The Ghost Ships Oil the Russian War Machine

30 April, 2024

They sneak out oil and fill Russia’s war coffers. They are suspected of spying on Sweden. And it is feared that they could at any time cause an environmental disaster.

Russia’s so-called shadow fleet – with a thousand anonymous ships – has grown explosively and poses a threat in several ways in the Baltic Sea.

An oil tanker in the waters of the Gulf of Finland near St. Petersburg. In the background towers Europe’s tallest building Lachta center, where Russia’s state gas giant Gazprom has its headquarters. Photo: AP/TT Archive image.

At the beginning of March, the 250-meter-long tanker Andromeda Star collided with another vessel off Danish Jutland. It seems to have gone relatively well: the tanker had no cargo at the time and managed to get to a Danish shipyard for repairs.

If the accident had been worse and the ship had been loaded – with up to 700,000 barrels of oil – it could have resulted in a huge disaster.

It is unclear who had borne the ultimate responsibility in the event of an oil spill. The ship’s owner does not seem to be identifiable. The operation is managed by a one-man company listed in Goa, India, which does not respond to international media contact attempts.

The Andromeda Star is counted among Russia’s “shadow fleet” – a growing armada of hard-to-identify, uninsured and often scrapped vessels flying less-than-reputable flags, not infrequently with transponders turned off.

They maintain the export of sanctions-laden Russian oil worldwide.

October 2022: Despite Western sanctions, scores of tankers are seen sailing to and from one of Russia’s largest oil terminals in Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea in the south. Photo: AP/TT Archive image.

Pick up in the Gulf of Finland

About half of Russia’s oil exports by sea today take place through the Baltic Sea, with scores of large tankers sailing from Russian ports in the Gulf of Finland and through Oresund.

After the accident in early March, the Andromeda Star has continued this route after picking up oil in the port of Primorsk near Finland. In recent weeks, the ship has been seen passing through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea several times.

When Russian exports to the EU and other Western countries fell sharply, Russia found buyers mainly in China and India, albeit at lower prices. The revenue plays a major role in Russia’s bloated war economy, where large sums have been diverted to the arms industry.

In the past, you had Iran and Venezuela, with a shadow fleet that was relatively small and could handle the sanctioned barrels, Ben Luckock at the oil trading giant Trafigura told Bloomberg in February just over a year ago.

The Russian flow is completely different, it is huge.

By then, several hundred ships had joined the Russian shadow fleet, and it has only continued to grow. Security and maritime trade analysts estimated before the turn of the year that they amount to at least a thousand, up to 1,500 or more.

Refueling at the Swedish island Gotland

Just a couple of miles off Gotland’s eastern coast is a Cyprus-registered oil tanker that has been pumping fuel to passing ships from Russia’s shadow fleet for the past two years, which SVT, Swedish National Broadcasting Company, has reviewed.

In recent years, Russia is suspected of having used apparently civilian vessels – including tankers – to spy and map interests in Nordic waters, which the Nordic broadcast media companies have jointly reported on. Several of the suspect ships have docked in Swedish ports, which civilian-flagged ships have the right to do.

Sweden’s navy actively follows the ships’ movements, as it fears military risks in the form of hybrid operations under civilian cover.

We find antennas and masts that might not normally belong to a fishing vessel, for example, said the head of the navy Ewa Skoog Haslum to SVT last week.

Intervening carries additional risks. Russia is assumed to be more inclined to guard its interests in the Baltic Sea, as the sea is now otherwise surrounded by noble NATO countries. In addition, many stakeholders are keeping an eye on the price of oil – hence limited sanctions and admonitions to Ukraine not to attack Russia’s oil refineries.

A man kite skiiing on the ice-covered Gulf of Finland outside St. Petersburg, on February 12 this year. Next to him is an oil tanker sailing under the Panamanian flag. Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/TT

Should have been sawn to pieces

The ships in the shadow fleet are old. Tankers are usually scrapped by large shipping companies after about 15 years and scrapped by smaller companies after 20 to 25. The average age of the ships that sail to and from Kaliningrad has now risen to about 30 years.

The proportion of tankers in global sea traffic that are considered to be too old has become significantly larger over the past two years.

Sanctions mean that tankers loading Russian oil cannot get proper insurance. And then newer ships are considered too valuable to send out on shady and risky missions like this.

Both researchers and politicians are warning that it is only a matter of time before an accident occurs that causes an environmental disaster in the inland sea. Activists from Greenpeace have carried out protest action against the tanker off Gotland, where they wrote “Oil makes war” on its hull.

The accident off Jutland is not the only thing that has affected the shadow fleet recently. It’s ships have had to be rescued and towed on several world oceans when they have suffered from engine stoppages, groundings, and fires, among other things. Researchers at the Atlantic Council think tank count around 40 accidents in a report.

Without a real leader, it will be up to the nearest country to move in, try to clean up and take charge of the costs.

Ukraine has attacked several oil depots in Russia in the past year but has been urged by the United States to lay low with such attacks. Attacks and sanctions against Russia’s oil can drive up the oil price considerably. Here, a firefighter stands at a burning depot in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula in April last year. The image is distributed by Sevastopol’s Russian-affiliated, non-internationally recognized governor, Mikhail Razvozjayev. Archive image.

As a result of the major outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2022, the EU and the US, among others, have introduced sanctions against Russia that primarily target oil and gas.

The USA, Canada and others have banned all imports of Russian oil and gas. The EU has introduced measures that will effectively stop 90 percent of imports, with some exceptions for countries in the East that have become dependent on pipelines from Russia.

Before the war, the EU bought almost half of Russia’s exported oil. Today it is about five percent.

All imports of oil by sea have been banned. In cooperation with the G7, a price ceiling ($60 per barrel of crude oil) has been introduced, where ships carrying more expensive Russian oil are denied access to insurance systems and end up in the West.

Trying to completely cut off Russia’s oil exports is estimated to have caused oil prices to almost double. But analysis shows that only about a fifth of the oil exported from Russia today is sold at prices below the sanctions ceiling.

In addition to this, there have been additional measures to cut off even the so-called shadow fleet that transports more expensive Russian oil, as well as get third countries to stop attempts to circumvent the sanctions.

A large proportion of the ships in global maritime traffic, sail under so-called flags of convenience. This means that the ship has been registered in a different country than the one where its owner is based – usually to avoid regulations, high tax requirements and salary costs. This has happened in various forms over many centuries.

A so-called convenient country allows any number of foreign vessels to be registered there.

In the two years that Russia’s notorious shadow fleet has been growing, more and more tankers sailing to and from Russian ports have been registered in the Cook Islands, Gabon, Cameroon, Palau, Vietnam and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Last year an unusually large number of vessels were registered in Gabon, Africa, when the number more than doubled in a short time.

The trade union organization International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) stamps a total of 42 countries or territories as so-called flags of convenience.

Text: Martin Mederyd Hårdh/TT
Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/TT

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