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The Ukraine Effect – How Will The West Man Their Ships?

Total Views: 5962
March 4, 2022

With the Jones Act under fresh critisism and large seafarer nations like Indian refusing to condem Russia‘s invasion of Ukrain… Is the new ‘Putin axis’ a threat to global crewing of ships owned or operated by NATO countries? Will the West be able to defend itself if commercial Sealift capabilities are not in the hands of NATO seafarers?

By Frank Coles (OpEd) India has declined to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  India abstained along with China in the United Nations vote condemning the invasion.  Serbia is also on the side of Putin.  India has a long standing cooperation with Russia in terms of defence and buying arms.  Also in an unusual case, we also have Pakistan siding with India.  The majority of the world population is thus in nations that did not vote to condemn the invasion.

When you consider this in the context of the source of the worlds seafarers you very quickly see that well over half of the world seafarers come from the Putin axis countries. 

Also Read: Over 1,000 Mariners Are Stranded Near Ukraine

At the moment this is a delicate tight rope.   Only Russian and Ukrainian sailors are being mentioned in terms of extended contracts and tensions on board ships.  However if this conflict was to escalate we could very quickly have numerous international issues to contend with.  How are we going to be able to operate ships with Chinese crews in the West?  How will Indians and Chinese crews get home, or be replaced on board Western owned ships?

The manpower of the world logistics chain at sea is by a large majority from the Putin axis of support.  How quickly could this supply chain be brought to its knees because of an escalation of the conflict?  The Indian seafarers, like the Russian seafarers probably don’t want anything to do with the actions of their leaders, maybe even the Chinese sailors feel the same, but make no mistake this situation is delicately poised.  

Also Read: Seafarers Need To Strike, Says Frank Coles

I am fortunate to have led Transas, the technology company, in the past where Russian, Ukrainian, Latvian and many other Eastern Europeans worked.   I count many of them as friends today.  I continue to provide advisory support for start ups that have these nationalities working for them, although the business is based in Europe.  I have also had Ukrainian and Russian seafarers work for Wallem.  One thing I have leant from listening to them recently is that they ALL decry the violence and the actions of Putin.  But more telling is that they all also blame the West for not being out in front of this.

The West continues to trade with China despite its human rights record.  The Olympic games happened in Beijing with Putin as a guest, and symbolically the invasion happened days after the games finished.  Obama allowed China to build islands in the South China Sea, and now the situation is compromised.  Biden is now trying to distract his poor polls using Ukraine and Putin.  A situation that many think he created in the first place.  The apparent weakness of the West allows Putin and China to do as they wish.  With China supporting Putin, USA buying Russian oil and the world seafarers coming from the Putin axis, the deck of cards seem to stacked one way.  The west is currently unable to man its commercial ships with nationalities that come from countries that support the Ukraine.  Whether the people of those countries support the politicians is moot, leadership is playing poker with the supply chain.

While some may think the likelihood of this becoming a reality is low, however nothing should be taken for granted in the current climate.  


The views and opinions expressed in this OpED are those of the author, Frank Coles, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of gCaptain.


About Frank Coles

Frank Coles is a Master Mariner and holds a LLM in Legal Aspects of Maritime Affairs from Cardiff University, Wales.  He has worked in shipping and shipping technology over the last 25 years including heading Inmarsat maritime business and also working at Pacific Basin in Hong Kong. In 2015, Frank Coles became the CEO of Transas, a world leader in high-tech equipment, software and system integration for the maritime industry. Wartsila Corporation acquired Transas in May 2018.  Transas was a multi national company with over 1000 employees many of whom came from the Eastern European countries. Frank joined the Wallem Group as Chief Executive Officer in October 2018. He set an agenda of renewing the brand and a path and vision for Wallem to be the leading provider of technology-driven maritime solutions in a customer-centric and transparent manner.  He was also active in fighting for seafarers rights during the COVID pandemic.  Many of the Wallem crew also came from Eastern Europe.

In 2021, Frank resigned from Wallem to focus on the welfare and rights of seafarers.  He is currently an advisor an investor in several start ups in the maritime industry associated with digitalization, ESG and voyage optimization.

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