Russian oil has yet to find its way to purchasers worldwide. But even those that spend days tracking its movements across the oceans strive to work out who has been ferrying it.
As Western sanctions against Russia have reportedly escalated over the war in Ukraine, more vessels have joined a fleet of mysterious tankers prepared to boost Russian oil exports.
Key industry insiders reportedly estimated the size of the “shadow” fleet to be approximately 600 vessels or 10% of the global number of large tankers. And the numbers continue climbing.
Who operates and owns several such ships remains a puzzle. As trading Russian oil became more complex over the last year, multiple Western shippers withdrew their services. New and obscure players also swooped in, with shell firms in Hong Kong or Dubai involved in a few cases.
Some also bought boats from the Europeans, while some others reportedly tapped old and creaking vessels that may have otherwise found themselves in the scrapyard.
The under-the-radar fleet has reportedly increased in importance as Moscow strives to avoid collaborating with Western shippers and buyers in India and China to supplant those in Europe, now banned from buying seaborne.
Russian oil and refined products like diesel. Delivery to distant buyers needs other boats — and ship owners are now willing to deal with added complexities and legal risks, especially after the Group of Seven nations imposed price caps on Russian oil.
The expansion of the shadow fleet highlights the drastic changes the war has brought to the global oil market. To keep operating, the second-largest crude exporter in the world has reshaped decades-old trading habits and split the world’s energy system in two.
As Europe weaned itself off Russia’s energy, purchasers in Asia have also cut their deals. China boosted its imports of Russia’s oil to about 1.9 million barrels each day on average last year, up 19% from the year before –2021, per the International Energy Agency. India had ramped up its purchases more sharply, logging about an 800% rise to an average of about 900,000 barrels daily.
Russian oil exports to India and China hit record highs in January 2023 after Europe’s ban on seaborne Russia’s oil took effect, per Kpler, a data and analytics firm. Exports bound toward Turkey, yet another top customer, continued apace. The ban levied on refined oil items did not set in until February.
Filling such orders needs boats amenable to the journey. Russia’s national fleet does not have sufficient vessels. That is where the “shadow fleet” plays a role.
The dark fleet that has been around loaded with Iranian and Venezuelan oil worldwide is something we expected to expand and has explained Janiv Shah, a senior analyst associated with Rystad Energy, a consultancy.
One reason is: Sending Russia’s oil on relatively longer trips to India or China is not as efficient as shipping it to nearby nations like Finland.
Russia now needs four times more shipping capacity for crude as it did before it started a war in Ukraine, per EA Gibson.
As a result, about 25 to 35 vessels are getting sold each month into the shadow fleet, per a senior executive associated with an oil trading firm.
Global Witness, a well-known nonprofit organization, estimates that about a quarter of sales of oil tankers between late February last year and January 2023 involved several unknown buyers, nearly double the proportion from the earlier year.
Safety is also a genuine worry. The dark fleet has been believed to have a large contingent of vessels older than 15 years, the age at which mainstream oil firms would ideally retire them owing to wear and tear. Now, more such boats have been making trips across the world.
References: CNN Business, Ground News, West Observer
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