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The once-quiet southwestern corner of Ukraine is now playing a key role in trade

The port of Izmail on the Danube River, on Ukraine's far southern border with Romania, is one of the few Ukrainian-run ports still operating in the country.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
The port of Izmail on the Danube River, on Ukraine's far southern border with Romania, is one of the few Ukrainian-run ports still operating in the country.

Updated June 23, 2022 at 12:02 PM ET

BESSARABIA, Ukraine — The traffic is near constant in this remote southernmost region of Ukraine. Eighteen-wheelers are clogging bumpy two-lane roads, hauling goods and grain to and from a border that probably hasn't been this busy since Soviet times.

There are only three Ukrainian-run ports that are still operating in the country. All are on the Danube River in this secretive, multiethnic region that locals say has been long overlooked by Kyiv.

It's not overlooked anymore.

"You may have heard that during the blockade of Black Sea ports there arises the problem of exporting grains," says Rodion Abashev, the head of the district government agency in Izmail, a city separated from Romania by the Danube. "Now all of the regions that are near the border are helping with this problem."

Russia's blockade and occupation of Ukraine's Black Sea ports have largely halted its maritime trade. Ukraine and the United Nations say it's also contributing to a global food crisis because Ukraine is such a major food exporter that African and Middle Eastern countries have relied on.

Before the war, 70% of Ukraine's exports went through its Black Sea ports. Now, with all of those ports blocked by Ukrainian mines or under Russian occupation, the country is having to move some of its 23 million tons of stockpiled grain and other goods by land.

Ukraine has established two trade routes to export grain, the country's Deputy Foreign Minister Dmytro Senik told Reuters earlier this month. "Those routes are not perfect because it creates bottlenecks but we are doing our best to develop those routes in the meantime," he said.

Much of the international attention has focused on the larger of the two trade corridors, Ukraine's border with Poland, where differences in rail gauges and long lines at border crossings have created a bottleneck.

But quieter efforts to move commodities through Ukraine's southwestern-most corner, an ethnically diverse and historically pro-Russian region known as Bessarabia, are having similar congestion issues.

A Soviet statue in the southwest corner of Ukraine, in a region called Bessarabia that's ethnically diverse and historically pro-Russia.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A Soviet statue in the southwest corner of Ukraine, in a region called Bessarabia that's ethnically diverse and historically pro-Russia.

From their roadside shop in Tatarbunary, Denys Yaremenko and Valentyna Irzheva, say drive times have doubled on local roads and supply issues are helping drive up the costs of goods by 30% to 70%.

Outside of Izmail's Danube River port, truckers are living in their rigs and bathing on the muddy banks of a neighboring lagoon as they wait for weeks, in some cases, to offload goods.

And there are broader concerns that this growing, if clunky, southern trade route is uniquely vulnerable to Russian interference.

It is.

Sergiy Belous, a truck driver waiting at the port of Izmail, stands near a marshy area where he says he's been bathing while biding his time to offload his truck.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Sergiy Belous, a truck driver waiting at the port of Izmail, stands near a marshy area where he says he's been bathing while biding his time to offload his truck.

The mayor says Russia tries to put the region on its knees

Boxed between two rivers, Moldova and the Black Sea, Southern Bessarabia — or Budjak, as some locals call it — is geographically isolated from the rest of Ukraine. The wide mouth of the Lower Dniester River separates it from the rest of the Odesa Oblast, or state, and limits access in between.

There are only two routes connecting the regions. One, a narrow two-lane road, runs through the southern tip of Moldova just south of the border town of Palanca. The other route, a rail and vehicle bridge along the Black Sea coast, has been repeatedly targeted by Russian airstrikes.

The most recent missile strike, in the pre-dawn hours on May 30, shook buildings in downtown Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi roughly 10 miles away.

A historic fort in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi. It is about 10 miles from the Zatoka bridge, which has been hit by multiple military strikes over the course of the war.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A historic fort in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi. It is about 10 miles from the Zatoka bridge, which has been hit by multiple military strikes over the course of the war.

"We see constant bombardments," Vitarliy Grazhdan, the town's mayor, said the day before the strike. "They are trying to destroy our logistics and the economy of our country. This was all done to put us to our knees."

Grazhdan and other Ukrainian officials won't say if Russia's latest missile strike on the Zatoka bridge was successful in destroying the crossing. Access to the bridge is blocked by strict checkpoints. But members of pro-Russian channels on the social media app Telegram have shared photos they claim show the rail bridge soon after the strike, with a mess of twisted steel dipping into water below.

Successful or not, the strikes are illustrative of how fraught and dynamic the situation is for business owners desperate to export goods.

"The situation is very difficult and uncomfortable and it changes every day," says the CEO of a company still producing sunflower oil and exporting it by way of the Danube River. He asked NPR not to use his name to avoid identifying the company because of security concerns for their business operation, citing Russia's strikes on other agricultural enterprises in recent weeks.

The river's ports aren't equipped to handle the amount of volume that's being asked of them, he says. The soaring price of gas and unreliable rail lines are making it harder for them to make any sort of profit. "But we don't have much choice," he says. "We have to try everything we can."

A man fishes near the port in Izmail as boats come and go on the Danube.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A man fishes near the port in Izmail as boats come and go on the Danube.

Bessarabia shares many traits with Crimea

Before the war, Bessarabia was a region that some speculated would be a prime target of Russia. Its limited access to mainland Ukraine, complicated history and lingering pockets of pro-Russian sentiment are reminiscent of another area of Ukraine Russia has already annexed: Crimea.

"Bessarabia is a highly multicultural region in southwest Ukraine's Odesa Oblast that shares many of the characteristics which helped facilitate the 2014 Kremlin takeover of Crimea," wrote Michael Druckman, the resident program director for Ukraine at the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit political advocacy group, in an article published by the Atlantic Council last year.

The region does not have an ethnic majority of Ukrainians and Russian propaganda media is still widely disseminated, he wrote. Villages in the region are generally small and poor. Soviet monuments still decorate parks. And the area is ethnically varied, with Bulgarian towns, Moldovan, Russian, Ukrainian and others. And most, historically, haven't been overly effusive to Kyiv.

"The attitude to the central government is like this: OK, so we are here, they are there," said Mykola Kapliienko, an Izmail-born professor of social sciences at Izmail State University, the only state-run institute of higher learning in Bessarabia. "So let's live together but do not interrupt our good living here."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, perhaps realizing the disconnect, made a show of visiting the strategically important Snake Island, which is included in the region, last year to raise awareness of Russia's increased warship presence in the Black Sea.

"There is a problem and it is not only a Ukrainian problem," he said at a news conference during the visit. "Tomorrow, the Black Sea region might be blocked and all this will affect the Azov region, the Black Sea region, the Mediterranean. ... This will affect the Danube, which unites 10 European countries."

Local volunteers join the mayor (not pictured) of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi for an afternoon meal after completing some work, like cleaning up sidewalks and tending to the town's garden beds. Villages in the region are generally small and poor. Soviet monuments still decorate parks. And the area is ethnically varied, with Bulgarian towns, Moldovan, Russian, Ukrainian and others.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Local volunteers join the mayor (not pictured) of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi for an afternoon meal after completing some work, like cleaning up sidewalks and tending to the town's garden beds. Villages in the region are generally small and poor. Soviet monuments still decorate parks. And the area is ethnically varied, with Bulgarian towns, Moldovan, Russian, Ukrainian and others.

The warning was prescient. Snake Island is now occupied by Russia. But it didn't do much to change hearts and minds locally, Kapliienko says. The actions Russia has taken since invading Ukraine have. "Everything has changed," he says. "Nobody expected such violence."

Beheadings in Bucha. The flattening of Mariupol. Civilian buildings being targeted by missile strikes.

"We even have this sort of joke that Russian authorities did the most to unite different nationalities to one Ukrainian nation," says Jaroslav Kichuk, the rector of Izmail State University. "Thanks to this war, Russia has lost a lot of supporters who would have supported them for years and years."

This is the life of a trucker in Ukraine today

At the port of Izmail, just off the concrete banks of the Danube River, fishermen cast lines into the water in the shadow of its moving cranes.

Business owners tell NPR that the port is being expanded. A grain elevator is being built to help export agricultural goods, a claim that local authorities won't confirm.

Valeriy, who asks for his last name not to be used for security reasons because he contracts with the Ukrainian military, sat on a park bench with his daughter, watching barges motor up the Danube unimpeded.

People sit on a park bench watching boats motor up the Danube near the Izmail port.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
People sit on a park bench watching boats motor up the Danube near the Izmail port.

"We are building a new berth that will be completed by autumn," he says. Asked if Ukraine's Danube ports can handle the new surge in traffic, he laughs, gesturing toward a parking lot at the port's entrance crowded with parked trucks. "There's your answer."

Between two of those closely parked semi-trucks, Sergiy Belous and two other truckers cook a dinner of soup and grilled fish, caught on the river. Cognac is served from a plastic liter bottle.

Belous pats the container on the back of his truck, filled with grain from the Mykolaiv region, and says he's been waiting at the port for a month to offload. Fellow truckers at the Ukrainian port further upriver, Reni, have been waiting to offload for two months.

"This is the life of a trucker," he says.

Authorities promised they'd be able to load his grain into a container ship by mid-June, but he's skeptical. Meanwhile, he's not being paid, he says. Asked about the problems at the port, the congestion, and the secrecy in the area, he chuckles.

"The problem is Russia," he says. "Boom, boom."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nathan Rott
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Claire Harbage
Olena Lysenko