As Russian Oil Exports Rise, Governments and Shipping Companies Are Playing Cat and Mouse

Russia is exporting “more oil than ever” despite Western attempts to cut off one of Moscow’s economic arteries and despite new tools and technologies that are making it harder to conceal energy shipments, analysts and observers say. Some governments, it seems, are determined to buy Russian oil even if they do not support its war on Ukraine.

Robin Brooks and his colleagues at the Institute of International Finance, or IFF, have built a database to track the movement of tankers out of Russian ports. It’s not as easy as it looks, because these tankers “are registered and flagged everywhere,” to hide their true owner, according to an Aug. 25 briefing note from the association obtained by Defense One. “We trace the ultimate owner through shell companies as needed, which provides insight into who helped ship Russian oil around the world,” the note said. “The conclusion of this work is that tanker capacity from Russia has been robust overall.”

Brooks, the IIR’s chief economist, Put the more directly on Twitter: “Russia exports more rough than ever.”

This may surprise. Many Western oil companies ditched Russian crude after the Kremlin launched its illegal offensive against Ukraine in February. Energy prices soared past $120 a barrel; many have speculated that the price could reach $150 by the end of the year.

But the world’s benchmark crude oil price has fallen back to $90 a barrel, and Russia is selling it about 20% less. China, India and even NATO member Turkey are buying more Russian oil than ever. Today, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is pushing G7 countries, which together make up about 30% of the global economy, to cap Russian oil prices, which she says would squeeze Moscow and keep world energy prices under control.

But just as Russia found willing buyers, it also found willing shippers. “Lured by higher tanker tariffs, Greek-owned tankers have stepped in to boost Russia’s ability to sell oil on the global market,” said IIF Associate Research Analyst Jonathan Pingle. in an email. “For every crude oil tanker we track out of Russian ports, we track the location of the beneficial owner’s head office. From there, we saw that Western-owned tankers accounted for an increasingly large share of Russia’s shipping capacity. Greek-owned ships have supplied 55% of capacity since the start of the war, compared to 35% in previous years.

New tools to spot Russian tankers at sea

Russia may still have buyers for its rough, but those deals won’t be as invisible as participants would like. Along with new tools like the IIS database, satellite imagery and other open source information make it easier for Western observers to track Russian oil carriers.

Satellite imagery provider Maxar has a tool called Crows Nest that can track vessels trying to avoid detection. This was very helpful in preventing Russia from smuggling Ukrainian grain.

Bryan Smith, director of marine products at Maxar, said the technique uses radar to scout large areas for potential targets. Maxar then uses its many high-resolution satellites to monitor vessels, even those attempting to “obfuscate” themselves by disabling their Automatic Identification System, or AIS. They use AI to predict things like speed and momentum so they know where to point the satellite on the next visit, “which will allow us to maintain the chain of custody,” he said.

Towards the end of the year, Maxar plans to launch the first two WorldView Legion satellites, another pair two months later, and two more a few months later. The new satellites will allow Maxar to triple its visit to certain spots up to 15 times a day.

Smith said the number of calls they’ve received from intelligence entities seeking to track Russian oil has increased dramatically and it’s not just in the Black Sea. Russian smugglers resort to bizarre but ultimately futile tactics to avoid being seen.

Once, he said, Maxar satellites found a Russian oil vessel that was correctly broadcasting its identity through the AIS tracking system and offloading oil onto a vessel that was not. “You can see ships next to each other. You can see the pipe where the oil was actually, you know, unloaded on a dark ship. And then, interestingly enough, there was another dark ship approaching. And it looks like it’s almost in line, like it’s a gas station.