How Russia uses social media to steal Ukraine's iconic sunflowers
Russians are using private and public social media groups to organise transportation of crops from occupied parts of Ukraine to Russia.
By Andrei Zakharov and Maria Korenyuk
Last year, Russia and Ukraine were the world’s biggest exporters of sunflower oil. But now ‘Russian’ oil is being partly manufactured from seeds grown in Ukraine. The BBC has investigated who is smuggling this symbol of Ukraine’s agriculture – and how they’re getting away with it.
In mid-July, officials appointed by Russia met local farmers in Melitopol, a city in the occupied southeast of Ukraine. Andrey Sihuta, who calls himself ‘the head of the [Russian-imposed] military-civilian administration of the Melitopol region’, and is accused by Kyiv of treason and collaboration, had this announcement to make:
“We’ve created a State Grain Company, which has fixed the recommended prices for grain, and which will set a price for sunflower seeds, too,” said Sihuta, cautiously casting an eye at the farmers listening to him.
He failed to make clear, however, exactly which state had set up this ‘grain company’ that had determined the prices farmers would be paid: there’s no such legal entity registered in Ukraine or in Russia. The latter may be occupying the southern regions of Ukraine de facto, but not de jure.
A video of the speech was published on a local pro-Kremlin Telegram channel. Behind Sihuta, on the stage where he was filmed, were two symbols of Ukrainian agriculture recognised throughout the world: a sheaf of wheat and a bouquet of sunflowers.
There’s no shot of the farmers’ reaction to his statement: they only appear in the video for a few seconds.
Since the spring, Ukrainian authorities have accused Russia of transporting looted grain from the occupied territories to annexed Crimea, and subsequently shipping it overseas.
But the BBC has uncovered that Russia is seizing not only Ukraine’s grain, but sunflower seeds, too. Before the war, the two countries were the chief rivals in an informal competition for leadership in the world’s export of sunflower oil. In 2021, Ukraine sold 5.1 million tonnes of oil, while Russia sold 3.1 million tonnes. Today, ‘Russian’ oil is being pressed from Ukrainian sunflower seeds as well as from the harvest within its borders.
Tracking Ukraine’s sunflowers seeds
"Seeds. From Chernihivka, Zaporizhzhia region [Ukraine] to Rostov-on-Don [Russia]. Large volumes". The advert was posted on July 18th, in a closed WhatsApp chat with 500 members, where tenders are published for transporting crops to Russia from occupied areas of Ukraine.
On the same day, another chat member was looking for someone who could ship sunflower seeds from the village of Bunchukivka, in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, to the Belgorod region in southern Russia.
"We’ll provide an escort. There’s no fighting, it's all calm. There are only Russian checkpoints. Vehicles will get a green light through," encouraged the writer, according to WhatsApp screenshots shared with the BBC by one of the chat members.
The BBC checked a dozen telephone numbers from the chat in online databases, including GetContact, an app that shows how a person's phone number is saved in other people's contacts. It suggested that chat members were mostly lorry drivers or the owners of small businesses related to freight transportation.
Posts feature cheerful emojis of sunflowers, or Ukrainian and Russian flags, and chat moderators start the day by welcoming participants to the ‘grain movement’.
Russians, and those who cooperate with them, also search for grain transporters in open exchanges on the Telegram social media platform. The BBC joined one such chat, posing as the owner of a fleet of lorries.
"Seeds aren’t stolen, it’s [crops] controlled by the [Russian-imposed] military-civilian administration. These transactions are transparent. The seeds have been purchased legally," said Elena, a coordinator from Russia’s Krasnodar region. She was looking for trucks to transport crops from Tokmak in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region to Rostov in Russia.
Across Zaporizhzhia, the Russian-installed ‘administration’ confiscated - or, as they call it, ‘nationalised’ - the crops of state-owned Ukrainian enterprises, along with the strategic reserves where grain was stored in case of war. Presumably, these are the crops Elena claims are ‘clean’.
However, as the BBC has uncovered, Russians are smuggling Ukraine’s sunflower seeds not only from the south of the country, but also from the occupied part of Kharkiv region in the east.
"Loading point - Kupyansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine. Unloading – Voronezh region [Russia]. Urgent! Loading tomorrow," reads one of the announcements the BBC came across. Viktor, the Russian entrepreneur who posted it, also was at pains to reassure us that the seeds were ‘officially’ purchased.
"There are waybills, of course. You’ll have a full package of documents," he told a BBC journalist, who introduced himself as an owner of grain carriers.
Viktor didn’t specify what documents he was talking about. But either way, the circumstances in which Ukrainian farmers are forced to sell their crops cannot be called ‘market’ conditions.
How Russians are “buying” Ukraine’s seeds
“We had 1,200 tonnes of sunflower seeds and 860 tonnes of wheat in our warehouse. And they [the Russians] looted everything. There were also 240 tonnes of peas, but I don’t know what happened to those,” a farmer from the Zaporizhzhia region told the BBC.
He has now left the occupied territories, but his employees are still there, which is why he asked us not to name him.
He told us that at the end of May, Russian soldiers started to come to his warehouse and confiscate his harvest.
“At first, they tried to be polite with our guards. They said ‘It’s not us, it’s an order given by our commander’. But it wasn’t clear where their commander was. They were just pretending to be nice. They loaded up the harvest and took it away. They didn’t offer any money, and they weren't going to pay anyhow. And the watchman, what could he do? They beat him up anyway," the farmer said.
According to his calculations, the total value of the stolen crops was $820,000 (pre-war exchange rate). He also lost his equipment which was worth roughly $1.8 million at the start of the year.
“We managed to conceal some of our equipment around the yard, but they stole vehicles and trailers. They shot up a combine harvester for some reason. No idea why. Maybe they didn’t like the fact it was yellow?” wondered the farmer.
If growers refuse to cooperate with the occupying powers, seeds and other crops are simply seized from them, says Valeriya Matviyenko, the head of the Farmers’ Association of the Zaporizhzhia Region. And if you want to sell any agricultural products in the occupied territories, you must first register with the Russian-imposed ‘military-civilian administration’.
“Many farmers didn’t want to register, so they kept seeds in their warehouses. And that’s what happened: if it was a large enterprise, and they didn’t want to register, then everything was confiscated. [Russians] entered the warehouses, loaded everything, and took it away. They didn't offer any money. They just brought a letter saying ‘your enterprise has been nationalized in favour of the Russian Federation’”, said Matviyenko.
Meanwhile, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs in the occupied areas of Ukraine are forced to sell sunflower seeds at a drastically reduced price - $150 per tonne. That’s the Russian offer. Before the war, the price was $600-700 per tonne.
The situation is the same in occupied Kherson region, says Oleksandr Hordienko, the head of the local farmers' association: “Farmers sell [seeds] because they need money to buy diesel fuel and fertilizers. But if they [the Russians] continue to offer such a low price, then there’ll be no point starting the next sowing season at all!"
What Russia is doing with Ukraine’s sunflower seeds
The main product made from seeds is sunflower oil. All the announcements that the BBC has analysed showed that the final destination for trucks transporting Ukrainian seeds was always an oil extraction plant located in Russia.
“We head to the plants directly, we don’t unload [seeds] at warehouses,” said Viktor, who was looking for trucks to deliver crops from the occupied areas of Kharkiv region.
In one advertisement, the final destination was Verkhnyaya Khava, a village in Russia’s Voronezh region, where an oil extraction plant owned by the Russian company ‘Blago’ is situated. Another location mentioned in the ads for hiring grain carriers is the village of ‘Gigant’ in Russia’s Rostov region, where there’s an oil processing plant.
Another destination is ‘Lugovaya street, 9’ in Rostov-on-Don: it’s the address of one of the country’s main agro-industrial holdings, ‘South of Russia’.
The BBC contacted the companies concerned to ask about the allegations, but has yet to receive a response.
"Why would you transport husk when you can make oil?" asks a Ukrainian farmer. "They [Russians] transport ready-made sunflower oil through Crimea and then further on to Russia," says Valeriya Matviyenko, the head of the Zaporizhzhia farmers’ association.
She admitted that the oil extraction plant in occupied Melitopol is also being used to produce sunflower oil - and then transport it to Russia.
“Processing is underway, and you can even smell it. There’s such a pleasant scent - you can smell it even from three kilometres away,” a local farmer told the BBC.
The owner of the Melitopol oil extraction plant, Serhii Zhelev, claimed to the BBC that the plant wasn’t operating. But when the adjective ‘occupied’ was brought up, Zhelev, who is still in Melitopol, quickly ended the conversation.
Ukrainian media have claimed that Zhelev is close to Yevhen Balytskyi, a former Ukrainian MP, who was appointed to run the Russian-installed ‘military-civilian administration’ of Zaporizhzhia region. A similar structure in Melitopol itself is commanded by Galina Danilchenko, a former accountant of Balytskyi.
Both have been charged with treason and collaboration by the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office.
An elderly farmer from Zaporizhzhia region said that in 2021 he had enjoyed a very good harvest of sunflower seeds. On February 23, the day before the war started, he agreed to sell 80 tonnes of seeds in Melitopol at a price of $700 per tonne.
“I was going to go there on February 27, to do all the paperwork. I was planning to get a loan for a combine harvester, and I thought this money would be just enough for the down payment,” he said.
“But on February 24 the war began, and everything fell to pieces. I have no idea what happened to my harvest. We worked so hard for 29 years and now we’ve lost everything".
Read this story in Russian here.