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‘This is criminal activity’: Russia is selling stolen Ukrainian grain in Syrian ports as Putin holds world hostage over food

June 17, 2022, 6:31 PM UTC

More ships flying the Russian flag have reportedly been spotted unloading Ukrainian grain abroad, as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues using the threat of a global hunger crisis to coerce Western countries into lifting their sanctions on Russia. 

Two Russian bulk carriers, merchant ships designed to carry unpackaged bulk cargo such as grain, were spotted unloading grain at Syrian ports by U.S. satellite company Maxar Technologies, Reuters reported. The same ships had been seen days earlier loading grain at the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, Maxar said, where Russian troops have for weeks been reportedly loading stolen Ukrainian grain, according to satellite images taken by Maxar in May.

Syria has been a close ally to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine began at the end of February, accepting Russian ships in their ports even as Ukrainian officials warned they were carrying stolen grain and urged countries not to buy from Russia. 

But the war and an agricultural shortfall has brought several Middle Eastern and African countries to the brink of a catastrophic hunger crisis, including Syria, where around 60% of the population suffers from food insecurity, according to the UN. 

At the beginning of the war, Putin sought to use Europe’s dependence on Russian energy exports as a bargaining chip, attempting to have European countries pay for Russian gas in rubles to prop up the failing currency. The European Union didn’t abide, and decided to cut off 90% of Russian oil imports and two-thirds of gas imports by the end of the year instead. Now, Putin appears to be moving on to using a looming global hunger crisis, and the worldwide strife created by missing Russian and Ukrainian food exports, to his advantage.

Weeks of stolen grain reports

The Maxar images corroborate reports from May provided by the intelligence arm of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense that Russian ships were ferrying stolen Ukrainian grain to Syria. 

Both the UN and U.S. intelligence have warned that there is credible evidence that Russian troops have been stealing Ukrainian harvests. Last month, Russian trucks were also seen looting Ukrainian grain silos and transporting the stolen goods to Russian-controlled ports in Crimea, CNN reported.

Russian troops have stolen around 600,000 tons of Ukrainian grain during the war, according to UAC, a Ukrainian agricultural producers union. Of this, around 100,000 tons of wheat worth more than $40 million have been shipped to Syria over the past three months, the Ukrainian embassy in Lebanon told Reuters earlier this month.

“This is criminal activity,” the embassy said.

Russian officials have repeatedly denied the claims that its troops are stealing Ukrainian grain, with Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko saying in an interview this week that Russia “does not ship grains from Ukraine.”

But in spite of Russia’s protests, Ukrainian officials have insisted that stolen grain from Ukraine is circulating in many Middle Eastern and African countries. One Ukrainian diplomatic envoy to Turkey told reporters this month that Turkish buyers were receiving large volumes of stolen grain shipments.

Putin’s strategy

Combined, Ukraine and Russia accounted for nearly one-third of global wheat supply, while Russia was a major exporter of fertilizer, and Ukraine of corn and sunflower oil. The reduced food exports from the two countries is aggravating a global hunger crisis, and Putin has made clear to the West that he intends to withhold supplies until sanctions are lifted.

The UN has expressed openness to negotiating with Russia, although the U.S. has so far remained staunchly opposed to lifting sanctions, even cautioning nations against buying Russia’s stolen grain supplies.

But several African nations—where years of drought and bad agricultural conditions have dramatically reduced domestic output—have become reliant on food imports, with some leaders joining Putin in calling for a lifting of Western sanctions.

The war in Ukraine has accelerated what the UN has called an “alarming rise” of hunger in the world’s most vulnerable regions, particularly around the Horn of Africa, where countries are especially reliant on Ukrainian and Russian food imports. In Sudan, where over half the country’s wheat imports originate in the Black Sea regions, the UN warned Thursday, one-third of the country’s population was facing “acute food insecurity.”

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