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Protest by Greenpeace activists against Russian oil tankers in the Baltic Sea (2022)


Will Rose / dpa

The West's oil sanctions are intended to prevent Russia from financing its war against Ukraine with export profits.

But Moscow still manages to circumvent the bans with so-called ghost ships.

This not only brings money into the Kremlin's war chest, but the dilapidated, uninsured tankers also pose a danger to shipping and the environment.

The USA is now trying to take further steps against this Russian ghost fleet.

A few days ago they put 14 tankers from the Russian state shipping company Sowcomflot on a blacklist.

The aim is to reduce Russian revenue from oil sales, the US Treasury Department announced on Friday.

"Sovcomflot, as the parent company, is involved in price cap violations and fraudulent activities," said a ministry official.

The listing should force them to stop using some ships and make it more difficult to sell the oil.

The US Treasury Department had already imposed sanctions on 27 tankers in October for violating the price cap.

Many of these oil carriers have been anchored in front of the ports since then, as the shipping data shows.

“Enormous environmental risks” off European coasts

Ghost ships are freighters that did not come from G7 or EU countries and are not insured for transport, according to a report by the private Kyiv School of Economics (KSE).

The actual ownership structure is usually opaque.

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Insurance in the event of collisions, environmental damage or attacks is mandatory for commercial vessels.

At least 90 percent of this insurance market is covered by providers from the EU or Great Britain - states that are no longer allowed to insure Russian ships due to the sanctions.

This Western insurance practice is also intended to enforce the embargo imposed on Russia and the oil price cap.

The embargo prohibits the purchase, import and forwarding of oil from Russia to the EU by sea; the international price cap of $60 per barrel for Russian oil is intended to prevent high profits from the sale of Russian raw materials from fueling the war even further.

The EU, G7 and Australia introduced it in December 2022, but it has already been circumvented in the markets.

According to experts, with the imposition of punitive measures against Russia, the country's ghost fleet also grew dramatically.

"Russia's industrial-scale sanctions evasion program is becoming increasingly complicated and sophisticated," warn shipping experts at Lloyd's List Intelligence.

This included "an ever-growing 'dark fleet' and a nebulous network of front companies and middlemen that evade Western measures."

Read here

: Why the price cap for Vladimir Putin's oil is flopping

The KSE estimates that 196 ghost ships loaded with crude oil left Russian ports in December.

Accordingly, the transport takes place mainly via shipping companies based in the United Arab Emirates, with the ships mostly sailing under the flags of Panama, Liberia and Gabon.

Five new shipping companies based in the United Arab Emirates "with non-transparent organizational and ownership structures" have started transporting Russian crude oil without insurance since November, the report continues.

The risk of an accident on ghost ships is particularly high.

According to the KSE, almost three quarters of the tankers deployed by Moscow in December were more than 15 years old.

The decrepit ships pose “enormous environmental risks,” the report warns.

The EU is particularly at risk because poorly maintained ships sail along European coasts.

There have been several incidents involving ghost ships.

Elisabeth Braw from the American Enterprise Institute think tank warned in October that a catastrophe was only a matter of time.

“The accidents are not just because these ships are old and poorly maintained,” says Braw.

To avoid attracting attention, the tankers often turned off the automatic identification system that prevents collisions.

The political scientist compares the situation to car traffic: "Imagine if the streets were full of uninsured vehicles that failed the inspection and are driving without lights - that's exactly what happens on the world's oceans."