CNN is reporting that as the war in Ukraine drags on, Russian tankers carrying crude oil and petroleum products are increasingly disappearing from tracking systems.
Why? Because despite sanctions, there is still a market for Russian oil, one that apparently wants to stay hidden to avoid the Russian sanctions and embargos that have been put in place since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
In maritime circles plying the waves like this is called “dark activity.” It is where a ship’s transponder is turned off for hours at a time. Such dark activity has in the past been viewed by US officials as a deceptive shipping practice that is often used to evade sanctions.
Dark activity among Russian-affiliated crude oil tankers is up by 600% compared with before the war began, predictive intelligence company Windward told CNN.
“We’re seeing a spike in Russian tankers turning off transmissions deliberately to circumvent sanctions,” Windward CEO Ami Daniel said in an interview. “The Russian fleet is starting to hide its whereabouts and its exports.”
And this is not just happening with crude oil. Similar trends are playing out with other petroleum products, too.
During the week of March 12, there were 33 occurrences of dark activity by Russian oil-chemical and oil-product tankers, according to Windward, which uses artificial intelligence to track the maritime industry. That’s 236% higher than the weekly average of the prior 12 months.
International regulations require vessels as large as oil tankers to keep their transponders on almost all the time. In May 2020, the US Department of the Treasury sent a sanctions advisory to the maritime, energy, and metals industries to address “illicit shipping and sanctions evasions practices.”
The first example listed was “disabling or manipulating” automatic identification systems (AIS) on vessels to “mask their movement.”
“AIS manipulation and disruption may indicate potential illicit or sanctionable activities,” Treasury warned.
Ships may also go dark for safety reasons, including when traveling through pirate-infested waters. But Daniel, the Windward CEO, said that is not the reason ships are going dark now.
“These vessels want to disappear from radar. From a compliance perspective, it’s a red flag,” he said.
In a statement to CNN, a Treasury spokesperson said the agency is “aware of these reports” and works with partners and through a “variety of methods” to not solely rely on transponder broadcasts to monitor vessels of interest.
The White House has banned imports of Russian oil into the United States. But that does not prohibit other countries from buying Russian energy. However, the stigma of doing business with Russia, along with sanctions uncertainty, has created a de facto embargo. Analysts say that helps explain the spike in dark activity among Russian-flagged ships. Buyers don’t want to be outed as the ones scooping up Russian oil during the deadly war in Ukraine.
“It’s a public relations disaster,” said Robert Yawger, vice president of energy futures at Mizuho Securities.
Likewise, shipping companies may want to avoid the scrutiny that comes from handling Russian crude.
“The ships are going dark because they are afraid if they take on Russian business, they will be blacklisted for a period of time and unable to get future business,” said Lipow.
The practice of Russian vessels now going dark since the invasion of Ukraine is not restricted to oil tankers and other commercial cargo vessels. As we have reported in these pages, several multi-billion dollar superyachts owned by Russian oligarchs have also illegally shut off their AIS transponders to avoid being impounded.