Swedish dockworkers refuse to unload Russian banana boat

After several days of delays and uncertainty, the Baltic Performer, a blue cargo ship laden with bananas from Ecuador, finally docked under grey skies at the Helsingborg port in southern Sweden.

Swedish dockworkers refuse to unload Russian banana boat
The Baltic Voyager, a Russian vessel, anchored outside Helsingborg. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

One of Sweden’s two main unions for dockworkers, the Swedish Dockworkers Union, decided at the end of March that it would not unload vessels with ties to Russia, in protest against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The 150-meter freighter, operated by a Swedish subsidiary of the Russian company Baltic Shipping, was one of the first ships affected by that decision.

“We’re blocking all goods linked to Russia and the regime”, Rolf Lyktoft, head of the local dockworkers’ chapter, told AFP.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for Russian vessels to be blocked from the ports of the “free world”.

On Tuesday, the EU executive proposed banning Russian ships from European ports. So far, none of the 27 EU member states has instituted a national ban — unlike Britain, which did so in early March.

270 ships a month

Analysts say Europe has been wary to move on the issue due to a fear of Russian reprisals over its oil deliveries. In Helsingborg, Lyktoft acknowledged that the decision taken by his 1,400 colleagues was largely symbolic, with only a small number of Russian-linked cargo ships passing through Sweden’s ports.

But he hoped for a snowball effect. “We hope that the International Dockworkers Council will decide to take the next step, with a worldwide decision to not touch Russian goods”, he said.

Helsingborg port officials have kept a low profile. The Baltic Performer was ultimately quietly unloaded late on Monday. The ship had been scheduled to arrive at the port on Saturday evening, but had to postpone its arrival by a few days as there were no dockers willing to unload it.

The blockade imposed by the Swedish Dockers’ Union includes Russian-flagged vessels, those owned by Russian companies but flying other flags, and those sailing to or from Russia.

The Baltic Performer was unloaded by dockers from the Transport Workers’ Union, Sweden’s other main dockers union.

“We think they shouldn’t have let the ship into the port, but the port authorities did,” said head of that union, Tommy Wreeth.

Last week, his organisation also announced a blockade due to take effect on May 1 — in order to give shipping companies time to make other arrangements.

According to Wreeth, 270 Russian-flagged vessels or with ties to Russia docked in EU ports in March, including four in Sweden.

Short-term disruptions

Britain blocked Russian-linked ships from its ports in early March, although Russian cargo — in particular oil — is still able to enter on other ships for the time being.

Few initiatives have been taken elsewhere in Europe so far. Before the EU proposal was announced on Tuesday, the CGT dockers union at France’s second-biggest port Le Havre said any blockade decision had to “taken across Europe”.

“Otherwise, the port of Le Havre or other French ports would be shooting themselves in the foot, with traffic just going to other ports that turn a blind eye”, union representative Johan Fortier told AFP.

On March 3, the port of Hamburg suspended all loading and unloading of ships to and from Russia.

But “limited” operations resumed three weeks later, a spokesman told AFP, since “not all goods are on the EU sanctions list.”

As in other European countries, German customs officials currently verify the contents of the containers and decide on a case-by-case basis. EU ambassadors are to discuss the proposed ban at their meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. The proposal needs to be approved unanimously by all 27 member states.

If the EU introduces a blockade and Russia takes retaliatory measures against EU vessels, “this could significantly disrupt Russia’s exports in the short-term”, said Niels Rasmussen, chief analyst at shipowners’ association Bimco.

However, “in the medium-term it is likely that non-Russia and non-EU ships would reposition into Russia-Europe”, while the tankers hit by sanctions “would move into other markets”, he told AFP.

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Sweden sends anti-ship and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine

Sweden on Thursday announced additional aid of one billion kronor ($102 million, €95 million) to Ukraine, consisting of both financial aid and military equipment including anti-ship missiles and anti-tank launchers.

Sweden sends anti-ship and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine

“We are now seeing a new phase in the Russian invasion, where (Russia) is gathering strength in eastern and southeastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian side has requested help in several areas,” Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told reporters at a joint press conference with Finance Minister Mikael Damberg.

Damberg said the Scandinavian country would contribute 578 million kronor to the Ukrainian central bank’s fund for its armed forces, 60 million kronor to Nato’s fund to help Ukraine’s armed forces, and military equipment worth 262 million kronor.

In addition, Sweden will contribute 100 million kronor for civilian efforts through the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency.

According to a press release, the military materiel consists of Sweden’s anti-ship missile system Robot 17, which is a modified version of the US Hellfire missile system, as well as 5,000 anti-tank launchers and AG 90 assault rifles and ammunition.

“This is qualified equipment in line with what Ukraine has requested”, Hultqvist said.

In late February, Sweden broke its doctrine of not sending weapons to countries in active conflict for the first time since 1939, announcing 400 million kronor worth of military materiel and the donation of 500 million kronor to the Ukrainian central bank’s fund for its armed forces.

Sweden, along with neighbouring Finland, in May overturned decades of military non-alignment by submitting historic joint applications to join Nato, as support for membership soared in both countries after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.