‘Dark activities’ of Russian-linked oil tankers have doubled, analysis shows

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

The number of Russian-affiliated oil tankers “going dark” to avoid being tracked in the south Atlantic has doubled in recent months in a sign of clandestine means being deployed to avoid sanctions.

By switching off their tracker systems on the high seas, the ships can quietly transfer oil on to tankers without links to Russia so as to avoid their oil exports being flagged.

A $60 (£50) a barrel ceiling on purchases of Russian oil came into force on Monday. Companies in the EU, the UK, US, Canada and Japan as well as Australia are banned from providing services enabling maritime transport, such as insurance, in cases where the price cap has been breached.

The G7 nations – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and US – provide insurance services for 90% of the world’s cargo while Greece, an EU member state, is a major player in the shipping industry.

The cap is aimed at maintaining the flow of oil to countries such as China, India, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which have not banned Russian oil imports, while maintaining economic pressure on the Kremlin.

A traffic jam of oil tankers built up in Turkish waters on Monday as Turkey’s government demanded proof of insurance cover.

The monthly average of both so-called dark activities and ship-to-ship operations in the south Atlantic doubled in the September to November period compared with the previous three months, according to an analysis of movements by the maritime intelligence company Windward. There were around 35 incidents of ‘dark activity’ in September, nearly 50 in October and numbers dipped to just over 40 in November.

Tankers able to hide any Russian links, by illicit transfers mid-ocean, would hope to avoid any price attestation of their cargo.

Ami Daniel, the chief executive of Windward, said Russia had been learning from Iran and North Korea over the past six months on how to circumvent sanctions.

He said: “We are seeing a growing cycle of learning and adoption of Russian fleet and Russian connected parties.”

The spike in dark activity in the south Atlantic had followed a smaller, and since reversed, period of activity in the north Atlantic, between May and August, he said.

Lloyd’s List then published a report at the end of July suggesting that five Chinese-owned ships were being used to transfer Russian oil at a hub about 860 nautical miles west of Portugal’s coast.

“Immediately we see a change of pattern,” said Daniel. “That’s when we see the uptick in the south Atlantic. These are known methods to avoid sanctions.”

Windward also published what it suggested bore the hallmarks of a live case of Russian oil being transported by a tanker under a Cameroon flag.

The vessel changed its registered owner to a Seychelles-based company in June 2022 along with its call sign before making a first visit to Cape Verde, where it met a few other vessels.

Two weeks later, the tanker moved to the north mid-Atlantic, where it stayed for three days, before heading to the south Atlantic, just outside Namibia’s seas, according to the analysis. It was said to have sent false signals about its location.

The ship then moved in mid-October to within Angola’s seas, where the tanker transmitted from the exact same spot for six days, in what Windward said was unusual behaviour for a tanker at sea, before heading towards Asia and its final destination, the Malaysian port of Tanjung Bruas.

Windward’s analysis suggests that the vessel’s report of a draft change on 20 November, the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull, suggested that oil may have been taken onboard at that stage.