Behind the Veil: Tracking Greek-Owned Tankers in the Russian Crude Saga

In April of 2023, Russian oil exports reached a new high despite embargos. This surprising report followed an even more unusual increase; traffic from Russian ports in the Black and Baltic Seas. A year prior, in 2022, the United States banned exports of Russian crude, meaning US, British, and EU ports would cease importing and exporting Russian goods, much less crude, its primary source of revenue.

The EU ban on Russian vessels in May 2022 and continued delivery of Russian oil has coincided with the growth of “ghost fleets,” officially unregistered ships that move in and out of ports, making it challenging to track and investigate.

“Ghost fleets” or “shadow fleets” are armadas of usually aging ships that have passed around many registries and flags over the years. Often newly re-sold and re-purposed, the vessels can sail unseen, like a ghost, from port to port, avoiding harm’s way and laws that impact them if registered, just out of the authorities’ jurisdiction.

Outsized by the challenge, Russia’s national fleet needed to increase its size to meet the demand. It had to turn somewhere else to keep its exports going, and that shows, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence. Since the beginning of the invasion, there were originally 204 large tankers going out of Russian ports. Of the 204 tankers, 58 were from Russian shipping giant Sovcomflot and 79 were Greek-owned.

Mathew Wright, a freight analyst at Kpler, made a distinction regarding the ghost/shadow fleets saying that in one, we can find “gray ships” and “black ships.” The gray ships are ships sold since the invasion of Ukraine and became ghosts. The black vessels are veterans of the campaign transporting banned cargo like Iranian and Venezuelan commodities before Russian crude.

Approximately 443 tankers are operating outside Russian ports, according to Byron McKinney, director of S&P Global Market Intelligence. These tankers are Greek-owned and part of the nebulous fleet carrying unknown goods of the Russian ports, now known as oil. Byron says Greek-owned ships are “hugely involved” in crude transfers, yet the Maltese and Greek ship owner associations have declined to comment on the situation.

The Big Break

Greece’s shipping industry spotted an opportunity after sanctions were imposed, quickly rushing in with the Greek tonnage contracting, approving the oil, and later shipping it outside Russia legally as it has come to light. With Greek billionaire owners raking in large sums of money trading Russian oil, which goes for as much as 30% above market value, chartering their tankers without the competition of other Western shippers.

Unhappy with Hellenic tanker owners, Ukraine has called on them to cease all transportation of the Russian black gold, but to no avail, leading to several Greek tycoons being added to the Ukrainian “international sponsors of war” list.

Lloyd’s List Intelligence identified the pattern in Russian ports showing ghost and non-ghost fleet activities, noting: TMS Tankers, Eastern Mediterranean, Dynacom Tankers, and Minerva Maritime as primary culprits. Ukraine declared these Greek companies “international sponsors of war.”

31% of the Black & Baltic Seas ships are Greek-owned, the second largest being ghost/shadow fleets, still predominantly Greek-owned. Oddly, this is all insured by the Norwegian insurer Gard, which guarantees 50% of global shipping. It is critical to note that both Norway and Greece are NATO allies, and given the evidence, NATO-allied nations are the largest shippers and insurers of Russian crude.

Despite all outward appearances, it is smooth sailing and business as usual for Western-owned tankers coming and going from Russian ports. Registered and ghost fleets have continued selling Russian crude to buyers in China, Greece, and beyond.

Responding to inquiries, the companies maintained their adherence to legal shipping routes and vehemently denied involvement in covert operations. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Greece, boasting the status of the world’s foremost ship-owning nation with a staggering fleet of 5,514 vessels and commanding 21% of the global dead-weight tonnage, has entangled its interests with Russia’s arduous endeavor to sustain its crucial export activities.

Vasileiadis Vasileios


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