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Ukraine and Bulgaria say commercial vessels are defying Russia in the Black Sea

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Black Sea grain deal is over - for now, anyway. But the defense ministers of Ukraine and Bulgaria sounded a defiant tone today about the future of grain and other commercial shipments on the Black Sea. They say Russia's efforts to strangle Ukraine with an embargo and missile strikes aren't working. NPR's Brian Mann is in Odessa, Ukraine's biggest Black Sea port, and joins us now. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So you were at the press conference today. What did you hear from them?

MANN: Well, these ministers say they've come up with a plan that's already allowing some commercial vessels to operate in these very dangerous waters. Here's Bulgaria's defense minister, Todor Tagarev.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TODOR TAGAREV: I got the report that over a hundred ships have been passing in both directions, so traffic is not stopping. Of them, only a couple are Ukrainian ships. I believe that this will continue in the future. And we hope that there will be no provocations by Russian naval vessels.

MANN: And I should say, Ailsa, Russians did stop and board one freighter, a Turkish-owned vessel a week ago. The Russian defense ministry said they actually fired warning shots with a small automatic weapon. But Tagarev says that's the only incident so far.

CHANG: Well, I understand that the countries have developed a new shipping corridor that they hope will be safer for vessels. How does that corridor work exactly?

MANN: Yeah. This effort began last month, when Russia quit the global grain deal, choking off Ukraine's agricultural exports. So these countries quickly came up with a route that doesn't run through international waters. Instead, it basically hugs the coast. Ships will pass along through Ukrainian waters, then enter the territorial waters of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Speaking today through an interpreter, Ukraine's defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said this route affords vessels a lot more protection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLEKSII REZNIKOV: (Through interpreter) It is difficult to imagine that Russians are crazy and dare to attack ships in three NATO countries.

MANN: One vessel loaded with Ukrainian grain did make this trip last week without incident, and Ukrainian officials hope more companies are going to keep calling Russia's bluff.

CHANG: But there are still big risks to all this, right? Like what about the Russian sea mines that have been placed near Ukrainian ports?

MANN: Yeah, that's a big deal. The defense ministers who spoke today acknowledged they have a lot of work to do de-mining these waters. They say the navies and air forces of these four countries - again, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine - they're already working together on that. But for now, mines are still a real danger to these ships.

The other big risk right now is missile strikes. When the vessels are in port, it takes time to unload and and bring cargoes on board. Meanwhile, Russia's been pounding these ports. Here in Odessa, there have been strikes, and also strikes on the Danube River, which runs between Ukraine and Romania, which is a member of NATO. So despite the message of this press conference, many transport experts say shipping companies - a lot of them, at least - aren't going to want to put their vessels in this kind of danger.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, real quick, another development. Ukraine has now been promised dozens of American-made F-16 fighter jets. Where will they come from?

MANN: Yeah. These are fighters the U.S. had sold to Denmark and the Netherlands. Ukrainian officials say they may receive as many as 60 F-16s from those two countries. It's important to say they won't arrive until sometime next year. So the counteroffensive underway right now, those soldiers are going to have to keep fighting without this kind of better air support for months.

CHANG: That is NPR's Brian Mann in Odessa. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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