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How Ukrainian commercial ships are evading Russia's blockade

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

During almost two years of war, Russia has done its best to destroy Ukraine's huge grain export industry. Russian attacks and threats have almost shut down commercial shipping on the Black Sea. But as NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports, Ukraine has found a workaround.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The city of Izmail in southwestern Ukraine is just across the Danube River from Romania. It feels like an overlooked place. The roads are uneven, the houses are humble, and the port here seems at first like nothing special. But in the last six months, Izmail has become one of the busiest harbors in Ukraine. Zachar Medvedev runs the terminal here for Nibulon, one of Ukraine's largest agribusinesses. We're standing along the river shore.

ZAHAR MEDVEDEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Here's where we load up the wheat, he says, as a mechanical arm moves grain from a truck to a river barge.

MEDVEDEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: And you can see the rest of our fleet right there waiting for cargo, he says, pointing to more barges lined along the coast. The barges will follow the Danube until it empties into the Black Sea, then transfer the cargo onto larger ships near the Romanian coast. Medvedev says the founder of Nibulon started moving some operations here after Russia's full-scale invasion nearly two years ago.

MEDVEDEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Now, he says, nearly all of our grain cargo leaves from Izmail. Ukraine produces about 10% of the world's wheat. Commercial ships are evading Russia's blockade of the Black Sea by hugging Ukraine's southwest coast. Shipments leave from both Black Sea ports and the Danube, eventually reaching the territorial waters of NATO countries like Romania and Turkey. Ukraine is once again dependably shipping grain, says Ihor Plekhov, the mayor of nearby Reni, another Danube River port. Plekhov says that on busy days, trucks delivering grain can get stuck in line for days waiting to offload their cargo.

IHOR PLEKHOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Imagine, like, 5,000 trucks trapped in a city of 5,000 people, Plekhov says. It's a struggle to provide them with food, water, toilets.

PLEKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Before the war, he says, this port was barely used. It was run down and drowning in debt, and this region, known as Bessarabia, is remote. To get here, you have to drive through another country, Moldova. And after that, you drive another two hours through wetlands to reach Izmail or Reni. Most people here speak Russian, including Reni's mayor, Plekhov.

PLEKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I mean, all of our TV stations here used to be in Russian, he says. We needed to get a satellite to get Ukrainian-language programming. He used to joke that he knew more about Russian politicians than Ukrainian ones. Now this war has turned the locals against Russia.

IVAN TATARINOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Ivan Tatarinov, a history professor at Ismail's university, says the city removed the statue of a Russian general, and everyone in town is now encouraging each other to speak Ukrainian.

TATARINOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: We all know someone who is fighting, and we all volunteer to help soldiers on the frontline, he says. Every one of us is trying to save Ukraine. The region's newfound importance has made it a target of Russian strikes, despite its close proximity to Romania, a NATO country. Russia hits the Ukrainian ports here at least every week. At Izmail's port, grain trade manager Stanislav Chember (ph) points to three silos damaged by a recent Russian missile attack. Amazingly, he says, the corn and wheat inside did not burn.

STANISLAV CHEMBER: No cargo was damaged.

KAKISSIS: Oh, you mean the grain was fine?

CHEMBER: Yeah. All - yeah.

KAKISSIS: You could still transport it? So you were lucky.

CHEMBER: Yeah, very lucky. Yeah.

KAKISSIS: Yeah.

But these days, in Izmail, he says, you never know when your luck will run out.

CHEMBER: We hope that's the last strike, but we don't know, like it will be.

KAKISSIS: The missiles have also struck residential areas. Ihor Skorobrecha (ph) works for a member of Parliament from the area, and he shows me around. He points to a ruined cottage on a busy street.

IHOR SKOROBRECHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I know the woman who lived there, he says. She was retired, and the missile attack hurt her really badly.

SKOROBRECHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Skorobrecha says his wife, a psychologist, has been holding group therapy sessions for a place that, until now, felt so far away from the war.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Back at the port, Zachar Medvedev, the Nibulon manager, tells us the company's terminal has been hit twice. He shows us one of the newly built bomb shelters.

MEDVEDEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: We have our own warning system that announces air raid alerts, he says, and we make sure all of our workers go to the shelters. The company's CEO, Oleksiy Vadatursky, had for years warned other Ukrainian grain dealers that Russia would weaponize the Black Sea. Medvedev says it was a prescient warning.

MEDVEDEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Oleksiy knew we had to find another way to export grain, Medvedev says. His company started building this terminal in May 2022 and finished three months later in September, but he wasn't here to see the first cargo leave. Oleksiy Vadatursky was killed in July of last year by a Russian missile strike on his home in southern Ukraine. But his company is surviving, and its terminal here is expanding. As the sun sets, a small army of tractors digs up fresh earth and sand along the Danube River. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Izmail, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.