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With Russia dominating the Black Sea, Ukraine's navy tries to rebuild

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

First, Russia wiped out Ukraine's navy. Now Russia is blocking Ukraine's critical grain exports through the Black Sea. As Ukraine struggles to rebuild its navy and fight back, NPR's Greg Myre got a ride on one of its few boats.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: I'm on a Ukrainian naval boat in the Dnipro River just off Kyiv. It's only 34 feet long, and it carries just a few sailors, but it packs a punch.

MYKHAILO: We have machine guns. We have grenade launchers.

MYRE: Mykhailo (ph) is a naval officer on board and, like most military members, gives just one name.

MYKHAILO: I would say that this is a classic river patrol boat, one of those you've seen in the Francis Ford Coppola movies.

MYRE: He says think "Apocalypse Now" with an updated boat. The U.S. has provided about a dozen of these vessels because Russia seized or destroyed much of Ukraine's navy when it first invaded in 2014. Russia largely finished off the Navy at the start of its full-scale invasion last year. Ukraine is starting to rebuild with these patrol boats, but Russia's control of the Black Sea means Moscow can keep Ukraine from exporting its abundant grain. And since July 17, that's exactly what Russia's been doing. Here's the commander of Ukraine's navy, Vice Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa, speaking to sailors.

OLEKSIY NEIZHPAPA: (Through interpreter) 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.

MYRE: Grain exports are critical to Ukraine's economy and to the food supply in countries throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Without Ukraine's exports, global grain prices are on the rise.

JAMES FOGGO: The Russians have threatened to sink these civilian bulk carriers. I believe that's egregious.

MYRE: James Foggo is a retired U.S. admiral.

FOGGO: But what can you do about it when you don't have a significant naval presence in the Black Sea? That's a problem.

MYRE: 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 Crimea in 2014. The following year, 2015, Foggo went to Ukraine for NATO Ukrainian naval exercises in Odessa, Ukraine's other big Black Sea port.

FOGGO: We tried to assist the Ukrainians with rebuilding their navy. It was a big exercise. It grew to a very big exercise, very successful, lots of allies and partners.

MYRE: But when Russia invaded last year, Ukraine scuttled its last warship rather than risk it being captured by Russia.

FOGGO: Like a knife to the heart. Can you imagine a presidential order from President Zelenskyy to the commanding officer to scuttle the flagship of the Ukrainian navy? That must have been really, really tough.

MYRE: He says 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. So Ukraine is resisting from land. Last year a Ukrainian missile fired from the mainland sank the Russian flagship in the Black Sea, the Moskva. Again, Ukraine's naval chief, Vice Admiral Neizhpapa.

NEIZHPAPA: (Through interpreter) The Russian aggressor thought they could rule freely in the Black Sea, but they were wrong.

MYRE: Since then, Russia's navy has been wary of getting too close to the coast and 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, his only apparent protection a couple of other small inflatable boats.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR HUMMING)

MYRE: Back on the Dnipro River in Kyiv, the commander of the patrol boat, Anton (ph), explains why he's here after 20 years on the high seas, where he worked on massive commercial ships.

ANTON: I was just a merchant captain. I was a captain of a big vessel, Bulgaria. I was in the United States of America lots of time.

MYRE: His favorite place to work is Alaska, he says, summer or winter. Now he only wants to be in Ukraine.

ANTON: I always can find a job. I can find other vessel, but I cannot find another motherland. They have only one Ukraine. So right here, right now is the best place to be.

MYRE: Though it wouldn't hurt if Ukraine got some bigger boats. Greg Myre, NPR News, on the Dnipro River in Ukraine. 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.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.

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