Trip to the Danube ports, key for Ukraine and under attack from Russia: “The war has also arrived here”

The world has not paid so much attention to the port of Izmail for centuries. Located on the Danube, it is located on the edge of the delta that separates Ukraine from Romania.

The Russian and Ottoman empires clashed at this port in the 18th century, and an epic battle in 1790, followed by a bloody massacre of civilians, was so important to Moscow’s image of its military power that it was glorified in the first anthem. unofficial national of the country. Afterwards, the area once again fell into relative oblivion, becoming an area of ​​commercial exchange between rival powers and a paradise for smugglers with extensive wetlands and poorly guarded borders.

This was until Vladimir Putin launched a new imperial war and attempted to close the Black Sea to Ukrainian shipping. The rusting Soviet-era docks and shipping canals of Izmail and neighboring Reni became sites of global significance overnight.

Ukraine produces about 10% of the world’s wheat, which feeds hundreds of millions of people. These Danube ports, in a historic cultural melting pot known as Bessarabia, are currently the only place where the vast harvest can be reliably loaded onto ships for export.

This fact has reactivated the dying local economy. More than 200 years after the famous siege, Izmail is once again in the crosshairs of the high command of the Russian Army, which this summer has repeatedly attacked both ports.

“People were shocked when they attacked us for the first time. The war had come here too,” says the mayor of Reni, Ihor Plekhov: “We needed to prepare shelters.”

Until then, violence had only reached this quiet border land in the form of displacements. Its roads were filled with thousands of trucks heading to the port, and its houses and apartments were filled with thousands of displaced people from areas closer to the front line.

In front of NATO territory

Everyone thought that, due to its proximity to Romania, a NATO member, this stretch of the Danube was protected. The river is about 500 meters wide, the international border runs through the middle, and a few hundred meters is a very narrow margin of error for military objectives.

However, Moscow’s desire to choke off Ukraine’s grain trade was apparently stronger than any concern about triggering an escalation of hostilities with NATO, and in July, the first missile and drone attacks hit grain warehouses. of the port. Airstrikes have intensified since then, and Romania confirmed last week that it had found drone debris on its territory. This Wednesday, Russia attacked the river ports of Izmail and Reni again.

1. Odessa port

2. Yuzhny/Pivdennyi Port

3. Chornomorsk port

4. Port of Reni

5. Izmail Port

Advancement areas

of the russian army

Areas in which Ukraine

has regained control

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1. Odessa port

2. Yuzhny/Pivdennyi Port

3. Chornomorsk port

4. Port of Reni

5. Izmail Port

Advancement areas

of the russian army

Areas in which

Ukraine has


the control

At the end of August, Oleg Kiper, head of the Odessa military administration, declared to Guardian that Russia could even have taken advantage of the border to launch kamikaze drones upriver, just inside Ukrainian airspace. “They flew very close,” he said of the first raids, adding that they were sometimes only 200 or 300 meters from the border, making it difficult for Ukraine to use air defenses. “We understood that if we hit these drones, our weapons and some destroyed parts of the drones could fall on Romanian territory. “Maybe the Russians wanted to provoke the NATO countries or maybe they just did it without analysis or preparation.”

Authorities in the area say they are prepared for more attacks, but they also expect their Army to protect them. “I have asked the president to help us with much more air defense for Izmail. “We are in contact and he usually responds to our requests,” Kiper said.

The stakes couldn’t be higher in the fight to keep ports open. The hunger of millions of people, the economic stability of many more and the Ukrainian economy hang in the balance.

An unlikely nerve center

Bessarabia may have a place in the Ukrainian collective imagination – in fact, Kiev’s famous central market is named after the region – but, Plekhov explains, before last year it received little attention from the authorities. “Bessarabia has always been relegated. The Government and the State have not invested or made any effort to strengthen the sense of Ukrainian belonging. We didn’t even have television in Ukrainian. “We asked for relay towers, but they ignored us.”

Geographically and culturally, it could not seem less prepared or suited to replace Odessa – a rich cultural and commercial center with a deep Black Sea port that until it was attacked by the Russians handled up to seven million tons of cargo a month – as large logistics center.

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The Danube ports are reached by a single road, which diverts towards Moldova in one section, an unofficial pre-war “transit corridor”. The only remaining bridge within Ukrainian territory was bombed by Russia. Border guards on the one-lane highway count passengers in cars entering and leaving this transit zone. Men trying to escape conscription regularly jump out of vehicles and disappear on foot.

It’s another three hours of travel on a single-lane road, through swamps and lakes, to Reni or Izmail. There are few grain warehouses or truck parking lots, so vehicles line up in their thousands along the small country roads, transforming the landscape of sugarcane fields and sunflower fields into an industrial parking lot.

A vital door

The disintegration of the Soviet Union especially affected Reni, because, although the port was larger than that of Izmail, the railways that reached it passed through Moldova. The new border blocked shipping and river trade decreased. In a good month, before 2022, Reni managed about 200,000 tons of cargo. In fact, the port authorities owed the city millions of euros in unpaid taxes and fees.

“The port was dying,” says Plekhov. Residents, many ethnic Romanian or Bulgarian, often had stronger ties across those borders than to other parts of Ukraine. “The infrastructure was in poor condition.” Izmail, larger and more famous, fared somewhat better.

Then Russian troops crossed the border and attacked Odessa, choking off Black Sea trade. “It was as if the authorities remembered: ‘Oh, we also have the port of Reni, let’s take advantage of it,’” Plekhov says with a smile.

Ukraine’s grain traders, both large and small, got to work repairing ports and building new infrastructure. One of the country’s largest companies, Nibulon – whose company manager died when a missile hit his house – built a new terminal in Izmail in three months. The debt with the Reni City Council was settled.

The Danube river ports together handle three million tonnes of exports, including grain and large quantities of sunflower oil, which are shipped in clean tankers carrying fuel.

It is a vital gateway, but it is still less than half of what Odessa processed, and does not have the capacity to increase much more, even if Russian attacks do not deter already wary shipping companies.

Vessels reach the river through a dredged canal known as the Sulina canal that empties into Romanian territorial waters. Its mouth is crowded these days with ships waiting to set sail not only to Ukraine, but also to other coastal countries: Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia and Moldova.

“Even now there are many ships waiting to enter the Danube, from several days to weeks,” Kiper explained. And when the water level drops, the ports cannot handle as much cargo. “A key issue is the depth of the channel. A few months ago the waterline was one and a half meters higher than now.” Then the ships could load between 5,000 and 7,000 tons; Now, with lower waters, they can ship less than half.

Some of that pressure on the Danube will disappear when the war ends and Odessa is reopened. But traders hope the new port infrastructure will continue to be used regularly, providing an economic dividend that can help reduce crime and smuggling.

It would also reinforce cultural changes that more closely link this border area with the rest of Ukraine. Ukrainian-language television has arrived, a statue of Russian general Alexander Suvorov, winner of the Battle of Izmail in the 18th century, has been removed from its plinth, and young people from the area die to prevent the return of the Russian military. “Many people from this area have enlisted as volunteers in the Ukrainian Army. When they leave, they tell their friends and family; ‘Listen, I’m fighting for Ukraine,’” Plekhov says. “I am willing to explain everything. You have to support Ukraine.”

Translation by Emma Reverter.

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