Bombing Europe’s breadbasket: Russia targets Ukrainian farmers

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Kremlin has identified Ukraine’s vast and strategically vital agriculture industry as a priority target. This offensive against Ukrainian farmers has included everything from the blockade of the country’s seaports to the systematic destruction of agricultural produce and infrastructure.

On the eve of the invasion in February 2022, the Russian Navy began blocking Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, cutting off long-established trade routes taking Ukrainian grain and other agricultural goods to international markets. This represented a devastating blow to the Ukrainian economy, while also increasing the threat of famine in countries throughout the Global South dependent on Ukrainian food supplies.

For more than two years, this attack on the Ukrainian agricultural sector has continued to accelerate. From Odesa to the Danube Delta, the southern Ukrainian port facilities that are so crucial to the export of agricultural produce have been subjected to relentless bombardment. According to Odesa Military Administration head Oleh Kiper, this has made it impossible to accumulate large quantities of grain in warehouse facilities, and is forcing the country’s agricultural exporters to operate under constant threat of attack.

Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure is also being systematically targeted across the country, with regular Russian attacks on equipment, storage facilities, and transport hubs. According to recent research, the total value of destroyed agricultural assets amounts to more than ten billion US dollars. Meanwhile, approximately two billion dollars worth of Ukrainian agricultural products have been destroyed or stolen and shipped to Kremlin allies such as Syria and Iran.

The scale of the damage done to Ukraine’s farmlands is staggering. More than one-third of the Ukrainian agricultural land dedicated to cereal production has been directly affected by the war, with about four million hectares currently unusable due to mining, munitions, or ongoing hostilities. A further eight million hectares of Ukrainian farmland is currently under Russian occupation. Beyond the front lines, Russia is also accused of deliberately setting fire to Ukrainian grain fields.

The Kremlin’s goal is clear: Russia aims to inflict irreparable damage on Ukraine’s agricultural industry, leading to economic collapse and depopulation. Ukraine has historically been known as Europe’s breadbasket, with the country’s agricultural sector serving as a key engine of the national economy. By blocking agricultural exports, destroying agricultural infrastructure, and preventing farmers from growing crops, Moscow hopes to undermine the economic foundations of Ukrainian statehood and pave the way for the country’s subjugation.

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Russia’s campaign against the Ukrainian agricultural industry also has a broader international dimension. The Kremlin is using food as a weapon to expand its influence throughout the Global South while employing a combination of blackmail and bribery. Moscow seeks to prevent Ukraine from exporting foodstuffs to countries in Africa and Asia, while at the same time looking to “replace Ukrainian grain” with Russian supplies.

In summer 2022, there were hopes of some relieve for the Ukrainian agricultural sector when Russia signed up to a UN-brokered grain deal. This apparent breakthrough sparked initial optimism, but ultimately highlighted the Kremlin’s readiness to exploit global food security concerns. The UN-backed grain agreement allowed for limited exports of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, but it soon became apparent that Moscow saw the deal primarily as an opportunity to secure further concessions. The Kremlin consistently sabotaged implementation of the grain agreement, before unilaterally withdrawing one year later when its escalating demands were not met.

Ukraine has achieved some notable successes in defense of the country’s farming industry. Beginning in August 2023, Ukraine has managed to partially unblock the country’s Black Sea ports and resume grain deliveries through the creation of a new corridor for merchant shipping. Maritime agricultural export volumes are now close to prewar levels, underlining the remarkable resilience of wartime Ukraine.

The resumption of agricultural exports via Ukraine’s Black Sea ports represents one of the country’s most significant victories since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion. This was made possible by the innovative use of Ukrainian drone technologies and the effective deployment of missiles provided by the country’s international partners, allowing Ukraine to significantly reduce the Russian Navy’s effectiveness in the Black Sea.

Despite this progress, much more still needs to be done in order to safeguard shipping lanes and allow for the free passage of agricultural produce across the Black Sea to global markets. As the trade routes that Russia is targeting lie in international waters, this is not an issue for Ukraine alone. Instead, there are implications for the wider international community, especially for other Black Sea region countries. It is important to hold Russia accountable for jeopardizing the security of vital maritime trade routes and for engaging in conduct that could be classified as piracy.

Ukraine has proven that it can fight back effectively against Russia with even limited resources. The Ukrainian military has damaged or destroyed around one-third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and has forced Putin to withdraw the bulk of his remaining warships from occupied Crimea to Russia itself. Ukraine now urgently needs to receive fighter jets, long-range missiles, and air defenses from the country’s international partners. With the right tools, Ukraine will be able to protect its ports and agricultural infrastructure, enforce international law in the Black Sea, and safeguard the breadbasket of Europe from further Russian attack.

Hanna Hopko is co-founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory and head of the ANTS Network. She was a member of the Ukrainian Parliament from 2014 to 2019 and served as head of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: A fire destroys a wheat field as Russian troops shell fields to prevent local farmers from harvesting grain crops, Polohy district, Zaporizhzhia Region, southeastern Ukraine. This photo cannot be distributed in the Russian Federation. (Photo by Dmytro Smolyenko/Ukrinform/ABACAPRESS.COM)