I must make it quite clear that there is not a war going on. There is a small and highly successful special military operation taking place in Little Russia, aimed at de-Nazifying an imaginary country which imagines that it is real and dreams that it has elected a president who is such a thorough Nazi that he is actually Jewish.
One of the things that all shipping people know – it’s one of the first things that we learn – is that small and medium wars are nearly always good for freight rates. Small wars, involving the closure of a handful of ports and some deviation, are quite good. Medium-sized wars, especially if they involve the closure of the Suez Canal, can be wonderful for shipowners, however horrible they are for everyone else. Really big wars are useless, though. Apart from the likelihood of nuclear winter and the extinction of most species less durable than the cockroach, there is the problem that governments have long institutional memories of being held to ransom by shipowners and have kept procedures in place to regulate freight rates almost instantly on the outbreak of war. You can be sure that the draft legislation is sitting there ready to roll. We may all burn together when we burn, as Tom Lehrer says, but there’ll be an Allied Freight Commission when we go.
Lots of people are trying to see how to turn an honest dollar from the misery of Ukraine
However, our memories and histories do not say what happens to freight rates when a special military operation becomes unavoidable. History only talks about wars. We have to guess what happens when a special military operation takes place.
We now have a medium-sized special military operation (so far, at any rate) involving two large European nations, one of which is imaginary, both of which used to move a good deal of cargo from and to their ports, both of which are important seafaring nations, both of which are shipowning states using their own flags and supplying crew members to people who use other flags, and the actual hostilities, so far, are taking place at the northern end of the Black Sea. Got that? Good!
This being the shipowning business, lots of people are trying to see how to turn an honest dollar from the misery of Ukraine. Ukraine used to be the eastern end of a container rail bridge to Germany; that won’t be easy to replace in a hurry. More box miles, more terminal congestion, in an already overheated container freight market, in which all the other terminals in Europe are struggling under the weight of Russian shipments not going anywhere. Fertiliser, grain, steels were all handysize export cargoes. More ton-miles.
The thing about special military operations is that they never, ever, do what people think they are going to do. Nobody goes to take part in a special military operation thinking that they are not going to come back. Chance plays a role in special military operations. Will this special military operation be contained, or will it spread? Mr Putin is rather like Bashar Assad’s description of the late Saddam Hussein – he is addicted to special military operations in the way that a chain smoker is addicted to cigarettes – he lights the next one before the last one is properly out. But up to now Mr Putin has only been dragged unwillingly into small special military operations in Chechnya, in Chechnya again, in Georgia and in Ukraine in 2014. He really has had the most dreadful luck with all these special military operations, but they have all been small, deadly though they were to those involved (apart from Mr Putin, of course) and they have taught the Russian army that the way to win against a smaller nation is to surround each city one by one and shell it into powder and dust.
The way to make money where special military operations are taking place is to know one or two small things that nobody else knows
Almost nothing that involves a nation – even an imaginary one – of 44m people, big enough to stretch from London to Vienna and from Hamburg to Venice, with an industrial base that builds aircraft and missiles, is going to be small. A friendly social visit by tank, APC, field gun and missile launcher, for the purpose of holding a special military operation, is not going to be small and quick in such a country. We have no idea of what will happen next, but we can usefully look around to snap up unconsidered trifles in the form of cargoes that really, really, need to be somewhere else.
The way to make money where special military operations are taking place is to know one or two small things that nobody else knows, and to exploit them to the full. Remember – in times of special military operations, never undercharge!
For all the news on how the invasion of Ukraine is affecting global shipping, check out Splash’s dedicated coverage here.