Russian sanctions provide opportunity for Greek shipowners
Greek-owned vessels have stepped in to fill the gap of cargoes originating from Russia out of the country's key export hubs
As oil exports from Russia head east, some of Greece’s most prominent shipowners are picking up new business
A COMPLEX patchwork of maritime, banking and financial sanctions, as well as port restrictions across Europe, the UK and North America, is failing to stem Russian energy commodities exports, with an estimated 4.5m barrels of crude worth $509m leaving the country each day since February 24.
A further 2.2m barrels per day in refined products — some of which is diesel heading into the European Union — is also being shipped. In 2021, the European Union relied on Russian imports to meet more than 40% of demand for diesel.
This is little changed from levels seen before the invasion of Ukraine, although cargoes are being redirected to India and Asia amid a degree of self-sanctioning across Western countries.
Baltic and northwest European refiners are no longer receiving Russian crude as the 27-member EU contemplate oil bans in place by the end of 2022.
While many European and American traders, oil companies and maritime service providers have terminated business with Russian shipping entities since the Ukraine invasion, analysis shows Greece’s biggest shipowners have increased exposure.
During April, Greek-owned vessels stepped into the gap to lift Russian-origin cargoes as the increased number of tankers sailing longer distances to discharge at east-of-Suez Canal ports pushed up demand for these vessels.
Of the 190 tankers (15,000 dwt and over) tracked shipping crude or oil cargoes out of the key ports of Primorsk, Novorossiysk, Ust-Luga and St Petersburg from April 1-27, some 76 were beneficially owned by Greek shipowners, data compiled by Lloyd’s List shows.
This compared to 30 of the 172 tankers tracked calling these ports over the same period in 2021, based on vessel and data analytics.
As well as US sanctions on Russian crude, all Russian-owned, operated, chartered or flagged vessels were banned from US ports from April 28.
The UK also banned all Russian-linked ships from its ports, but sanctions on oil and products will not apply until the end of 2022.
In the EU, Russia-flagged ships have been restricted from ports since mid-April, while Russian-origin coal will be sanctioned from August.
A number of EU and UK financial and banking sanctions further complicate the status of Russian-classed, financed or leased vessels, according to EU commission guidance.
The UK added the Russian Federation-controlled shipowner Sovcomflot to its sanctions list in late March.
Vessels owned by George Economou’s TMS Tankers shipped the most crude or products out of the four ports during April, with 16 tankers totalling 1.9m dwt, data shows. During April 2021, four TMS tankers called at the same four ports.
Mr Economou is closely followed by shipowner Andreas Martinos, whose company Minerva Maritime shipped crude or products on 17 tankers totalling 1.7m dwt. That compares to three tankers for the year-ago period.
There is no suggestion that any of the companies are breaching sanctions.
For those prepared to take the reputational risk, there are super-sized financial rewards.
Aframax and suezmax rates on direct shipping routes from the Russian ports in the Baltic and Black seas peaked as high as $350,000 per day post-invasion, compared with levels of around $6,000 daily in early February, Baltic Exchange data shows.
The higher rates reflected soaring insurance costs, alongside the limited number of tankers available to lift cargoes.
This rates volatility, the increased tonne-miles and sanctions uncertainty, as oil demand returns to pre-pandemic levels, helped set up the tanker market for the best trading conditions since the mid-2000s, a New York investment bank analyst said in an April update on the sector.
Yet the Russia Tanker Tracking Group — a coalition of Ukrainian government officials, academics and software engineers — is lobbying to stop all Russian fossil fuel exports.
Data about the tankers and their owners, managers and charterers engaged in Russian trades is being compiled and sent to Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, the group told Lloyd’s List in an interview in late April.
The prosecutor wants to build a case against the prominent Greek shipowners, arguing that they are helping finance Russia’s war against Ukraine, according to the group.
The group has already targeted P&I clubs, with limited success, saying that without marine insurance, cargoes could not be transported.
Members of the International Group, which represents 13 clubs covering 90% of the global fleet, are terminating coverage of the 157-vessel Sovcomflot fleet due to UK sanctions. However, other Russia-linked tankers remain covered for now.
Even if sanctions evolve further, the impact is likely to be minimal as alternative cover can be arranged with marine insurers outside the group, mainly based in Russia or China.
The impact of Russian sanctions on marine insurance in the UK has been “profound”, Neil Roberts, Lloyd’s head of marine and aviation, told a UK parliamentary committee on April 25.
“The volume of the legislation that's been coming out and the complexity of it has been very difficult for people to manage and even very well-resourced compliance teams have been finding this troublesome,” he said.
“Insurers are not as well-resourced as banks, and they're also finding it difficult.”
Further geopolitical complexities are seen as non-aligned countries, including India, China and Turkey, take advantage of deeply discounted Russian crude to boost imports.
When it comes to European or US-based shipowners with liquefied natural gas carriers engaged in Russian projects — often in partnership with Asian energy companies — the situation remains highly fluid.
LNG carrier Yakov Gakkel (IMO: 9750672) is typical of the dilemma facing US companies. The vessel is one of several owned by private equity company Seapeak in a 50/50 joint venture with China LNG Shipping Holdings.
The Chinese company is 50% owned by a division of Cosco, with the LNG carriers built and contracted to ship LNG from Russia’s Arctic Yamal project.
Whether sanctions will evolve to capture wider elements of energy commodities shipping remains a question that maritime lawyers are assessing as they seek to future-proof companies from further risk and compliance turmoil.
These sanctions also ensnare South Korean shipbuilders who are engaged in further Arctic LNG projects in Russia under development, including those being built for sanctioned Russian government gas producer Novatek for the Arctic LNG 2 project.
There is also a host of short-term questions that surround not just coal exports but agribusinesses that ship from Russian ports, which, along with Ukraine, provide some 30% of the world’s grains.
Humanitarian exemptions are allowed for European arrivals.
Meanwhile, signs are emerging of a second-tier tanker market evolving for Russian oil.
Ship-to-ship transfers of Russian crude and diesel have been observed in waters off Skagen, Denmark; Kalamata, Greece; and Skaw, Gibraltar. Off Kalamata, in international waters, several cargoes of Novorossisyk-loaded Russian crude have been transferred to new tankers for onward voyage, data shows.
Russian diesel is still being sold to northwest Europe because total cargoes comprising less than 50% of the middle distillate from the country are not defined as Russian.
The Netherlands is currently the top destination for Russian crude, with 655,500 bpd arriving since February 24, according to the Russia Tanker Tracking Group. Russian oil company Lukoil has a 45% stake in the Zeebrugge refinery there.
This is followed by China, with 563,500 bpd, Turkey with 425,000 bpd, India with 338,500 bpd and South Korea with 315,000 bpd, according to the group.