Dark activity in Kerch Strait reaches new highs
Gaps in AIS transmission have climbed in recent months, while trackable port calls have been relatively stable
The number of vessels going dark in the Kerch Strait is the highest since 2020. The strait is a critical component of Russia’s Sea of Azov supply chain connecting to the Black Sea and international trades routes
AUTOMATIC Identification System gaps in the Kerch Strait hit records levels in the first quarter of this year, an investigation by Lloyd’s List for the Financial Times has found.
There were 1,753 gaps in AIS transmission recorded by 586 vessels during the first three months of 2023, Lloyd’s List Intelligence vessel-tracking data shows.
It is the highest number of vessels going dark and the most AIS gaps since 2020.
There are many reasons for a vessel to not transmit an AIS position, some of which are legitimate. Weather and technical issues can lead to gaps in transmission, and in some instances a ship may turn off its AIS if there is an issue of safety, such as when travelling through a conflict zone.
The deliberate disabling of AIS without legitimate cause is considered a deceptive shipping practice.
Vessels are able to obfuscate their journeys during these “dark” periods. It is common practice for those evading sanctions or engaging in illicit activities.
The Kerch Strait is a critical component of Russia’s Sea of Azov supply chain for several reasons. It connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea, which then provides access to international trades routes.
The south of the strait is also home to two ship-to-ship transfer areas where smaller vessels tranship products from Russia’s Sea of Azov ports for export to foreign markets.
It is an entirely legitimate trade route that has been in operation for more than 20 years and incorporates oil and oil products as well as bulk commodities, mainly grain.
The significant spike in the volume of AIS gaps makes it difficult to assess the scale of Russia’s regional trade patterns.
There were 2,912 arrivals to Russia’s Sea of Azov and Kerch ports in the first quarter of 2023. A figure in line with historic levels.
The simultaneous increase in AIS gaps suggests there are more port calls and transhipment that are not being picked up.
Russia’s trade operations out of Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, and other occupied territories likely play a role in the dark activity. However, the scope and nature of these operations is not clear.
The European Union and the US have implemented several sanctions packages aimed at weakening Russia’s economy.
Governments are now looking to target the shipping industry in a bid to tighten sanctions measures.
Europe is considering targeting vessels switching off their AIS as well as targeting ship-to-ship transfers.
AIS gaps and suspicious ship-to-ship transfers that allow Russian oil to continue trading could be targeted in the next round of European sanctions due to be agreed next month.
As part of the 11th sanctions package being prepared by the European Commission, officials are exploring how they could target vessels turning off AIS signals, however it is unclear how the EU would enforce such measure on non-EU flagged vessels.
Among proposals circulating in Brussels to put flesh on its mooted crackdown on ships skirting sanctions against Russia is prohibiting entry to European ports for vessels that switch off their AIS in a bid to hide their movements, Lloyd’s List has been told.
Although no legal text has been presented so far, the Council of Ministers is determined to tackle the issue of this shadow fleet in so far as it is involved in circumventing the sanctions on Russia.
According to one well-placed diplomatic source, vessels that turn off their tracking systems will be sanctioned and will be prohibited from European ports and accessing port services.
Officials in Brussels are said to acknowledge that there are sometimes legitimate reasons for this and measures are likely to allow for exemptions for those cases.
Ministers reportedly want to address the sharp increase in STS operations, that are typically conducted under an AIS blackout when they are used to draw a veil over sanctioned cargoes, through guidance in the existing regulations.
While officials expect measures to be taken shortly, the success is likely to hinge on implementation.
“Implementation is going to be quite cumbersome,” one Brussels source said.