Russian oil is still finding its way to buyers around the world. But even those who spend their days tracking its movement across oceans struggle to work out exactly who is ferrying it.
As Western sanctions against Russia have escalated over its invasion of Ukraine, more ships have joined an existing fleet of mysterious tankers, ready to facilitate Russia’s oil exports.
Industry insiders estimate the size of that “shadow” fleet at roughly 600 vessels, or about 10% of the global number of large tankers. And numbers continue to climb.
Who owns and operates many of these ships remains a puzzle. As trading Russian oil became more complex over the past year, many Western shippers withdrew their services. New, obscure players swooped in, with shell companies in Dubai or Hong Kong involved in some cases. Some bought boats from Europeans, while others tapped old, creaking ships that might have otherwise ended up in the scrapyard.
“You’ve gone deeper into the dark arts,” a senior executive at an oil trading firm told CNN, referring to this opaque network.
The under-the-radar fleet has increased in importance as Moscow tries to avoid working with Western shippers, and as customers in China and India supplant those in Europe, now banned from purchasing seaborne Russian oil and refined products such as diesel. Delivery to more distant buyers requires additional boats — and ship owners willing to deal with added complexity and legal risk, especially after Group of Seven countries imposed price caps on Russian oil.
The expansion of the shadow fleet highlights the dramatic changes Russia’s war has brought to the global oil market. In its bid to keep operating, the world’s second-largest crude exporter has reshaped decades-old trading patterns and split the world’s energy system in two.
“There’s the fleet that is not doing any Russian business, and then there’s the fleet that’s almost exclusively doing Russian business,” said Richard Matthews, head of research at EA Gibson, an international shipbroker. Only a few ships, he added, are doing a “bit of both.”
‘Gray ships’ and ‘dark ships’
As Europe has weaned itself off Russian energy, buyers in Asia have cut deals. China boosted imports of Russian oil to 1.9 million barrels per day on average in 2022, up 19% from 2021, according to the International Energy Agency. India ramped up purchases even more sharply, logging an 800% increase to an average of 900,000 barrels per day.
Russia’s oil exports to China and India both hit record highs in January after Europe’s ban on seaborne Russian oil took effect, according to Kpler, a data and analytics company. Exports to Turkey, another top customer, also continued apace. (The ban on refined oil products did not kick in until February.)
Filling these orders requires boats amenable to the trip. Russia’s national fleet doesn’t have enough vessels. That’s where the “shadow fleet” comes in.
Matthew Wright, senior freight analyst at Kpler, sorts the boats moving Russian crude into two categories: “gray ships” and “dark ships.” Gray ships have been sold since the invasion — mostly by owners in Europe to firms in the Middle East and Asia that weren’t previously active in the tanker market. Dark ships, on the other hand, are veterans of campaigns by Iran and Venezuela to avoid Western sanctions that have recently switched to carrying Russian crude.
“There is often some evidence that they have been disguising their activities by turning off their AIS transponder,” Wright said of the “dark” ships, referring to technology that helps identify and locate vessels.
While Western countries have banned most Russian oil imports, there aren’t any rules preventing Western ships from delivering to buyers such as China and India, or from providing services such as insurance — so long as the G7 price caps are respected. Ships with European owners accounted for 36% of Russian crude trade in January, according to Kpler.
But the legal and reputational risks of failing to comply with the price caps loom large. At the same time, Russia is eager to stop working with Western shippers. That has led to the development of a new cohort, whose makeup is murkier — and history more checkered.
“The dark fleet that has been around carrying Venezuelan and Iranian oil globally is something we all expected to grow, and it has,” said Janiv Shah, senior analyst at Rystad Energy, a consultancy.
One reason: Sending Russian oil on longer trips to China or India is less efficient than shipping it to nearby countries such as Finland. Russia now needs four times as much shipping capacity for its crude as it did before the invasion, according to EA Gibson.
As a result, an estimated 25 to 35 vessels are being sold per month into the shadow fleet, according to another senior executive at an oil trading firm. Global Witness, a nonprofit, estimates that a quarter of oil tanker sales between late February 2022 and January this year involved unknown buyers, roughly double the proportion the previous year.
Demand could increase in the coming months if China needs more fuel to power its economic recovery.
Questions and risks
If a greater percentage of the global fleet is being used for Russian crude and petroleum products, that eats up capacity, raising costs for all oil traders.
“There’s been a massive increase in inefficiencies in the way the tanker market operates,” said Wright of Kpler.
There are also questions about who ultimately runs the shadow fleet. Some suspect a portion of the shell companies that have cropped up have ties to “the Russian state or certain politically connected players,” according to Sergey Vakulenko, a former executive at a Russian oil company, now nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This past weekend, the European Union imposed sanctions on Sun Ship Management, a subsidiary of Sovcomflot, Russia’s largest shipping company. The EU said the Dubai-based firm, registered a decade ago, had been “operating as one of the key companies managing and operating the maritime transport of Russian oil,” and that the “Russian Federation is the ultimate beneficiary” of its business operations.
Moreover, experts have said the shadow fleet may be easing Russia’s ability to dodge sanctions or sell its oil above the price cap. It’s also making it harder to discern exactly how much Russia’s barrels are selling for. Experts including Vakulenko have found evidence in customs data that Urals, the country’s benchmark, is selling for much more at key ports than official prices indicate.
Safety is also a worry. The dark fleet is believed to have a large contingent of vessels older than 15 years, the age at which mainstream oil companies would typically retire them due to wear and tear. Now, more of these boats are making trips across the globe.
“You’ve got all these old vessels that are probably not being maintained to the standard they should be,” said Matthews of EA Gibson. “The likelihood of there being a major spill or accident is growing by the day as this fleet grows.”