Police believe Ukraine war has triggered a crime wave … in rural England.
LONDON — Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has had repercussions for every part of Europe. A spate of burglaries in the sleepier corners of rural England may seem an unlikely addition to the list.
But British police say organized criminal gangs are sending machinery and equipment stolen from farms across the U.K. to Eastern Europe in rapidly-increasing quantities, and blame the crippling Western sanctions imposed on Russia for soaring demand.
“We know from where we’ve recovered equipment, where we are seeing equipment we have recovered but also that’s being tracked before we can intercept it, it’s heading to Eastern Europe, without a doubt,” Superintendent Andrew Huddleston, who leads the U.K.’s National Rural Crime Unit, told POLITICO.
Huddlestone has no conclusive evidence the equipment is ultimately destined for heavily sanctioned Russia, but says he and senior colleagues are in little doubt.
“If you asked me my professional opinion, for a country that’s under sanctions, then absolutely I would professionally expect the black market to be responding to that,” he said. “That’s what criminals do.”
Rural crime in the U.K. — already a prevalent issue — has skyrocketed in 2023, with one farmer describing it as “the worst that I have ever known it.” “It’s literally like a pandemic; nothing is safe wherever you park it,” said Eveey Hunter, who runs a farm in Hertfordshire.
Machinery theft in England and Wales has risen more than 300 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to Huddleston, who is also the national lead for construction and agricultural machinery theft. A particular target has been construction and agricultural machines such as excavators and high-value GPS units, which allow farmers to map out fields and plant crops more efficiently.
April was the second-worst month on record for GPS thefts, said rural insurance firm NFU Mutual, with costs doubling to more than £500,000 in the first four months of this year compared to the same period in 2022. The organization issued a security alert ahead of the harvesting season, when farming machinery and equipment, often left in fields overnight, are more vulnerable.
Agricultural manufacturers, including machinery giant John Deere and Dutch company Lely, suspended shipments to Russia and Belarus soon after Putin sent his troops into Ukraine. Putin’s forces raided a John Deere factory in Ukraine during the first few weeks of the war, as Russian farmers faced difficulties getting hold of key spare parts.
“We would expect black markets to arise globally for a whole range of products — agricultural goods, arms, electronic equipment, etcetera — due to the [Russian] sanctions and the war more generally,” Jackson said. “A correlation with some increased crime to fulfil new demands in Russia (and elsewhere) makes sense.”
Vesna Markovic, a professor at Lewis University in Illinois with expertize in transnational organized crime, said organized crime groups “are very quick to innovate, and can adapt to changes fairly quickly.”
“It may not necessarily lead to more crime in rural areas, but will lead to more crime in certain products or items that are in greater demand due to the sanctions,” she said. “Where it will lead to more crime in rural areas is looking at those specific types of machinery that are either not very prevalent in the major cities or easier to steal in rural areas.”
Farm machinery thefts have been reported nationwide, with particular hotspots in East Anglia and the East Midlands. There were five incidents of GPS theft in Kent, southeast England, during a single week in May, Huddleston said.
Larger farming equipment is leaving the U.K. in the back of lorries and containers, though smaller items such as GPS units can also be couriered or parcelled abroad. Last month, U.K. officers alerted their Dutch counterparts to a lorry traveling on a cross-channel ferry, which was found to contain four stolen excavators and a horse box.
A government minister, who was granted anonymity to speak on sensitive issues, acknowledged: “Theft of GPS systems is a huge problem. Whether or not there’s a Russia connection I don’t know, but they are very highly prized pieces of kit, and they’re easy to remove. They’re eight, nine, ten grand a pop.” war has triggered a crime wave
Most stolen GPS units and other farming equipment and machinery head overseas, though some are offered for sale online in the U.K.
CNN reported last year that when Russian troops raided a John Deere factory in Melitopol, Ukraine, they stole nearly $5 million worth of equipment, some of which was traced to Chechnya. The equipment was disabled remotely.
“We work with many manufacturers, including John Deere, and with law enforcement across Europe to share knowledge and to tackle machinery theft,” Huddlestone said.
The U.K. government and the opposition Labour Party are both now backing backbench legislation from Conservative MP Greg Smith that seeks to combat agricultural theft by requiring all new all-terrain vehicles and quadbikes to have forensic marking applied at the point of sale. A consultation is also underway on whether GPS systems should also be forensically marked.
David Exwood, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, said it was “crucial” manufacturers “install anti-theft devices in all GPS equipment.” A Home Office spokesperson said rural crime presented “particular challenges” and that police forces were being offered extra officers, CCTV and other improved technology to assist their efforts.
In the meantime, British farmers say they feel increasingly helpless to stem the tide.
Hertfordshire farmer Eveey Hunter had £60,000 worth of equipment stolen from her farm in September 2021, including hardware such as screens and GPS components from two tractors and a combine harvester. war has triggered a crime wave
After the incident, Hunter had four cameras installed around her farm, monitored 24/7 by a security company during harvesting season for £300 a week. But her fears have only increased.
“Back then, it was sort of common,” she said. But now, “it doesn’t matter if your tractor is locked in a grain store, locked in a yard with CCTV — they will take it.”