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Sovcomflot vessels head into opaque network of subterfuge operators

Companies in Dubai, backed by Chinese finance, are understood to be behind some of the Sovcomflot vessel sales already agreed, but not yet made public

Sovcomflot’s status as a sanctioned Russian company will limit the available buyers ready to engage in quick sales. The result may see vessels end up joining the veteran fleet of tankers registered to opaque networks of companies linked to sanctioned Iranian and Venezuela shipments

SOVCOMFLOT vessels being sold to pay back western bank loans ahead of final sanctions restrictions kicking in on May 15 are being bought by companies operating outside the reach of international sanctions.

Banks and lawyers acting on behalf of western lenders to Sovcomflot have confirmed that several deals have already been completed, although details of the new owners in most cases have not been revealed.

Lloyd’s List understands, however, that most of the buyers are acting on behalf of Chinese and United Arab Emirates-based interests preparing to operate the vessels in regions that will not be restricted by US, UK and European Union sanctions.

Many appear to be registered via a convoluted series of shell companies based in Dubai and linked to existing companies operating veteran tankers engaged in sanctioned Iranian and Venezuelan crude shipments.

Four crude oil tankers — NS Concord (IMO: 9299692), NS Champion (IMO: 9299719), NS Challenger (IMO: 9299680) and NS Concept (IMO: 9299707) — are understood to have been sold to Dubai-registered company Koban Shipping, which Lloyd’s List understands is financially backed by Chinese entities.

Gagarin Prospect (IMO: 9826720), Lomonosov Prospect (IMO: 9826732), Mendeleev Prospect (IMO: 9826897) and Samuel Prospect (IMO: 9843572) are also known to be sold, but Lloyd’s List has been unable to identify the new owners.

Koban Shipping LLC, which shares its registered address and several named directors with linked company Marshal Shipping LLC, bought a series of three veteran very large crude carriers from Norway’s ADS Crude Carriers in late 2020.

Those vessels were then quickly re-named and registered to a series of Panamanian companies, including Vitava Shipping, which is the registered owner of the VLCC Arzoyi (IMO: 9248473), linked to numerous Iranian-sanctioned oil trades.

Attempts to contact Koban Shipping, Marshal Shipping and Vitava Shipping have been met with Lloyd’s List numbers being blocked from all registered and private phone numbers associated with these companies.

Koban Shipping’s legal counsel also blocked Lloyd’s List.

Lloyd’s List has been tracking a fleet of some 220 tankers engaged in Iranian and Venezuelan crude shipments for the past two years, many of which have been registered through a similarly intricate pattern of shell company ownership structures in the United Arab Emirates, which has become a hub for companies seeking to evade sanctions.

Most tankers engaged in these trades make shuttle voyages, either to or from the Middle East Gulf to the Singapore region, or from Singapore to China.

Oil is moved in a series of ship-to-ship transfers, sometimes involving as many as four different tankers.

Most have gaps in their automatic identification system signals when loading and transferring cargoes, further obfuscating their activities.

Vessels have been identified falsely claiming to be flagged with different registries, using fake P&I clubs and fraudulent certificates from classification societies.

Registered owners are often shell companies in multiple countries, including the Seychelles, the United Arab Emirates, or Belize, making it difficult to identify the beneficial owner.

Although many class societies and other marine service providers have withdrawn services from ships when their activities are made known, many operate under the radar.

Sovcomflot has been approached for comment.


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