When Russia blockaded Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea after its full-scale invasion last year, grain that could feed millions worldwide was left to rot in silos. Crude iron that supplied some thirty percent of American steel makers stopped arriving. Roughly half the world’s supply of the neon used in lasers to make chips was taken off the market.
But while Russian ships menaced off the Ukrainian coast, the small ports in the Danube river on the Romanian border kept working, offering a small but vital lifeline. Their importance continued to grow even after an internationally brokered deal with Russia stabilized the shipping routes on the Black Sea for the limited movement of foodstuffs.
Now, two weeks after the collapse of that deal, the small Danube ports are the only shipping outlet for millions of tons of grain once again trapped in Ukraine — and Russia has made clear they, too, are under threat.
“The Danube is our gateway at sea to Europe and the world,” Stanislav Zinchenko, chief executive of GMK, a Kyiv-based economic think tank, said in an interview.
“The river ports are now so essential to Ukraine’s throttled export economy,” he said, that the impact of losing them is “hard to calculate.”
The river ports lie on the lower Danube, where it forms part Ukraine’s border with Romania before emptying into the Black Sea. The Danube originates in Germany’s Black Forest and flows southeast through Central and Eastern Europe. It is the largest river in the European Union, by length and volume, and its waterways connect Ukraine to the sea and eight other European nations.
Before the war, the Danube ports were barely utilized. In recent months, they have accounted for roughly one-third of agricultural exports, including grain, according to industry analysts. Most of the shipping goes downriver to the sea; a much smaller amount moves upriver to other parts of Europe.
Russia has made clear that any vessel entering the Black Sea is at risk, seemingly creating a de facto blockade and threatening the fate of the Danube ports. On a near daily basis Russian missiles and drones have battered Ukrainian ports, including one on the Danube only a few hundred feet from Romania. The Kremlin has warned that “all vessels sailing in the waters of the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports” will be “regarded as potential carriers of military cargo.”
To avoid running afoul of the Russian warning, international ships headed toward Ukraine largely came to a halt. More than a dozen vessels dropped anchor, huddling close to the coast.
Slowly and cautiously, shipping has started to return in recent days. This weekend, an Israeli vessel, Ams1, crossed into the Black Sea and set course for the small port Ukrainian port of Izmail on the Danube. At least two more vessels have followed.
Ukrainian officials celebrated what they saw as a decision by a few shipping companies to call Moscow’s bluff. But they were just as quick to caution that the movement of a few ships to river ports did not eliminate threats to those transport routes.
“I understand the positive emotions, but we need to be more restrained,” Serhiy Bratchuk, the head of the Odesa regional military administration said on national television. “We need to see how these ships will act further, because today we cannot say that this is a deliberate effort to unblock our ports.”
Andriy Klymenko, the head of the Institute for Strategic Black Sea Studies, said the term “blockade” did not exactly apply to the Danube ports, which were never covered in the grain deal and have been working almost nonstop through the war.
The Russian threats presented more of a “dare,” he said, with Moscow clearly hoping that the implicit threat of harassment and violence would intimidate international shipping companies and sailors.
At least 16 ships are still anchored south-southwest of Snake Island, just off the Ukrainian coast, waiting to go to the ports, Mr. Klymenko said.
The ships have navigated their way to Ukraine by largely staying within 12 miles of the coasts of Bulgaria and Romania, within the territorial waters of those countries, both part of NATO, in hopes of avoiding Russian warships and Russian naval mines, shipping experts said.
Tensions remain high off the southern coast of Ukraine. On Tuesday morning, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported that two of its patrol ships — the Serhiy Kotov and Vasily Bykov — came under attack by Ukrainian naval drones overnight. They claimed all of the attacks were thwarted.
The Ukrainian military did not comment on the Russian claim. Ukraine has a growing fleet unmanned attack boats, and has repeatedly targeted Russian warships at sea and in port.
Ukrainian officials have been stepping up their pleas for international intervention to end what they call Moscow’s tyranny of the sea.
President Volodymyr Zelensky told Brazilian journalists in an interview published Tuesday that Russia is guided by only one law, “the law of force.” The international community, he said, must respond with its own projection of force to keep the sea lanes open.
NATO officials have said the alliance and its member states had already begun to increase surveillance and reconnaissance in the Black Sea region before Russia pulled out of the grain deal last month.
“Russia must stop weaponizing hunger, and threatening the world’s most vulnerable people with food instability,” the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said in a statement after a July 26 meeting with Ukraine on Black Sea security.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Danube ports were an afterthought — underfinanced and responsible for just 4 percent of Ukrainian exports, or around 6 million tons of cargo, Mr. Zinchenko said. Now, Ukraine’s ports on the river — Izmail, Reni and Ust-Danube — are a vital economic link to Europe.
Dmytro Barinov, the Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Seaports Authority, said that after Russian forces seized some major ports in southern Ukraine in the first weeks of the war, it was clear the river ports were going to take on a greater role. Ukraine was able to evacuate many of the ship pilots from Black Sea ports occupied by the Russians, allowing them to expand the number of pilots working on the Danube from 15 to 71, he said.
“It increases the possibility for us to make more maneuvers, more passages, through these different channels,” he said. Workers are busy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In May of last year, agricultural exports rose to 800,000 tons from these ports, up from essentially nothing before the war. The next month, they exported 1.3 million tons.
“This May, 2023, it was absolutely a record, even when compared with the Soviet past,” said Mr. Barinov. “We moved more than three million tons.”
Still, there are significant limitations, making it unlikely Ukraine could ramp up exports still higher from its Danube ports.
They are not deep water ports, so most of the work is carried out by barges, moving 3,000 to 8,000 tons of goods at a time. Those barges travel a short distance along the coast to the Romanian port of Constanta to load larger cargo vessels capable of carrying tens of thousands of tons of goods, or trucks carrying goods overland.
The Danube ports will never be able to handle more than a fraction of what Ukraine was able to export from its sprawling Black Sea ports. But Ukrainian officials said that the growth of the river ports represented a triumph.
“From my point of view it is a real miracle,” said Mr. Zinchenko of the Kyiv think tank.
But in Ukraine, he said, miracles do not come easy and it remains to be seen if Ukraine can keep Russia from severing its last remaining link to the sea.
Lara Jakes, Jenny Gross and Andrew Higgins contributed reporting