Ukraine struggles to rebuild a navy destroyed by Russia
First, Russia wiped out Ukraine's navy. Now, Russia is blocking Ukraine's critical grain exports on civilian ships in the Black Sea.
Ukraine is going against the tide as it tries to rebuild a naval force in the middle of a war. The challenges range from guarding against Russian sea-launched missile strikes, to ensuring the safe passage of Ukrainian wheat and corn to world markets.
Yet on the Dnipro River just off Kyiv, Ukraine offered a glimpse of those rebuilding efforts. The navy invited an NPR reporter for a ride on a river patrol boat, one of about a dozen provided by the U.S. last year.
The vessels, known as the SeaArk Dauntless 34, are just 34-feet long and carry just a few sailors. But they pack a punch.
"We have machine guns. We have grenade launchers. It's quite maneuverable. It's high speed and it's vicious when it comes to some assault operations," said Mykhailo, one of the naval officers on board. Like most military members, he gives just one name.
"I would say that this is a classic river patrol boat, one of those you've seen in the Francis Ford Coppola movies," he said with a smile. Think Apocalypse Now with an updated maritime look.
Russia seized or destroyed much of Ukraine's navy when it first invaded in 2014. Russia largely finished off what was left at the start of its full-scale invasion last year.
Russia pulls out of a grain deal
Russia's dominance of the northern Black Sea means Moscow can keep Ukraine from exporting its abundant grain — and that's exactly what it's been doing since July 17.
Russia says it will not restore the year-old deal until it can export more of its own fertilizer and agriculture products.
"We have to break Russia's control. The sea is free for everyone and we will make it so, as it should be. Free for all countries," said the commander of Ukraine's navy, Vice Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa, addressing sailors at a recent ceremony in Kyiv.
As one of the world's leading grain exporters, Ukraine helps feed countries throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. With Ukraine's exports off the market for now, global grain prices are on the rise.
"The Russians have threatened to sink these civilian bulk carriers. I believe that's egregious," said James Foggo, a retired U.S. admiral and head of the Center for Maritime Strategy, just outside Washington.
"But what can you do about it when you don't have a significant naval presence in the Black Sea? That's a problem," said Foggo.
It seems hard to believe now, but the Russian and Ukrainian naval fleets operated side-by-side in Crimea's port of Sevastopol from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until Russia seized all of Crimea in 2014.
The following year, 2015, Foggo went to Ukraine for NATO-Ukrainian naval exercises. Since Sevastopol was no longer an option, the training took place in Odesa, Ukraine's other big Black Sea port.
"We tried to assist the Ukrainians with rebuilding their navy," he said. "It was a big exercise. It grew to a very big exercise, very successful, lots of allies and partners until 2019, 2020."
Ukraine chooses to scuttle its last warship
But when Russia invaded last year, Ukraine intentionally scuttled its last major warship, a frigate, rather than risk it being captured by Russia.
"Like a knife to the heart, can you imagine a presidential order to the commanding officer to scuttle the flagship of the Ukrainian navy," said Foggo. "That must have been really, really tough."
He said Ukraine will never be free of Russian domination without some sort of Black Sea fleet — but it can't truly rebuild with the war ongoing.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has found ways to resist from land.
Last year, a Ukrainian missile fired from the mainland and sank the Russian flagship in Black Sea, the Moskva.
"The Russian aggressor thought they could rule freely in the Black Sea. But they were wrong," said the naval chief, Vice Adm. Neizhpapa.
Since then, Russia's navy has been wary of getting too close to the coast — and entering Ukrainian missile range.
This caution created enough space for Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to venture out recently to Snake Island, a tiny outpost 20 miles off Ukraine's Black Sea coast.
Zelenskyy made the risky trip in a small, inflatable boat. Based on video he posted, his only apparent protection was a couple of other small inflatable boats.
"Although this is a small piece of land in the middle of our Black Sea, it is great proof that Ukraine will regain every bit of its territory," Zelenskyy said in a video posted on July 8.
At the start of the Russian invasion last year, the warship Moskva approached the island and demanded the surrender of a small Ukrainian force. One Ukrainian soldier told the Russians to bug off with a memorable obscenity.
The Russians took control of the island for several months, but left after coming under Ukrainian fire from the mainland.
Ukrainian sailors return home to fight
Meanwhile, back on the Dnipro River in Kyiv, the commander of the patrol boat, Anton, explained why he's here after 20 years on the high seas, where he worked on massive commercial ships.
"I was a merchant captain. I was a captain of a big vessel, a bulk carrier. I was in the United States of America lots of time," said Anton.
His favorite place to work is Alaska, he said, summer or winter. Now, he only wants to be in Ukraine.
"I can always find a job. I can always find another vessel," he said. "But I cannot find another motherland. I have only one Ukraine. So right here, right now, is the best place to be."
Still, it wouldn't hurt if Ukraine got some bigger boats.
Kateryna Malofieieva contributed to this report.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.
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