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How farm vehicles stolen by Russia were remotely disabled

May 5, 2022

Russian soldiers looted combine harvesters and tractors worth millions of dollars from Ukraine, according to a media report. But the machinery was deactivated remotely before it could be put to use.

A combine harvester in a field in Zaporizhzhia Region, southeastern Ukraine
Russian soldiers reportedly stole 27 farm vehicles worth $5 million from a local dealer in UkraineImage: Dmytro Smolyenko/Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

Not content with stealing Ukrainian grain, Russian soldiers also reportedly looted nearly $5 million (€4.72 million) worth of agricultural machines from their neighbor and foe.

Citing an unnamed source in the occupied Ukrainian city of Melitopol, CNN said this week that Russian troops stole a large collection of high-end agricultural machinery from a local dealer and transported it 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) away to Chechnya.

What was stolen and where was it taken?

CNN said a total of 27 agricultural vehicles were taken, including several combine harvesters, which alone are worth $300,000 each.

The equipment was stolen from a John Deere dealer in Melitopol.

John Deere is the world's largest manufacturer of agricultural machinery, including tractors, combine harvesters, balers, planters/seeders, silage machines and sprayers.

One of the flatbed trailers used to transport the looted vehicles had a white "Z" painted on it and appeared to be a Russian military vehicle, the contact told the US broadcaster.

The letter "Z" has become a symbol of the war as it was displayed on Russian vehicles massed on the border with Ukraine in the lead-up to theinvasion on February 24.

Several other reports have emerged of farm equipment and crops being stolen by Russian soldiers during the conflict in Ukraine, while Russia is also holding up Ukrainian grain exports.

Over the past two months, Agrotek-Invest, a Ukrainian farm machine dealer, has posted several times on Facebook detailing the theft of equipment, including John Deere harvesters and machinery made by the Swedish firm Vaderstad.

Vaderstad commented on the posts, saying the machines had been remotely locked to stop them from working.

As the machines were equipped with GPS and geofencing (a virtual perimeter), their journey could be tracked to the Chechen capital, Grozny, and a nearby village.

What happened when the thieves tried to use the vehicles?

According to CNN, when the thieves tried to start up the stolen combine harvesters, they didn't work.

The machinery is fitted with anti-theft devices, which had been remotely activated.

For now, the vehicles have been rendered useless but could still be sold for spare parts.

Some experts believe the software on the machinery could still be hacked, allowing them to be used again.

How big is the problem of farm machinery theft?

The theft of farm machinery is a regular occurrence globally, causing huge personal and financial losses for farmers and the insurance sector.

Insurance firms recommend the use of GPS tracking technology, while many manufacturers now have software that disables vehicles if they are stolen.

Farm machinery is surprisingly high tech and manufacturers have for decades utilized GPS to help farmers to steer their vehicles around huge crop fields.

John Deere also boasts fully autonomous machinery where the farmer is no longer required in the field, except to refuel the vehicle every few hours.

Ukraine's crops no longer on the table

What's the controversy surrounding John Deere's farm vehicles?

John Deere is at the center of the so-called right-to-repair debate affecting technology firms that use proprietary software.

The firm's license covering the software on its farm vehicles does not allow users or independent mechanics to modify the tools.

The farm machinery manufacturer is facing several lawsuits over the issue, amid accusations that it has established a monopoly in the repair of its high-end vehicles.

Some argue that the vehicles could also be disabled for any reason.

Many software creators insist that the restrictions are needed to ensure their platforms are not compromised by hackers and that users' data is not compromised.

Meanwhile, some US farmers have been known to use pirated Ukrainian versions of John Deere software to circumvent restrictions on repair.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru