Is Russia stealing and selling grain from Ukraine?

Ukraine officials accuse Russia of stealing ‘several hundred thousand tonnes’ in areas under Russian occupation.

Grain is loaded on a truck at the Mlybor flour mill facility in Chernihiv region, Ukraine.
Grain is loaded on a truck at the Mlybor flour mill facility in Chernihiv region, Ukraine on May 24, 2022 [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing grain from the country and selling it, while Russia has denied the claims.

The allegations come amid fears of a global food crisis over Ukraine’s inability to export millions of tonnes of grain through its blockaded ports.

Here is what we know:

What are the accusations?

Ukraine officials have accused Russia of stealing “several hundred thousand tonnes” of grain in Ukrainian areas under Russian occupation.

“I personally hear this from many silo owners in the occupied territory. This is outright robbery. And this is happening everywhere in occupied territory,” Ukraine’s agriculture minister Mykola Solskyi said in April.

Earlier this week a report from the New York Times stated that the United States sent an alert to 14 countries, mostly in Africa, about Russian cargo vessels loaded with what the State Department described as “stolen Ukrainian grain”.

According to the report, the cable identified three vessels by name it said were suspected of transporting it.

Kyiv’s ambassador to Ankara Vasyl Bodnar said Russia was shipping the stolen grains out of Crimea and added Kyiv was working with Turkey and Interpol to find the culprits.

“Russia is shamelessly stealing Ukrainian grains and getting them out from the invaded Crimea. These grains are being shipped to foreign countries, including Turkey,” he told reporters in Ankara.

“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 grain,” he said.

What does Russia say?

The Kremlin has denied Ukraine’s allegations, saying it did not know where the information was coming from.

On Wednesday, during a visit to Ankara, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was confronted about this issue by a Ukrainian journalist during a press conference.

“I am from Ukrainian public television, I absolutely want to ask a question!” he said. “Apart from cereals, what other goods did you steal from Ukraine and who did you sell them to?” the journalist asked.

With a smile, Lavrov responded: “We are not obstructing the grain. In order for it to leave the ports, Mr Zelenskyy must give the order, that’s all,” he added.

According to Russia’s government, the onus of de-mining ports prior to resuming grain shipments fell on Kyiv and they have blamed Zelenskyy for “categorically” refusing to resolve the problem.

Ukraine has said it would not de-mine waters around the Black Sea port of Odesa to allow for grain to be exported, citing the threat of Russian attacks on the city.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a report from Interfax news agency said that Russia-held territories of the Zaporizhzhia region are supplying grain to the Middle East.

“We are sending grain through Russia, and primary contracts are signed with Turkey. The first trains have departed through Crimea for the Middle East,” Balitsky said in an interview with the Rossiya 24 television channel. “It was a traditional market for Ukraine,” he added.

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Why is grain so important?

Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies. But Ukrainian grain shipments from its Black Sea ports have stalled since Russia invaded, with some 20 million tonnes of grain stuck in Ukraine.

The war, together with Western sanctions against Russia, has sent the prices of grain, cooking oil, fertiliser and energy soaring.

That in turn is threatening a food crisis in poorer countries, some of which count on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports.

Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil, while Russia and Belarus – which has backed Moscow in the war and is also under sanctions – account for more than 40 percent of global exports of the crop nutrient potash.

How has the rest of the world reacted to Ukraine’s claims?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the US believes Russia is stealing and selling Ukrainian grain.

“There are credible reports … that Russia is pilfering Ukraine’s grain exports to sell for its own profit,” Blinken said at a State Department conference on food security issues arising from the invasion of Ukraine.

“Now, Russia is hoarding its food exports as well,” Blinken added.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has called for an immediate investigation into the allegations.

The United Nations is trying to broker a deal to enable Ukraine’s grain to be shipped from ports such as Odesa. Russia has said it wants Western sanctions lifted as part of a deal.

Russian and Turkish defence ministers have discussed a potential grain export corridor from Ukraine, but prospects for a deal look slim.

African countries are especially hard hit by the food shortages and price increases. They imported 44 percent of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine between 2018 and 2020, according to UN figures.

“The fact that this crisis brought the cessation of exports from Ukraine, but also from Russia because of sanctions, we have found ourselves in between these two,” current chairman of the African Union and Senegal’s President Macky Sall told reporters.

“It’s of absolute necessity that they (Western partners) help to facilitate the export of Ukrainian grains, but also that Russia is able to export fertilisers, food products, but mainly cereals.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies