At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 140 ships with more than 1,000 seafarers on board were trapped in the Black Sea with dwindling supplies, limited communication and no guarantee of safe passage.
That remained the case for many seafarers more than a month later. Maritime organizations are still trying to account for these crewmembers, and they’ve pleaded with Russian forces who control the water to allow for safe passage.
The crew crisis is the first and most dire impact of the Russian invasion on the global maritime trade. Experts anticipate the conflict will worsen bottlenecks at major ports and further disrupt the global supply chain. It also threatens the nearly 15 percent of the world maritime workforce from Russia and Ukraine.
The maritime industry, which is desperate for a return to normalcy after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, faces new disruption with no clear path ahead.
Mariners trapped in Ukraine
According to the International Shipping Council (ISC), at least 140 ships were in or near Ukrainian ports when Russia invaded on Feb. 24. Those ships were registered in 20 different countries. On a call with journalists, ISC Secretary General Guy Platten said some were allowed through the Black Sea, exiting through waters controlled by the Russian navy. Others have been abandoned by their crew, who sought other means of escape. Some ultimately traveled by land to Poland.
“There’s still a number of ships with crews on board,” Platten said. “We know one remaining ship with 20 seafarers on board, which has just got three days of supplies left, and it’s unsafe for them to leave the ship or for the ship to sail.”
Exact counts of the number of mariners there and their situations is difficult to verify and misinformation is rampant online. The situation is fluid and will certainly change between Professional Mariner’s press deadline in late April and when the magazine reaches subscribers.
Dangers remain as the conflict shifts to Ukraine’s eastern region. Unconfirmed reports indicate more than a dozen commercial ships were hit by missiles or shells during the ongoing conflict. At least one noncombatant seafarer was killed, a Bangladeshi citizen on the Bangladesh-flagged bulk carrier Banglar Samriddhi, which was struck by a missile.
On April 3 and 4, Russian forces shelled the Dominica-flagged cargo ship Azburg in Mariupol, the Dominica Maritime Registry reported, in what witnesses described as an intentional attack. Its crew took refuge on other vessels, and one required medical attention. The vessel later sank.
“The indiscriminate shelling of a merchant vessel with a civilian crew with no place to seek refuge is the lowest of lows. It is an act of war against all of humanity and basic human rights,” Eric Dawicki, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Dominica Maritime Registry, said in a statement.
The ISC has pressed Ukraine and Russia for blue corridors through which non-combatant ships could escape. These also would let ships sail into Ukrainian ports to bring supplies to mariners trapped there. As of mid-April, no such corridors have been established.
“And on top of that, there’s a lot of reports of mines as you approach the ports,” Platten said. “They’ve sunken barges, and all sorts of different things, which makes the whole thing a very complex and a very dangerous environment at the moment.”
The war is rippling through the usual supply chains of the country, which means there is also little or no opportunity to resupply these mariners from land.
“I think our communication with our Ukrainian affiliates in all sectors is painting quite a terrible picture,” said Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, who also spoke to reporters in a conference call. “If we were speaking to our railway folks who are in Kyiv, there are days when there is no food at all and there’s no water, and if you can imagine that’s the situation on the ground, the same situation will apply to those ships that are stuck, either in port or anchored off the ports for fear of getting hit.”
War’s impact on maritime workforce
Ukrainians make up nearly 4.5 percent of the world’s mariner workforce and Russians comprise around 10 percent, according to ISC. Ukrainians could largely be taken out of that global workforce for some time as crewmembers leave ships to defend their country and others travel to other European countries to meet their families.
Sanctions against Russia could sideline a large segment of its shipping sector, and so could the shipping industry’s voluntary refusal to interact with Russian maritime interests. Some shipping companies have stated they will no longer participate in Russian export and import markets. Longshoremen in Canada, the U.S. and Australia have said they will not service Russian ships, and the U.S. has banned Russian ships from its ports. Some ports are refusing to unload Russian commodities.
“It would be an extremely difficult scenario to replace that 15 percent” of the world’s maritime workforce, Cotton said, “particularly in the more sophisticated ships where many of them operate, in tankers that have a very high occupational health and safety standard.”
Shipping routes, inflation and commodity prices
The war could possibly have long-term impacts on supply chains and commodity prices that will impact more than just the shipping sector.
BIMCO, a global nongovernmental organization that represents ship owners, issued a report warning the war could worsen inflation, which is already high globally due in part to stresses from the ongoing pandemic.
Key exports from Russia and Ukraine — including oil, wheat and maize — have traded at decade highs. Higher fuel prices, a product of sanctions on Russian oil and natural gas, could lead to higher freight costs. All of this could contribute to inflation that eventually reduces demand for many products.
Outside of oil and grain, neither Russia nor the Ukraine are critical stops in the global supply chain, Lars Jensen, CEO and partner of Sea Intelligence Consulting told Professional Mariner.
“The sheer volume in containers in and out of Ukraine is small on a global scale,” he said, “and actually, the sheer volume in and out of Russia is relatively small on a global scale. On top of that, both Russia and Ukraine are at the very end of the supply chains, they are pure import and export. They’re not transit shipment hops in the middle of everything. So had the world been normal — which it’s not — the supply chain ripples on the container side would have been fairly small.”
Another issue is lack of access to railway links from China to Europe, said Jensen. These railways tend to move cargo that has first traveled by plane because it’s more cost-efficient than sea to deliver to some inland areas of the Eurasian continent. If Russian rail lines are inaccessible or politically off-limits to some of these shipping companies, they could move that cargo back onto sea, leading to further congestion.
After the pandemic, the war is a source of complication that the global supply chain will struggle to absorb.
“It’s no different than if you might have a perfectly well-functioning highway system,” Jensen said. “If you then have a major accident … you’re going to create a queue and it will take a while to get that queue cleared. But if suddenly you have one accident after another and then a bridge collapses on top of everything, then it’s going to take a long time to get cleared.” •