- Written by Nick Beck, Maria Korenok and the Reality Check team
- BBC News
Russian forces are repeatedly accused of stealing grain from Ukrainian farmers in the occupied areas, as well as other crops such as sunflower seeds, as well as fertilizers and agricultural equipment.
The BBC has spoken to farmers, analyzing satellite imagery and tracking data to find evidence of where the stolen grain is going.
A few dozen kilometers from the front line, Ukrainian farmer Dmytro describes how the company he had kept for 25 years was lost in four months of Russian occupation.
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The BBC has tried to contact more than 200 farmers whose lands are now in Russian-occupied territory. Dmytro – we don’t use his real name to protect him from reprisals – was one of the few who agreed to meet us.
“They stole our grain. They destroyed our buildings, they destroyed our equipment.”
He claims that Russian forces now occupy 80% of the tens of thousands of hectares he occupies and accuses them of stealing grain on an industrial scale.
CCTV captured from one of the company’s websites the moment the Russians arrived. We have obliterated some of the surrounding areas to protect the identity of the farm owners.
Later in the video, a soldier discovers a security camera and shoots it, but gets it wrong.
Grain trucks were stolen, and Dmytro says some were equipped with GPS trackers.
We were able to use this data to find out that they went south to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and then to Russia.
According to GPS data, the two trucks stopped near a storage facility – identified as a grain unloading and storage site – in the Crimean town of Oktyabrske.
In a satellite image from June 14 this year, a group of trucks can be seen on the road next to the facility.
We can see that the storage facility is located next to the railway line, which can be used to transport grain either to Russia or to ports in the south of Crimea. The roof of the storage site also appears to have the Z symbol – the emblem of the Russian invasion – on the roof.
Queues at the border
It is very difficult to trace individual shipments of stolen grain, but there is ample evidence that a significant proportion of them go to Crimea first.
Satellite images taken at two main entry points – in Chonhar and Armyansk – show the accumulation of vehicles that could be used to transport grain and other products.
An image taken on June 17 at the Chonhar entry point shows a line of trucks over 5 km long.
This level of road traffic to Crimea is unusual because Ukraine has not been able to access the region since its annexation by Russia in 2014, and has exported grain and other products from elsewhere.
Part of the volume of traffic can be explained by the fact that empty trucks return from occupied areas after delivering supplies to Russian troops.
But the obvious explanation is that many of these trucks carry grain – or other products such as sunflower seeds – taken from Ukrainian farmers.
Satellite images from the town of Dzhankoy in Crimea show trucks waiting on a road next to a grain storage facility and near the opposite railway station.
The photos show freight trains – with wagons of the type used to transport grain and other produce – at the station next to the storage facility.
Dzhankoi trains are connected to the ports of Sevastopol and Kerch, where products can be delivered to Russia or abroad.
Where are the Ukrainian grains taken after the Crimea?
“They initially take the grain to the annexed Crimea, where they transport it to Kerch or Sevastopol. [ports]Andrey Klimenko, an expert at the Black Sea Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, who regularly monitors the movements of ships around Crimea, says:
“Over there in the Kerch Strait [entre la Crimée et la Russie]They move Ukrainian grain from small ships to bulk carriers, where they are mixed with Russian grain — or in some cases sail into this region only to look like they’re loading Russian grain.”
He adds that these grains are then exported with Russian certificates, considering that they are Russian grains.
The ships often went to Syria or Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said they had investigated allegations that Ukrainian grain had been shipped to Turkey and had not found any evidence so far.
“We have seen that the port of departure of the ships and the origin of the goods are recorded in the records of Russia,” he says.
Unusual volume of activity in Sevastopol
Satellite images of the Avlita grain terminal in the port of Sevastopol, west of Crimea, show a high level of activity throughout June, with the yellow material matching the color of the grain loaded on a series of ships.
We’ve looked at photos from the same station in June for the past few years, and that amount of activity seems extraordinarily high.
Some of the experts we spoke to said that this activity could only be explained by the transportation of grain from the Ukrainian mainland. “Crimea doesn’t really grow grain for export,” says Maria Pogonos, an agricultural policy expert at the Kyiv School of Economics.
It would not make sense geographically for Russia to use Sevastopol to export its grain.
Toutefois, Mike Lee, expert in agriculture auprès de Green Square Agro, qui a travaillé en Ukraine and en Russie, estime que certaines céréales provenant de Crimée pourraient faire partie d’un arriéré de la récolte de l’année dernière, de stocké en the war. “Crimea is under Russian control, but supply chains have been affected there, too.”
Ships turning off their tracking devices
From Crimea, the US and Ukrainian authorities and the media have identified nine ships that allegedly transported stolen Ukrainian grain abroad.
Using data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence, the BBC has tracked these ships on their voyages between Crimea and ports in Turkey and Syria since April.
According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence, the ships used navigational practices that naval specialists might call ‘misleading’: they stopped conspirators on board when entering the Black Sea or when going around the Kerch Strait, near Crimea.
When the plotters are reactivated, the ships sail south and many report a shallow water depth, indicating that they took the cargo during the break.
BBC mapping the routes of three ships: Matros Pozynich and Surmovsky 48, belonging to two Russian companies, as well as Phenicia, belonging to the Syrian General Maritime Authority.
We tried to contact the owners of these ships registered in Russia to inquire about these cruises, but we received no response. We could not reach the Syrian owners.
Despite the holes in the history of the trackers, satellite images have revealed the whereabouts of some of the ships.
Images from Maksar Matros Bozinich appear in Sevastopol in the Crimea in mid-May. During this voyage, he sailed into the Kerch Strait, experienced transmitter failure for five days, and then reappeared hundreds of miles south of the Black Sea. It was later filmed in the Syrian port of Latakia, but its tracking system is broken.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), a ship’s tracking system must be activated at all times, unless it poses a threat to their safety, for example in the case of piracy.
Lloyd’s Market Writer Michelle Wise Buckman believes there is no justification for turning off the trackers near Crimea or near the Syrian coast.
“It is clear that this practice has nothing to do with hacking risks,” says Ms. Buckman. “Other ships have their own transponders, so why not turn them on?”.
The BBC also obtained documents prepared by the Russian occupation authorities showing the farms to which the grain will be transported.
A separate investigation by BBC Russia and BBC Ukraine showed that in some cases the Russians are forcing Ukrainian farmers to sell grain at prices well below market prices and to sign documents proving their purchase “legally”.
While initial reports indicated outright thefts by Russian forces, farmers point to a change in tactics, as the Russians realize that if they don’t pay anything, crops may be sabotaged in the future. Farmers say they are forced to accept lower prices because they have no alternative and have to buy fuel and pay workers.
International law lawyer Emily Bottle told the BBC that the actions could violate the Geneva Convention and the rules of the International Criminal Court that govern occupying powers.
We have contacted the Russian authorities to inquire about the allegations, but have yet to receive a response.
However, some officials in Russia-controlled areas have openly talked about confiscating Ukrainian grain from areas they now control.
Additional reporting by Hanna Tseba, Sera Terrig and Hana Kornos from Ukraine.
Additional reporting by Danielle Palumbo, Josh Cheetham, Jake Horton, Erwan Revolt and Andre Zakharov in London.
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