Russia’s Resource Grab in Ukraine

Ukraine’s extraordinary riches in energy, minerals, and agriculture are a prize for the Kremlin.

By , a principal at the SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and , a research associate at the SecDev Group.
Ukrainian coal mine
Ukrainian coal mine
A worker collects coal samples at the Holodnaya Balka mine in Makeevka, Ukraine on March 3, 2015. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Russia’s motives for invading Ukraine vary from security fears to revisionist historical claims that a Ukrainian national identity does not exist. Energy security also looms large—in particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to ensure the continued flow of Russian oil and gas to European markets, including through Ukraine’s pipelines. But the far bigger prize eyed by Russia may be Ukraine’s extraordinary resource riches, including some of the largest energy, mineral, and agricultural assets in the world.

With the exception of agriculture and coal, many of Ukraine’s resources remained underdeveloped and unexplored during the Soviet and much of the post-Soviet era. More recently, Ukraine has sought to increase its economic and energy security by developing these resources and diversifying its exports away from Russia. It launched a major oil and gas privatization effort in 2013, but this was interrupted by Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and military intervention in the Donbas.

After launching a new energy strategy in 2017 and accelerating the licensing of mineral extractions last year, Ukraine’s moves to develop its resources have once again been thwarted by Russia’s invasion—not least because many of Ukraine’s resources are in its eastern regions and underneath the Black Sea, which are now either controlled by or under attack from Russia. Ukraine’s formidable farming output has likewise been set back by Russia’s deliberate targeting of warehouses, farm equipment, and other agricultural assets. Russia has also occupied many of Ukraine’s ports, is blockading sea routes, and has sunk several cargo ships intending to ship Ukrainian grain to world markets.

Russia’s motives for invading Ukraine vary from security fears to revisionist historical claims that a Ukrainian national identity does not exist. Energy security also looms large—in particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to ensure the continued flow of Russian oil and gas to European markets, including through Ukraine’s pipelines. But the far bigger prize eyed by Russia may be Ukraine’s extraordinary resource riches, including some of the largest energy, mineral, and agricultural assets in the world.

With the exception of agriculture and coal, many of Ukraine’s resources remained underdeveloped and unexplored during the Soviet and much of the post-Soviet era. More recently, Ukraine has sought to increase its economic and energy security by developing these resources and diversifying its exports away from Russia. It launched a major oil and gas privatization effort in 2013, but this was interrupted by Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and military intervention in the Donbas.

After launching a new energy strategy in 2017 and accelerating the licensing of mineral extractions last year, Ukraine’s moves to develop its resources have once again been thwarted by Russia’s invasion—not least because many of Ukraine’s resources are in its eastern regions and underneath the Black Sea, which are now either controlled by or under attack from Russia. Ukraine’s formidable farming output has likewise been set back by Russia’s deliberate targeting of warehouses, farm equipment, and other agricultural assets. Russia has also occupied many of Ukraine’s ports, is blockading sea routes, and has sunk several cargo ships intending to ship Ukrainian grain to world markets.

Russia’s announced war aim of conquering Ukraine’s eastern regions and southern shores is hardly coincidental. These regions—including Ukraine’s section of the Black Sea, now mainly controlled by Russia—account for about half of Ukraine’s conventional oil, 72 percent of its natural gas, and almost its entire coal production and reserves. The bulk of Ukraine’s critical minerals, especially the rare earth metals that are now in high demand, are likewise found in Donetsk and other parts of Ukraine either occupied or threatened by Russia. A number of crucial agricultural crops feeding global markets—including wheat, corn, barley, and sunflower oil—are harvested in eastern and southeastern Ukraine. The war has not only disrupted the production of these resources, but it has also shut down the supply of vital inputs, blocked export routes, and made future investment uncertain.

Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and much of the rest of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast this year means that Moscow now has control over an estimated 80 percent of Ukraine’s massive offshore hydrocarbon deposits, including over 37 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Ukraine’s state energy company, Naftogaz, was preparing to run test drills in 32 offshore blocks, but those plans were upended by the war. Russia appears to be making plans to integrate these and other resources into the Russian energy supply chain, which Europe currently relies on.

Russian-Ukrainian relations have long been shaped by energy, not least the transit of Russian fossil fuels to Europe via Ukraine’s 28,000 miles of pipelines. Even now, Russia’s state-owned natural gas producer, Gazprom, is shipping tens of millions of cubic meters of gas to Europe. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of barrels of Russian oil continue to be moved across Ukraine through the Druzhba, Pomary Progress, Soyuz, Urengoy, and Uzhgorod pipelines. All of these Russian shipments earn Ukraine billions of dollars in transit fees, which Russia continues to dutifully pay even as its military flattens Ukrainian cities. The chief reason for Russia’s backing of the controversial, now terminated Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany was, of course, to circumvent Ukraine.

Although Ukraine is heavily dependent on imported energy to meet domestic demands today, that could change in the future thanks to significant undeveloped reserves of gas and coal. Before the 2022 invasion, Ukraine imported roughly one-third of its natural gas, more than two-thirds of its oil, and almost half of its coal. Yet Ukraine may have the second-largest natural gas deposits in Europe after Russia—1.1 trillion cubic meters of proven reserves and up to 5.4 trillion cubic meters if probable deposits are included. Ukraine also has 151 operating coal mines and up to 41 billion tons of coal reserves, among the largest deposits in the world. These riches are another reason why control over Ukraine is so attractive to the Kremlin.

Ukraine is also a potential superpower in the production of critical industrial metals. Ukraine has commercially relevant deposits of 117 of the 120 most-used industrial minerals across more than 8,700 surveyed deposits. Although total output was roughly $15 billion last year, the total value of deposits—including titanium, iron, neon, nickel, lithium, and other key resources—could reach between $3 trillion and as much as $11.5 trillion. Not surprisingly, many domestic and international companies have slowed or ceased mining activities in Ukraine since the onset of the war. For example, ArcelorMittal, the largest player in the ore extraction and steel sector, recently idled production amid concerns that its operations were threatened.

Russia may also be eyeing Ukraine’s rare earth metals, believed to be the largest recoverable supply of these increasingly critical resources in Europe. Probable but unconfirmed reserves of lithium—a crucial input in electric vehicle battery production—could also be the largest in Europe. Geographically, most rare earth deposits—including substantial ones of beryllium, niobium, and tantalum—appear to be concentrated in Kruta Balka in Zaporizhzhia, Shevchenko in Donetsk, and the Polokhivske fields in Dobra—all of which are in or near the Russian-occupied zones.

Ukraine was busily expanding investment in critical minerals, including earths, just months before the invasion. UkraineInvest received more than 100 proposals from companies across Europe and North America. The European Union also signed a new strategic partnership to extract raw materials, with promises of developing opportunities this year. These moves were part of a broad effort to limit the bloc’s reliance on China, which dominates over 98 percent of its supply.

But for now, it is the production and export of food to the world that the Russia-Ukraine war will affect most profoundly and where Russia’s stranglehold on large swaths of Ukrainian territory will impact the world’s most vulnerable countries. In 2021, Ukraine supplied 12 percent of global wheat, 16 percent of all corn, 18 percent of all barley, and almost half of the world’s supply of sunflower seed and safflower oil—with all agricultural exports totaling almost $28 billion, much of it to developing countries like India, Indonesia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Yemen. Around 55 percent of Ukrainian wheat was exported to Asia and 40 percent to Africa.

Estimates about the exact impact of the war on Ukraine’s agricultural production vary. Obviously, much of it depends on how long the war proceeds and which areas are affected. Some crops are likely to be more impacted than others. Almost one-third of Ukraine’s corn crop, for example, is grown in Russian-occupied areas. About 30 percent of Ukraine’s wheat production is concentrated in the Donbas, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Odesa oblasts—all of which have been affected by the fighting. Ukraine’s agricultural minister has said the area under cultivation could halve from 15 million hectares in 2021 to 7 million hectares this year.

Destruction, damage, and wartime displacement extend to farm labor, equipment, and stores of seed, feed, fertilizer, and other assets. Farmers lack fuel and have had a considerable number of their equipment damaged or destroyed in the affected areas. Fertilizer supplies have shriveled and prices skyrocketed, not least because Ukraine’s fertilizer supply was mainly sourced in Russia and Belarus. Russia has also slowed or banned the supply of key inputs, including sunflower seeds.

The Russian military has also purposefully destroyed warehouses, grain silos, and agricultural machinery in the areas where it’s been fighting. A prominent example is in Donetsk, where Harveat, one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural companies, has lost control of more than 98,000 hectares and has just 22,000 hectares left in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. AgroGeneration, another major land owner, is struggling to keep its holdings in Kharkiv under production. A variety of other large landholders like Agroprosperis, Kernel, and UkrLand Farming are reporting potential losses as well.

Most Ukrainian agricultural, mineral, and hydrocarbon exports are shipped through major port cities on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, including via Mariupol and Odesa—but with those ports either under attack or occupied, few ships are entering or leaving Ukraine. Hundreds of vessels have been blocked since the war started, and most shipping and container companies have suspended operations since they are unable to secure insurance. With ports closed, what remains is being shipped by land, with lower volumes and higher costs. Russia, in the meantime, is literally making hay, increasing its own wheat exports by 60 percent in the past month.

Russia’s invasion is paralyzing large segments of the Ukrainian economy with far-reaching global consequences. Not only are areas of major hydrocarbon extraction, mineral exploitation, and agricultural production adversely affected by the fighting, but their future prospects are uncertain due to widespread destruction, damage, and lack of investment. By destabilizing or occupying Ukraine’s key production areas, Russia is positioned to achieve a high degree of leverage and control over a significant share of global commodities, including food, energy, and the strategic minerals the green energy transition relies on.

Kateryna Gazaryan and Rafal Rohozinski contributed to this article.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah

Vadim Dryganov is a research associate at the SecDev Group.

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