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Living side by side, Ukrainian and Russian sailors are tested by war

There is an unwritten code among sailors: do not talk about politics and religion at sea.

But shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, it became clear to Andrian Kudelya, a 35-year-old sailor from Kyiv, that politics would not be possible to avoid. As his pregnant wife and son fled Ukraine, two Russian sailors boarded the ship where Mr Kudelya was working.

On deck, in the control room, in the mess room, Russian sailors engaged him and other Ukrainian crew members in a debate, arguing that Ukraine was full of Nazis and that the United States United had started the war.

“I don’t hear this lie,” Mr. Kudelya said. But on a ship, he added, “it’s hard to completely avoid contact with these guys.”

Commercial ships have become one of the few places where Russians and Ukrainians, who make up 15% of the world’s 1.9 million seafarers, still live side by side on routes around the world as their countries are in war. Some ships have become rare havens of understanding and forgiveness. On other ships, the atmosphere has become tense and sometimes unbearable, upsetting the maritime tradition of sailors who consider themselves teammates, regardless of their origins.

Mr. Kudelya said he was relieved to disembark in April in Germany, where he was reunited with his family, and he will seek jobs with shipping companies that do not employ Russians. “I have to think about my job and not about the conflict and unnecessary talk about politics,” he said.

With the global shipping industry already short of commercial seafarers, and particularly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian seafarers, who tend to be highly skilled, some companies have changed seafarers to ease tensions on board.

AP Moller-Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, said in a statement that it might be difficult to have Russian and Ukrainian crew members on the same ship. “As a precautionary measure, we have decided not to have Ukrainian and Russian sailors on the same ship,” the company said, adding that this policy came into effect when the invasion began in February.

Another Baltic-based shipping company asked Russian and Ukrainian crew members to sign a form pledging not to discuss politics on board, according to Oleksiy Salenko, a Ukrainian officer who signed the document and recounted the episode by telephone.

“It’s the law of the sailor,” Mr. Salenko said. “We are out of politics.” A few days later, however, the Russian captain, who previously served in the Russian army, began to belittle him, Mr Salenko said, not giving him enough time to complete difficult tasks and telling him that he was not fit for work. Mr Salenko jumped ship soon after, ending his contract months early.

Amid difficult times, on some ships, the close contact between Russians and Ukrainians has sparked unexpected compassion.

Roman Zelenskyi, 24, a sailor from Odessa, Ukraine, said that after he and the other Ukrainians showed the Russians photos of the damage in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol, the four Russians aboard his ship were shocked and ashamed. “It’s people like me working on a ship,” he said. “We live in peace.”

Credit…Roman Zelensky

On another ship, some Russian sailors said they were sorry for the other crew members for the destruction of their towns. “We understand that it is difficult for him,” Ivan Chukalin, a Russian sailor, said of a Ukrainian sailor on his ship as it sailed to the Netherlands. “His hometown is destroyed.” Mr. Chukalin, however, argued that it was best not to take sides. “Politics is an undesirable topic of discussion.”

Another Russian sailor, Edward Viktorovich, 46, who works on a fishing boat in the Arctic Ocean, said the war has not affected relations between the Russians and the Ukrainian on his ship. “We are all cooking in the same pot,” he said. “We are colleagues here. Politics don’t affect us.

Even on ships where sailors made concerted efforts to avoid talking about the war, Ukrainian sailors said in interviews that they were haunted by fears about their families and friends in Ukraine.

Dmytro Deineka, 24, a sailor from Kharkiv, said he and the other four Ukrainians on board tried not to respond to comments by the Russian captain and first officer on his ship to avoid retaliation. But in the weeks following the bombing of his grandmother’s house, he made his views known to the pro-Russian captain of Crimea. The captain responded aggressively, saying that Ukraine was full of Nazis and had to be saved by the Russians.

Credit…Dmytro Deineka

The Ukrainians on board wrote a letter to the Dutch shipowner asking the captain to be fired. “The letter contained information about our feelings on board, what the captain was telling us, our emotional state and that we cannot work under such conditions,” Mr Deineka said. Within weeks, the company replaced the captain with another Russian captain who sympathized with the Ukrainian sailors and the stress they were under as they worried about their families back home.

Many young Ukrainians from the port cities of Odessa or Mariupol chose sailing because it offered a stable salary. Today, a small percentage of the 45,000 Ukrainians who are at sea are trying to return to Ukraine to fight, but the majority want to stay on board, said Oleg Grygoriuk, president of the Trade Union of Maritime Transport Workers of Ukraine. He said there have been cases where Ukrainian sailors on ships calling at Russian ports have been interrogated and searched. More recently, when ships call at Russian ports, Ukrainian sailors disembark at nearby ports outside Russia and are picked up after the call, he said.

Mr Grygoriuk said last month’s missile strikes in Odessa, which came less than a day after an agreement was signed to secure the transit of 20 million tonnes of grain stranded in Ukraine’s blocked sea ports Noire, have heightened his concerns about the safety of port workers and seafarers, who are paid roughly double for each day they work in a war zone.

It was a risk some were willing to take, with little money at home. Sailors currently at sea are those who left before the war began and have remained out of the country ever since. Others, who were between contracts when the war started and could not leave due to government restrictions prohibiting men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, said in interviews that their savings were dwindling and that ‘they had reduced their spending on cigarettes and food. .

Vadym Mundriyevskyy, a Maersk chief officer who was between contracts in Odessa, his hometown, when the Russian invasion began, said the conversation in a Telegram group chat, which included Russian and Ukrainian sailors with which he had previously worked, had ceased. “There is nothing more to say,” said Mr. Mundriyevskyy, 39. “Otherwise it would become another place of fighting.”

With some Ukrainian sailors unable to work because of the war, shipping companies, already struggling with staffing shortages, are barely managing to staff ships, said Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping. Some shipping companies are not hiring Russian sailors due to uncertainty about how they would pay them, given Western sanctions. A prolonged inability to get Ukrainian and Russian sailors on ships could further heighten tensions in the global shipping industry, she said.

Another factor that puts strain on crews is that some ships have to travel longer distances to avoid waters close to war zones, Ms Shaw added.

“What would have been a reasonably harmonious situation is going to be difficult,” Ms Shaw said. “As the war escalates and people’s families are increasingly affected, the likelihood of interpersonal problems will increase. It’s inevitable.


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