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Ukraine struggles to export its grain — as Russia repeatedly strikes its ports

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukraine is struggling to find a way to export its grain as Russia repeatedly strikes its ports.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Drones and missiles have hit Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea for the last couple of weeks, ever since Moscow withdrew from a deal safeguarding ships carrying Ukrainian grain exports to world markets. And Russia is now targeting a main alternative route for that grain at Ukraine's ports on the Danube River.

FADEL: Joining us now from Kyiv to talk about this is NPR's Joanna Kakissis. Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us about these ports on the Danube River. How important have they become to Ukraine's exports?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, since Russia pulled out of that deal protecting container ships in the Black Sea, the river ports of Izmail and Reni have become essential to keeping grain exports moving. These ports are located on the lower Danube River in the far southwest of Ukraine. The Danube is the largest river in the European Union. It starts in Germany and runs through Eastern Europe, and it forms part of Ukraine's border with Romania, a member of NATO and the European Union. The Danube also empties into the Black Sea, but in a part of the sea that is very close to Romania and, of course, NATO. And so until now, it felt more protected than other ports on the Black Sea.

FADEL: OK.

KAKISSIS: And I should say that before the war, these Danube ports were hardly used. They are much smaller than the Port of Odesa, for example. But now they account for at least a third of grain exports, according to Ukraine's infrastructure ministry. Ukraine is also trying to transport grain by rail and road, but that's very expensive.

FADEL: And what kind of damage have the Russian strikes on these river ports caused?

KAKISSIS: Well, on Wednesday, Russia used drones to hit Izmail, which is Ukraine's main inland port. It's right across the river from Romania. The drone attacks destroyed buildings in the port and also stranded ships preparing to load with Ukrainian grain. Ukraine's infrastructure ministry said that these attacks also damaged and destroyed almost 40,000 tons of grain that was supposed to be going to countries in Africa, as well as to China and Israel. Global food prices shot up. And, you know, the attacks, you know, really scared people in the city of Izmail. I spoke by phone with Mykola Kapliienko, who lives in Izmail and works at the local university. And he said this remote corner of Ukraine was largely spared during the war, and now it feels almost like a front line, and a front line just across the river from NATO and the EU.

MYKOLA KAPLIIENKO: It's also dangerous for the EU, I guess, because sometimes, you know, the drone can miss. The territory of Izmail port is, like, 200 meters from the territory of the European Union.

KAKISSIS: In other words, he says an errant missile or drone could strike Romania.

FADEL: And now, you mentioned this 40,000 tons of grain that was damaged that was supposed to go to other countries. Ukrainian grain is a vital food source for many countries, especially in Africa. What options does Ukraine have at this point to get the grain to countries that need it?

KAKISSIS: So Ukraine's leaders are asking their allies for more help, like, to beef up air defense around these Danube ports. And Mykola Kapliienko, the Izmail resident I spoke to, he said, you know, they understand that the Ukrainian military may not have the resources now. So he says local residents are actually trying to crowdsource to help pay for air defense equipment. Meanwhile, with exports, the alternatives - transporting this grain via train or road - that's much more expensive and not very efficient. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of countries are relying on this grain, and Ukraine wants to show the world that Russia is using food as a weapon in this war.

FADEL: A weapon in this war. Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You are welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAWN STOCKTON AND SWOOPE'S "DUNKAROOS") 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.