Do the legal trade with Russia. But stay the right side of the line
Some sections of the industry are bending or breaking the rules
It is pointless admonishing owners to act like conscience-stricken peaceniks. Where there is a legal buck to be made, somebody will make it. But the mark is overstepped by breaking sanctions, or facilitating others to do so
WAR may be hell, some people will contend, but making it bad for business as well is taking things too far.
Milo Minderbinder, the sharply drawn character in Joseph Heller’s satire Catch-22, is probably the best-known fictional exponent of that attitude.
A lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps in the second world war, Minderbinder expands the squadron’s routine mess operation into trading giant M&M Enterprises, making a huge fortune in black market deals throughout the Mediterranean.
Cynically taking matters to their logical conclusion, he embarks on military endeavours for the Germans. But when ultimately court-martialled for the crime, he is acquitted on the grounds that free enterprise is the American way.
There is something in the very nature of ruthless wartime profiteering that has long made it the object of special scorn in popular culture, reflecting wider societal sensibilities on the point.
In the real world, shipping is a for-profit business and its activities are often central to the war plans of governments. Shipowners then have to decide where they stand.
Is there a patriotic duty to back your own side? Does that defence obtain when your side is acting in flagrant disregard of international norms?
What if your primary motivation is not patriotism, but the sizeable sums of money you get paid for your services? And what ethical considerations apply if your country is not involved either way?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, launched a year ago to this day, takes shipping back to where it has been so many times before.
It is pointless admonishing owners to act like conscience-stricken peaceniks. Where there is a legal buck to be made, somebody will make it, and nobody will refrain from so doing just because liberals tut-tut at the prospect.
But the rules are clearly being stretched, in ways that Lt Minderbinder would have found conducive.
There is now a dark fleet carrying sanctioned energy commodities — not just from Russia but also Venezuela and Iran — that numbers around 350 vessels, equivalent to nearly 8% of all world tanker tonnage.
Its operators are openly exploiting regulatory gaps and crevices, far beyond the already byzantine structures associated with ownership and control in our industry.
There is widespread use of deceptive practices including flag-hopping, frequent ownership and name changes, switching off Automatic Identification Service transponders, and issuing of bills of lading for oil ‘blends’ that fail to disclose full origin.
Tens of billions of dollars has been invested in vintage tonnage, with finance secured to anonymous registered owners and International Safety Management code compliant managers, hiding behind brass plate companies based in India, Georgia, Dubai, Seychelles, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Suriname and elsewhere.
So extensive has been the sale-and-purchase market that lifted prices for tankers aged 20 years or more are up by 50% in the past six months, with buyers happily paying a premium for vessels that would otherwise be destined for scrapping.
Shipping money people, including alt financiers charging hefty interest rates, are funding the deals. Shipbrokers are taking a cut of the sale-and-purchase price.
The International Maritime Organization does not have the resources to play much of a policing role, and the private company that issues what are still called ‘IMO numbers’ on its behalf has sometimes been hoodwinked into providing credentials for ships that don’t exist. Its legal committee is set to deal with this issue at its next meeting in March.
The IMO is something of a backwater in the United Nations system and can only act within the constraints of diplomacy. Even at the height of the cold war, its deliberations lacked the drama of the more fraught sessions of the UN security council.
While Russia cannot be expelled, condemnation of the Kremlin has become a standard feature of IMO meetings. But the time may have come to take matters further.
The hostilities in Ukraine have left hundreds of seafarers held hostage. Some have even died. Moreover, the invasion has significantly disrupted shipping, with international maritime law routinely ignored in the name of special military operations.
A plan is afoot to oust Russia from the IMO’s ruling council in December, paralleling developments at the aviation-focused International Civil Aviation Organisation in the past year.
This would represent little more than a gesture. But some gestures are worth making, and such a show of solidarity would at least be heartening to the defenders of the Ukraine.
Meanwhile, exports of Russian crude and products — in line with the price cap and the applicable restrictions on insurance — will continue to be sold to willing buyers such as India and China.
Taking bookings in line with the design of the sanctions scheme, expressly intended not to create a rerun of the 1970s oil crises, is not actually wrong.
But the mark is overstepped by breaking sanctions, or facilitating others to do so. The war needs to come to a conclusion, and shipping has the same duty as every other industry to help that happen.