The once-quiet southwestern corner of Ukraine is now playing a key role in trade As the Russian invasion blocks much of Ukraine's food exports elsewhere, ports in the far south are the few Ukrainian-run transit points for goods in and out of the country.

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

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports is strangling the country's economy and, the U.N. says, contributing to a global food crisis. But some goods are still getting in and out of the country. NPR's Nathan Rott reports from a corner of Ukraine that's quietly playing a critical role in keeping the country's economy afloat.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Before the war, this southwestern-most corner of Ukraine, known locally as Bessarabia or Budjak - the latter being a derivative of the Turkish word for borderland - was just that - an overlooked area wedged between the Black Sea and the borders of Romania and Moldova with just two access points to the rest of the country. Now...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK PASSING)

ROTT: ...The traffic here is near constant - 18-wheelers coming, going, roaring through tiny towns on bumpy two-lane roads.

At a roadside shop...

(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE MACHINE WHIRRING)

ROTT: ...Denys Yaremenko says traffic has increased 10 times over in recent weeks, especially trucks.

DENYS YAREMENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "A drive that used to take an hour or two now takes three or four," he says. That's because roads are clogged with trucks carrying goods that would normally have gone out from Odesa or Mykolaiv or Mariupol. Before the war, roughly 70% of Ukraine's exports went through its massive Black Sea ports. Now those ports are blockaded, occupied by Russia or mined. So Ukraine's deputy foreign minister, Dmytro Senik, says they're having to get creative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMYTRO SENIK: We are using alternative routes with the help of our friends and partners, namely Romania, Poland and Baltic states. We establish two routes, which help us export these agricultural commodities.

ROTT: Those routes include moving products by rail and truck, much through western Ukraine to Poland, but also, and more quietly, through Bessarabia to here...

(SOUNDBITE OF FROG CHIRPING)

ROTT: ...The Danube River on the Romanian border, where traffic continues upstream all the way to central Europe, unimpeded.

There are just three ports in Ukraine that are still operating and still in Ukrainian hands. All of them are on the Danube. The largest, here in Izmail, is being expanded in part to help export grain. Ask about that expansion, though, as we did with Rodion Abashev, the head of the region's military and civilian administration, and...

RODION ABASHEV: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: Unfortunately, he says in his Izmail office, this is a topic of strategic importance, so we will not comment on it. This happens a lot in Bessarabia. Businesses operating out of the ports don't want to publicly comment. Local officials defer to the military. Nobody wants to call attention to the fact that goods are moving through this region. Clearly, though, Russia is aware of the trade.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)

ROTT: It's repeatedly launched missiles at the main conduit between Bessarabia and mainland Ukraine, a bridge southwest of Odesa that supports a railway and road. Not long after this air raid siren, just before 5 a.m. late last month, an explosion shook our hotel 10 miles away from the bridge. Ukrainian officials won't say if the strike was successful in destroying the bridge, and it won't allow civilians access to it. Because of all that secrecy, it's hard to quantify the role Bessarabia is playing in Ukraine's efforts to import and export goods, or even its effectiveness as an alternative trade conduit.

But here at the port of Izmail, it's obvious that it's not as smooth as many had hoped.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

SERGIY BELOUS: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: Between two closely parked semi-trucks in the shadow of the Izmail port's cranes, Sergiy Belous and two other truck drivers are cooking a dinner of soup and grilled fish that they caught on the nearby Danube.

BELOUS: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "Come on," he says. "Eat some. Help yourself." Belous says he's been living out of his truck at this port for a month, waiting to offload. Up the Danube at other ports, he says, his fellow truckers have been waiting for more than two months to offload goods.

What did you transport here?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

BELOUS: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: It's grain.

ROTT: Grain.

From the Mykolaiv area, Belous says, grain that would usually have been shipped from a port that handles a lot of agricultural goods. These ports along the Danube, which have been in decline since the Soviet times, are not equipped to handle the volume.

That's a huge problem.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

BELOUS: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "The problem," he says with a chuckle, "is Russian bombarding - boom, boom." A problem that's not going away any time soon.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Izmail, Ukraine.

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