Ukraine is accusing Russia of selling stolen wheat across the world, including Turkey, Syria, and countries in Africa. The United States has reinforced these allegations after Washington raised alarms that Moscow was shipping off plundered wheat to famished countries in Africa, putting African countries in a tough spot.

In April, Ukrainian First Deputy Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Taras Vysotsky claimed that invading Russian forces had stolen “several hundred thousand tons” of grain from the territories they had occupied.

“Today, there are confirmed facts that several hundred thousand tons of grain in total were taken out of the Zaporizhzhya, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions,” Taras Vysotskiy said. Since then, Vysotskiy’s estimates have tripled, saying that over 1.5 million tons have now been looted from Ukrainian grain stores. This number may have gone higher since April as Russia continues to loot Ukraine’s wheat and grain.

Last week, the Ukrainian Embassy in Beirut reported that approximately 100,000 tons of stolen grains had been shipped to Syria. One shipment was reported to be aboard the Russian vessel, the Matros Pozynich. Intel shows the ship loading wheat at the port in Sevastopol, Crimea, which has been in Russian control since 2014.

“The wheat is stolen from a facility that combines wheat from three Ukrainian regions into one batch,” the embassy said. “This is criminal activity,” the Ukrainian envoys said, adding that they have tried to contact Syrian authorities to no avail.

Stolen Ukrainian wheat onboard the Russian vessel Matros Pozynich (Yörük Işık). Source:
Stolen Ukrainian wheat on board the Russian vessel Matros Pozynich (Yörük Işık/Twitter)

With international wheat prices hovering above $400 per ton, the amount of stolen grains sent to Syria would have been worth over $40 million.

That same week, Kyiv’s ambassador to Ankara also reported that some buyers of stolen grain came from Turkey.

“Russia is shamelessly stealing Ukrainian grains and getting them out from the invaded Crimea. These grains are being shipped to foreign countries, including Turkey,” Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said.

“We have made our appeal for Turkey to help us and, upon the suggestion of the Turkish side, are launching criminal cases regarding those stealing and selling the grains,” he added.

The first reports of grain looting emerged in March after Russian state television stations openly bragged about the looting. Since then, the Kremlin has continued to deny the accusations, questioning the legitimacy of Ukraine’s claims.

More so, Russia has also been accused of creating a famine within Ukraine by looting farm equipment and grain. Apparently, they have been causing more than just internal food insecurity but also global food insecurity by preventing Ukraine to keep producing their grain and shipping it to the world market.

Global Breadbasket

Ukraine accounts for roughly one-tenth of the world’s wheat exports. Grain supplied from Ukraine is found everywhere, from the bread in the Middle East, the aid distributed to famine-stricken Yemen, and feed for most livestock in China, another significant part of the global food supply.

In the first weeks of the war, concerns were whether the conflict would affect the country’s wheat harvests for the year and, consequently, global prices. Even with the heavy fighting, Ukrainian officials claim that the country is on track to meet its harvest goals for the summer, even adding that it has over 30 million tons in storage. However, the problem is being able to ship the grains out of the country.

“Last year was a record wheat-producing year for the whole country,” Ukrainian industrial farmer Dmytro Grushetskyi said. “Ukraine is actually full of grain. Our stocks are full.”

“But now we can’t get the grain out,” he said, referring to the climbing grain prices that threaten the global food supply, “which means Ukrainian farmers and the rest of the world are screwed.”

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All of Ukraine’s ports in the Black Sea have been closed off to the rest of the world because of a Russian blockade in the area. Ukraine invested significantly in farm-to-port infrastructure, making it difficult to transition to railways in such a short period.

Additionally, reports of Russia destroying a major Ukrainian grain export terminal in Mykolaiv have also surfaced, adding to the evidence that Russia is weaponizing food supply for its own gain.

Africa’s Food Crisis

Last May, the U.S. warned 14 mostly African countries about incoming Russian cargo vessels containing stolen grain from Ukraine. African countries are facing a tough decision on whether to buy wheat from Russia and possibly anger the West or risk the lives of millions starving because of drought.

Wheat from Ukraine and Russia typically provides around 40% of Africa’s grain imports, whose prices rose by 23% over the past year. According to the United Nations, the Horn of Africa region is currently suffering from a devastating drought that has left over 17 to 20 million people hungry.

In the face of such adversity, African nations are unlikely to hesitate to purchase cheap grain even if it were supplied by Russia, according to the director of the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies, Hassan Khannenje.

“This is not a dilemma,” Mr. Khannenje said. “Africans don’t care where they get their food from, and if someone is going to moralize about that, they are mistaken.”

“The need for food is so severe that it’s not something they need to debate,” he added.

The war has ignited a global food crisis, prompting the United Nations to propose a plan to re-open shipping routes coming from Ukrainian ports. The Kremlin is trying to leverage global food prices to gain more political footing on the international stage, pinning down the supply to force countries to choose between Russia and the West.

Since the start of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operations,” the U.S. and its allies have unleashed an unprecedented wave of sanctions against Russia. Moscow has been trying to work around these sanctions ‌to keep the country’s economy afloat.