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Drivers taking up arms for Ukraine worsens European trucker shortage

European goods movement hampered by drivers turned soldiers and stranding of thousands in Ukraine

Big rigs at a parking lot in Vinnytsya, Ukraine, April 24, 2021. (Photo: Shutterstock/Andrii_Ivaniuk)

Ukrainian truck drivers working in western Europe are abandoning their jobs to return home and fight the Russian army, exacerbating a labor shortage that will make ground shipping more difficult, according to logistics professionals. At the same time, truck drivers of other nationalities are still stuck in Ukraine after unsuccessful efforts to get across the border.

There is anecdotal evidence that some drivers are heading back to Ukraine to join the resistance movement, but actual numbers are difficult to quantify because the situation is so fluid, said John Kidd, senior adviser for public affairs at the International Road Transport Union (IRU), in an email message. 

The IRU doesn’t have data on the percentage of Ukrainian drivers in other European countries, but it is quite high in places such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.

In a briefing for reporters on Friday about the company’s 2021 performance, Lufthansa Cargo CEO Dorothea von Boxberg indicated that Ukrainian drivers in Europe are leaving to fight Russia, which is one reason that truck “capacity is going to become more scarce.”

Air cargo trucking services might also be affected as Ukrainian drivers head to the warfront, Niall van de Wouw, managing director of Clive Data Services, a Xenata company, said last week in a monthly report about the air cargo sector.

“It is still too early to tell if this specific factor will have any impact on supply chains in Europe. However, the war itself has already disrupted long-haul freight routes passing through and close to Ukraine and into and out of Russia. All of this together will certainly have an impact on European supply chains in the weeks and months to come, including from sea ports,” said Kidd.


Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on CNN Sunday that 20,000 Ukrainian nationals around the world, and all walks of life, have returned home to join the army.

The driver shortage in Europe is likely to get worse because of the Ukraine crisis, said Roman Nickl, corporate director for road transport at cargo-partner, a logistics company headquartered in Vienna. 

“Replenishment of drivers into the market is lacking and therefore the year-on-year gap is getting even larger due to additional administrative, legislative and infrastructure barriers for carriers. Therefore, the supply chain remains under continued pressure,” he told FreightWaves.

The United Kingdom has a shortage of 100,000 drivers, the Road Haulers Association there said last September. Part of the problem was the cancellation of 40,000 commercial driver’s license exams due to COVID. Before the pandemic there were 60,000 fewer drivers than needed. Experts list Brexit (which limited access to European workers), low pay and changing work rules as reasons the profession is losing workers.

Stranded truckers

Meanwhile, thousands of drivers from many nationalities, their vehicles and their cargo are being held up by authorities in Ukraine, as well as countries in Eurasia, as they try to return to their home countries, according to the IRU.

“Specific numbers are hard to come by, but based on requests received by IRU, we estimate that between 4,000 and 5,000 drivers remain stranded in Ukraine,” the global road transport organization said Friday. 

Getting across the border has been more difficult since the invasion because of alterations in customs procedures, nationality issues, vehicle registration and the origin of the cargo. The federation, which represents the interests of bus, coach, taxi and truck operators, said it also is receiving reports of detentions and unjustified seizure of cargo and vehicles.

Most of the drivers were carrying out routine deliveries in Ukraine when the crisis erupted in late February. In many cases their cargo is destined for European countries, which are now providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, the IRU said. 

The closure of the Ukraine border with Belarus also forced many drivers to reroute. Some drivers, fearing they could get in the cross-fire between the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, reportedly abandoned their vehicles in the early stages of the invasion.

The IRU reported a few days after the war started that at least 600 Turkish truck drivers were stuck in Ukraine and Russia trying to get home. Vehicle ferries crossing the Black Sea from Ukraine to Turkey were turned back or canceled, forcing drivers to return via the European Union. Turkish drivers are also stranded in Russia, with those attempting to return through Georgia facing seven- to 10-day delays at the Russia border.

“The situation at many of Ukraine’s border crossings, understandably, is chaotic. However, it is unclear why Ukrainian customs authorities refuse to complete necessary formalities of so many trucks and drivers, especially in areas away from military conflict,” the organization said.

It asked the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday to help clear up any administrative hurdles and prioritize helping truckers return home with their loads.

The transport federation recommends that motor carriers contact the Association of International Road Carriers of Ukraine for assistance. The trucking association will contact the Ukrainian military to help get company drivers and their vehicles released. Truckers are asked to provide as much information as possible, such as the border crossing point or city where the truck is stuck, the driver’s name as listed in their passport and details about the cargo.

The IRU has also urged authorities throughout Europe to temporarily waive visa and permit requirements, or rapidly provide transit visas, for commercial drivers of all nationalities attempting to return home by alternative routes. It also asked for a temporary waiver of driving, rest or working time rules for returning drivers, if necessary, and for provision of humanitarian facilities for stranded drivers who face security threat and lack of adequate food, water and sanitary facilities.

Logistics lending a hand

Logistics and trucking companies across Europe have sprung into action to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukraine and countries accepting refugees. 

A convoy organized by the International Turkish-Ukrainian Business Association left Turkey for Ukraine on Thursday, according to a LinkedIn post. IRU members in the United Kingdom, including Logistics UK and the Road Haulers Association, are organizing action and information to help British trucks get aid through to Ukraine. And the Polish foundation Herotrucker is connecting humanitarian organizations with drivers willing to go to the Ukrainian border and then farther as humanitarian channels open inside Ukraine.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]
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