The shadow fleet of oil tankers enabling Russia’s war and undermining global sanctions

Russian President Vladimir Putin was sworn in for his fifth term in office this week, even as his country is beset by sanctions, bogged down in a years long war in Ukraine and cut off from capital markets.

But Putin has found a series of workarounds that have helped bolster growth, funded his country’s war effort against Ukraine and worked to thumb his nose at the Western countries using economic sanctions to punish Russia.

“We are a united and great people and together we will overcome all obstacles, implement all we planned,” said Putin in a brief inaugural address this week. “Together we will win.”

The Russian economy is now poised to grow at a faster pace than any other G7 nation. Not surprisingly, the key to its economic success is oil.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the West banded together to impose sanctions, curtail Russian energy exports and squeeze the Russian economy. And in many respects, it worked.

More than a thousand Western companies have left the country, according to a database compiled by Yale University. Over a million young, Russian men have fled the country rather than be drafted. Russian companies and banks are cut off from global capital markets and more than $300 billion in Russian central bank assets have been frozen. 

But when it came to Russia’s much vaunted energy sector, there was a dilemma.

WATCH | Are sanctions against Russia making an impact? 

Do sanctions even matter? Why Russia’s economy is still growing

After Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the West vowed to sanction Russia into submission, but that hasn’t happened. The National breaks down how a global dependence on cheap fuel and financial loopholes are helping to enable the war. 

Oil price caps and Russia’s way around them 

Russia produces more than 10 per cent of the world’s oil supply, behind only the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Cutting off all energy exports would have driven up the price of oil everywhere. 

So, Western countries, led by the United States, hatched something of a compromise by imposing a price cap. 

Russia could continue selling its oil and continue using registered shipping vessels with insurance only if that oil was sold for less than $60 per barrel.

WATCH | Setting a price cap on Russian oil: 

Canada, allies impose $60 US-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil exports

Canada and other Ukrainian allies are imposing a price cap of $60 US per barrel on oil exported from Russia to cut off foreign funding for the Kremlin. EU countries are also placing an embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea.

“We have this weird sort of compromise where we negotiate with ourselves into a situation which allows the Russians to completely cheat,” said Bill Browder, the author, activist and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management.

On one hand, Browder says, plenty of non-Western countries were perfectly happy to buy up Russia’s oil at prices well below market value. But he noted that Russia also found a way to skirt the price cap all together with what’s known as its shadow fleet.

“They bought a whole bunch of tankers,” said Browder. “Those tankers are moving the oil, and the Indians and the Chinese and the Indonesians are very happy to get that oil at a discount of normal price.”

Browder told CBC News that Russia is making between $500 million and $1 billion US every day by selling oil.

“They’re rubbing it on our face and laughing at us.”

Activists of the environmental organization Greenpeace paint the words 'Oil fuels war' on the hull of a ship carrying Russian oil near the German island Fehmarn, Germany, Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
Greenpeace activists paint the words ‘oil fuels war’ on the hull of a ship carrying Russian oil near the German island of Fehmarn in March 2022. Experts say there are hundreds of shadow vessels that don’t use Western ports or report shipments through Western agencies moving Russian oil to market every day. (Frank Molter/The Associated Press)

Shadow fleet’s importance to Russian economy

In March, one of those shadow tankers collided with another ship off the northern tip of Denmark, according to the Danish Maritime Authority. Bloomberg reported that the 700,000-barrel capacity Andromeda Star was on its way to Russia to pick up oil for export.

Had the ship been fully loaded, the collision could have led to an environmental catastrophe.

But because the vessels don’t use Western ports or report shipments through Western agencies, it’s a painstakingly difficult task to determine who owns them and who would be responsible for clean-up.

All that also makes it difficult to know exactly how much oil is being shipped out of Russia and who is buying it.

“We know these vessels are there. We know they’re operating in violation of maritime laws but there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” said Elisabeth Braw, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank. 

At first, Russia was clandestine in its efforts to use the so-called shadow fleet. But Braw says it has grown increasingly brazen, noting that there are now hundreds of shadow vessels moving oil to market every day.

That’s money Russia desperately needs. 

Late last year, the Kremlin’s budget highlighted how much the war is costing. Russia will spend about six per cent of its GDP on the military in 2024. And for the first time in modern Russian history, defence spending will exceed social spending.

The budget calculates government revenue will grow by more than 33 per cent, much of that coming via the energy sector.

That extra wiggle room means Russia can afford to expand its war effort in Ukraine just as Western countries including the U.S. begin to rethink how much money and how much equipment they’re sending to Kyiv.

Ten G7 leaders stand on stage with European leaders and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy in front of flags of various countries.
G7 leaders, the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced a Joint Declaration of Support to Ukraine during the July 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Waning Western influence?

In a lot of ways, Braw says this will be an opportunity to examine the influence Western countries have when it comes to imposing sanctions to stop what they see as bad actors.

“It really is a test of the entire United Nations system of global governance that we set up at the end of World War Two,” she said.

WATCH | What the West is learning about the limitations of sanctions: 

The West is learning about the limitations of sanctions: retired U.S. general

Sanctions are only part of a successful strategy, says Ben Hodges, former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe. He says it is in the West’s interest to see Ukraine defeat the Russian invasion.

After the Second World War, Western economies set up a system of rules based global trade.

For decades, that system largely worked and even drew in communist countries like Russia and China to take part in an open market, capitalist system of global trade.

Braw’s book Goodbye Globalization chronicles how that system has begun to crumble. And as it does, she says, the ability of Western powers to impose their will on the rest of the world is crumbling, too.

“I think we’ll look back at this round as essentially, the swan song of Western economic sanctions against a powerful nation,” she said.

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