Ukraine war: How Russia used social media to steal sunflower seeds

Ukraine and Russia are the world’s largest exporters of sunflower seeds in 2021 The BBC has seen concrete evidence that Russian forces in occupied areas of Ukraine have systematically confiscated not only Ukrainian grain, but also sunflower seeds from local farmers. We have spoken to farmers who lost their crops, and tracked messages in private and public social media groups showing how the seeds were transported from the occupied south and east of Ukraine to Russia.

The two countries were the world’s largest exporters of sunflower oil in 2021, with Ukraine selling 5.1 million tonnes of oil and Russia 3.1 million. Now it seems that Russian oil is partly produced from Ukrainian seeds, one of the symbols of the country’s agriculture. In a closed WhatsApp chat with about 500 participants, users placed orders to transport crops from the occupied part of Ukraine to Russia. A screenshot of the chat was shared with the BBC by one of its members.

Seeds. From Chernihivka, Zaporizhzhia region [Ukraine] to Rostov-on-Don [Russia]. Huge amounts,” one member wrote on July 18. The BBC checked a dozen phone numbers from chats in an online database and found they mainly belonged to truck drivers or owners of small businesses related to freight transport.

Russians or those who work with them are also looking for grain carriers in open Telegram chats. We talked to them undercover, saying we owned some trucks. Yelena, a Russian shipper looking for a truck to transport crops from southeast Ukraine, told us “seeds are not stolen”.

They are controlled by the [Russian-imposed] military-civilian administration. This transaction is transparent. The seeds were purchased legally,” he said. The farmers we spoke to would question that: “They looted everything and took it away.” We contacted a farmer from the occupied territories of southern Ukraine. He has left the occupied territory but his workers are still there, so he asked to remain anonymous. He said Russian soldiers came to his warehouse and confiscated his crops at the end of May.

We have 1,200 tons of sunflower seeds and 860 tons of wheat in our warehouse,” he said. “And they [the Russians] looted everything. At first, they tried to be polite with our guards. They said: it’s not us, this is the order given by our commander. But it’s not clear where their commander is. They just pretend- pretended to be good. They loaded up all the harvest and took it away. And the guard, what could he do? They beat him.”

The farmer said his crop was worth £700,000 ($856,000). He said he also lost nearly £1.5 million worth of equipment. We have spoken to other farmers in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region who have been forced to sell sunflower seeds at lower prices. Russia offers £120 per tonne. Pre-war price was £500-600.

The situation is the same in the occupied Kherson region in southern Ukraine, said Oleksandr Hordienko, head of the local farmers’ association: “Farmers are selling [seeds] because they need money to buy diesel, fuel, and fertilizer. But if they [Russia]] continue to offer prices like that, then there is no point in starting the next sowing season.”

The main product made from sunflower seeds is oil. All the messages and ads seen by the BBC on social media indicated that the destination of the Ukrainian seed truck was an oil refinery in Russia. We go to the crops directly, we don’t unload [the seeds] in the warehouse,” said Viktor, who was looking for a truck to deliver the crops from the occupied Kharkiv region.

Destinations mentioned include Verkhnyaya Khava, a village in Russia’s southwestern Voronezh region, with a large oil refinery, and the village of Gigant, in Russia’s western Rostov region, also home to Russia’s main oil plant. It is also believed that Russia can smuggle finished sunflower oil from Ukraine.

The head of the Farmers’ Association in Zaporizhzhia region, Valeriya Matviyenko, said the oil extraction plant in occupied Melitopol was being used to produce sunflower oil, which was then transported to Russia via Crimea. Processing is going on, and you can even smell it. There is such a good taste there, you can smell it even from 3km away,” a local farmer told the BBC.

A woman still in occupied Melitopol has also confirmed she saw equipment moving in and out of the plant. We made inquiries to the owner of the Melitopol oil extraction plant, Serhii Zhelev. He told us that the factory was not operating. When we asked him about local claims that it had been occupied and was now run by Russian troops, he hung up.

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