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Russia is strangling one of Ukraine's most important ports


Russia faces crushing sanctions designed to strangle its economy and punish President Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine. But the Russian navy is also mounting a blockade of Ukraine's most important ports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. As NPR's Brian Mann reports, that has devastated Ukraine's economy and left idle workers scrambling for help.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I'm standing on the waterfront in Odesa, and I can see a big part of the industrial port. I can count one, two, three large container ships that are trapped here in port by the Russian blockade.

There are hundreds of shipping containers here with no place to go.

AMIR SKYLAR: We can't use our sea. It's zero for import and zero for export.

MANN: That's Amir Skylar, who meets me in a cafe near the harbor. He slumps in his chair, looking exhausted. Skylar runs a logistics company, helping make sure all that stuff on the docks gets to the right place.

SKYLAR: Before the war, it was problem, yes, but now we have a disaster.

MANN: I hear this over and over. Before the war, global supply chains were a nightmare. Now the situation is impossible. We're joined in the cafe by Sergei Postnyi.

SERGEI POSTNYI: I'm working a container line.

MANN: A lot of those big shipping containers down on the dock belong to his firm, which he asked NPR not to name.

POSTNYI: The transit chains are broken. A lot of our containers that must go to Ukraine are now in Romania, Turkey. It is a disaster for Ukraine.

MANN: Both men point out that what happens here affects the entire world. Ukraine is one of the major producers of wheat and sunflower seeds and other agricultural products. Even if some farmers are able to plant this year, getting their harvest to market without this port could be nearly impossible. Global food prices have already risen sharply, up 12% over the last few months according to the United Nations. Skylar tells me his company is trying to adapt.

SKYLAR: This week we started a new work for us. We make the export to Romania by the trucks.

MANN: But both men say Ukraine's road system and small fleet of tractor-trailer trucks can't replace the container ships that once shuttled in and out of this harbor. They also say foreign companies, especially insurance companies, are leery of doing business here when the Russian army and navy are nearby.

POSTNYI: For Odesa, I think it's more or less a safe place for now.

MANN: As we're talking, the cafe's owner, Sergey Silke, overhears our conversation and chimes in.

SERGEY SILKE: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "I've lost about 70% of my business," Silka says. Shifting to English, he throws up his hands and says he expects things to get even worse.

SILKE: We will lose half of our GDP to the end of the year. That's a lot. That's a lot. I think we will have big inflation.

NICK VITNYANSKIY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: A few streets over from the cafe, I find Nick Vitnyanskiy. He's also in the shipping and logistics business. But since the war began, he's been running an aid center, helping feed displaced people and local workers idled by the blockade.

VITNYANSKIY: We serve about 2,000 people every day, a lot of Odesa citizen who just left without their job.

MANN: Vitnyanskiy says he believes this war and Russia's blockade of the Black Sea will drag on.

VITNYANSKIY: There is no if because it will. We have to understand that. And we extremely need the food but food for a long storage, like cans, like pasta.

MANN: Many of Ukraine's industrial harbors are in even worse shape than Odesa. Kherson and Mariupol have suffered enormous destruction from the Russian army. The port city of Mykolaiv, 60 miles away, now faces nightly rocket attacks. Odesa's infrastructure hasn't been damaged so far. But as long as this war continues, one of Eastern Europe's most important shipping ports will remain idle. Brian Mann, NPR News, Odesa.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICOLA CRUZ'S "SANACION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.