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Zeppelin and Caterpillar exported hundreds of construction vehicles to Russia via Finland

A Finnish defence expert says it is highly likely that Russia has also used equipment meant for commercial markets for military purposes.

In early 2022, as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of heavy machine vehicles were exported to Russia via Finland.

EU sanctions did not yet apply to the tractors and bulldozers, despite the fact that Russia was able to use such equipment in its war effort.

A probe by Yle’s Swedish-language investigative unit Spotlight has revealed that the heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar and its dealer, Zeppelin International, sold hundreds of their vehicles to Russia after the country attacked Ukraine.

Russian customs data shows that excavators, bulldozers and front-end loaders had arrived from the Finnish port city of Kotka, as well as via Helsinki and Hanko, in 2022. The customs data further revealed that 270 of the heavy vehicles were imported to Russia via Finland that year.

After they arrived in Russia, the vehicles were transported to the Swiss company Zeppelin International’s dealerships in St Petersburg and Moscow. The firm has other outlets in Russia, including in the southern city of Krasnodar as well as on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia previously annexed from Ukraine.

Russia has built thousands of kilometres of trenches, moats and tank obstacles in the territories it has occupied in Ukraine – as well as along the Russian border.

MP Pekka Toveri (NCP) is a retired general and former director of Finnish Defence Intelligence with 40 years of experience in the military.

Toveri said it is highly likely that Russia has also used equipment meant for commercial markets for military purposes.

“The equipment doesn’t need to be armoured. A civilian-market backhoe is adequate to dig mass graves and trenches, as well as improving roads and repairing bridges and other infrastructure destroyed by Ukraine’s troops,” Toveri explained.

A Russian freelance journalist assisted Yle’s Spotlight team to examine posts on the Russian social media platform Telegram that showed photos and videos taken in Russian-Ukrainian border areas.

Members of the Spotlight team also viewed the footage, which showed heavy machinery normally used in the civilian world being used for military purposes in the border areas.

The EU announced its fifth package of sanctions against Russia in April 2022 and it included a ban on exporting heavy machinery to the country.

But according to Finnish Customs’ enforcement department chief Sami Rakshit, there are loopholes.

“There are Caterpillars and then there are Caterpillars. The sanctions apply to some types of heavy equipment but not others,” he explained.

It turned out that the EU export ban only affects those with rubber tyres, and ones that move around on tracked treads have continued being delivered to Russia.

A ban on such equipment only came into force under the terms of the EU’s tenth sanctions package, in February 2023 — one year after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Firms say they follow the rules

Caterpillar’s official dealer Zeppelin International would not agree to an interview with Spotlight, but did issue a statement by email.

Do you know whether the equipment [that Zeppelin has sold] has been used to build trenches in Russia near the Ukrainian border?

“Zeppelin’s exports to Russia have always been carried out in full compliance with all export control and sanctions laws. This means that Zeppelin has completely stopped supplying strategic industries in Russia, such as the security and defence sector, military organisations and the oil and gas industry,” the company replied by email.

After Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine the US-based heavy machinery firm Caterpillar took a strong stand against the aggression and shut down its factories in Russia. However, the firm has continued to export its excavators and bulldozers to the country.

Caterpillar was also reluctant to be interviewed, but issued a brief statement by email:

“Caterpillar is committed to working according to the values ​​in the company’s code of conduct. This means conducting business activities that comply with laws and regulations,” the firm’s email read.

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