarkets in Ukraine

John Herbst served as US Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 and currently directs the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He explained that targeting agriculture is not just an economic attack – it also affects Ukrainian citizens and morale.

Ukraine has been known for centuries for its black soil, one of the most productive, well-cultivated and arguably the most productive agricultural land in the world. A very important part of the Ukrainian economy and one that was doing quite well before this big new escalation by Moscow. Now it is clearly, like the entire economy, cratered. [Putin is] deliberately trying to destroy the Ukrainian economy. That includes Ukraine’s sizable agricultural center. And they are in no way deterred by the global impact of the cessation of Ukrainian grain exports.

We knew that when [Russia] started their offensive, part of their plan would be to bombard the civilian population into submission. Their failure at the siege of Kiev […] has led them to tackle additional targets not only by concentrating in the east, in the south, but also by finding other ways to “punish” Ukraine. And since it’s civilians who plow those fields, I think that’s a war crime, because deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime.

In addition to targeting civilians with military attacks, requisitioning food from occupied territories in wartime could be a war crime under Article 55 of the 1949 Geneva Convention. However, Russia has denied targeting civilian areas.

Pillage of grain stock and farm machinery

Russian troops, or their Chechen allies fighting in southern Ukraine, have been accused of looting grain and farm machinery.

A video shared on social media showed Russian vehicles transporting farm equipment such as tractors from Melitopol, in southern Ukraine, towards Chechnya (geolocation here).

As explained by Twitter user, @Kargolow, it is possible to use visual cues from the video to confirm that these were indeed Russian vehicles bound for Chechnya. The convoy of trucks – marked with the letter “Z” (visible at 0:07 and 0:12 in the video above), which is typical of Russian military vehicles used in the war in Ukraine – is escorted by Russian police cars (visible at 0:15 in the video).

The cars head east, toward Chechnya, through an area in Russia between Ukraine and Chechnya.

On May 2, local residents reported to CNN that Russian troops looted $5 million (€4.7 million) worth of equipment from the Agrotek farm equipment dealer in Melitopol, including two harvesters, a tractor and a seed drill.

Some of these tools were equipped with GPS: the dealer tracked them to a village near Grozny, in Chechnya. They also had remote locking mechanisms, rendering them useless.

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov said the same troops had reportedly already cleared grain warehouses in the city, which has been occupied by Russian troops since early March, and loaded the product onto trucks.

“We hear that Russia also steals Ukrainian agricultural products and steals grain and sends it to Russia or Russia-controlled territory so that it can sell it on the world market at high prices,” explains Caitlin Welsh.

Despite the local and global impact of Russia shattering Ukraine’s agricultural sector, Herbst believes it will not have the intended impact of forcing Ukrainians into submission:

They hope to intimidate the Ukrainian people. What they have done is they have convinced the Ukrainians that they are fighting for their existence as Ukrainians. So that has only led to a doubling of the victory on the Ukrainian side.

International officials are also concerned that the war in Ukraine will have significant consequences for food security and hunger around the world, especially in the global south. Exports of Ukrainian agricultural products have been severely curtailed – according to the United Nations, up to 4.5 million tons of grain have been blocked for export in the ports on the Black Sea.

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