Sunday, June 26, 2022

“Industrial-scale” theft of Ukrainian food continues as Russian looters target the cherry crop

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The Kremlin has been accused of using food as a weapon of war in Ukraine by targeting grain and other food. This weekend, it emerged that the country’s cherry crop is the latest destination for forced exports to Russia

Russia’s systematic looting of Ukraine’s agricultural sector has spread to the country’s cherry crop.

It comes amid persistent claims about the Kremlin’s “industrial-scale” removal of grain and sunflower seeds from occupied territories.

Activists in the Russian-held southern city of Melitopol this weekend pointed to the transport of the surrounding region’s famous cherry harvest to Crimea as the latest evidence that Kyiv and international bodies are a Kremlin strategy to steal Ukrainian food and re-export it for the benefit.

Ukrainian government organizations say there is ample evidence that farmers or brokers brazenly have goods such as grain stolen or forced to sell food at a deep discount before reselling it at a higher price on the Russian market and making a hefty profit for middlemen and administrators.

Russian TV channels this weekend aired footage of Moscow-appointed officials celebrating the transfer of the Melitopol cherry crop to the annexed Crimea region. Ukraine is one of the top ten cherry producers in the world, growing up to 500 varieties for local consumption and export.

Dissidents in the Zaphorizhzhia region around Melitopol, which has been occupied since Vladimir Putin’s invasion began, say Russian commanders have told farmers they will not be paid market prices this year. Instead, growers receive the equivalent of 27p per kilogram of fruit, which is then resold in Moscow-controlled Crimea at £2.10 per kilogram.

A Ukrainian agricultural source told I: “There is no way to send this product to Ukraine. Everything must go to Russia and to Russian buyers who make a big profit. It is not possible for [Ukrainian] Farmers to live off such prices.”

The diversion of the cherry harvest is an example of what Kyiv and its allies are warning about, a testament to the Kremlin’s policy of turning Ukraine’s vast food resources into a spoils of war. Western officials have expressed concern that Mocow is conducting an “industrial” removal of food from areas in southern and eastern Ukraine that it has been able to confiscate.

Ukraine’s government in eastern Luhansk region, currently the scene of the worst fighting in the conflict as the Kremlin seeks to drive Kiev’s remaining forces out of the city of Severodonetsk, announced this weekend that Russian forces had removed 15,000 tons of sunflower seeds and 10,000 tons of grain from newly conquered territories.

The accusation appeared to be corroborated by independently verified Russian television footage showing Kremlin troops loading grain onto a freight train from a town about 30 miles east of Severodonetsk on Saturday.

The Ministry of Agro-Industrial Development of the Luhansk region said that in addition to direct theft of goods from grain elevators and warehouses, farmers were offered a fraction of the normal rate on grain from the upcoming summer harvest and instructed to save the harvest for next year’s sowing.

In a statement, Ukrainian authorities said: “Growers only get 30 percent of the grain cost and even then [Russian] Ruble. A sowing campaign for the 2023 harvest cannot be carried out with these funds.”

The statement added that similar to the export of Zaporizhia’s cherry crop, other foodstuffs such as butter, sausage and cheese would be sent from Luhansk across the border to Russia, raising questions about food resources for Ukrainians in the occupied territories.

The statement said: “It is obvious that the occupiers are not interested in what the population of the temporarily occupied areas of the Luhansk region will eat.”

Britain last week called for an inquiry into the extent of Russia’s looting of Ukrainian grain, after claims Moscow emptied silos containing up to 600,000 tonnes of grain worth nearly £100million from occupied territories and loaded grain onto ships, trains or trucks bound for Russia and Furthermore.

The Kremlin has denied stealing and using food as a weapon of war, although Russian-appointed officials in southern Ukraine have admitted grain from the region is exported abroad.

Meanwhile, Moscow refuses to allow grain shipments from Ukrainian-controlled Black Sea ports like Odessa, raising the prospect of millions of tons of grain going to waste once the summer harvest begins.

Last week, it emerged that Washington had warned 14 countries, most of them in Africa, that Russian ships loaded with “stolen Ukrainian grain” were sailing from Black Sea ports to unspecified destinations.

The Kremlin invasion has presented governments in a number of African countries, previously heavily dependent on Ukrainian and Russian grains, with an impossible dilemma as food prices soar and starvation threatens. Western officials fear that under such circumstances, the supply of cheap grain of unknown origin aboard Russian ships will prove irresistible.

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