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Sanctioning Russia is one thing, making restrictions stick is another

Most shipowners are observing the price cap. Quite a few are doing their best to bust it

The murder of Alexei Navalny and the second anniversary of the Ukraine invasion have seen measures targeting the Kremlin proliferate. The West should pay more attention to ensuring the ones we have already actually hit home

THE UNITED Kingdom this week became the first country to sanction the officials at the Polar Wolf prison camp in the Russian Arctic, following the murder in captivity of leading dissident Alexei Navalny.

Just how concerned the six middle-ranking bully boys in President Vladimir Putin’s Gulag archipelago will find themselves at this unmistakeably mark of strong disapprobation from Lord Cameron remains to be seen.

Asset freezes will mean little to them. As humble provincial level thugs, they will be insufficiently wealthy to possess London bank accounts, let alone Georgian townhouses in such select enclaves as Belgravia.

They have also been banned from entering the UK, and it is true that a handful of Russian state employees periodically undertake day trips to Wiltshire, apparently to savour the beauty of Salisbury’s fine, early Gothic cathedral.

But the goons in question may not have been planning to treat their families to two weeks off season at Blackpool Pleasure Beach this year.

Elsewhere, further restrictions tightening the vice on the Kremlin have been coming thick and fast, designed to mark the second anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, which falls on Saturday.

Britain topped the Navalny sanctions with a fresh round a further 50 measures, with UAE-based Fractal Marine and Türkiye’s Beks Ship Management officially described as “in the Russian energy sector as part of Putin’s shadow fleet”.

In addition, we got the 13th sanctions package to emanate from the European Union in the past 24 months. The strictures highlight Chinese and Indian companies accused of supporting Moscow’s war effort, but stop well short of the sweeping curbs directed against crucial industrial sectors some had demanded.

We can all applaud the intent. But the last dozen packages have been overwhelming in their detail, often rendering compliance complicated even for those who positively want to comply.

For instance, it has taken Brussels until this week to give us important clarifications on the last package, emanating from before Christmas, which required EU tanker transactions that have ended up in the dark fleet* to be retrospectively unveiled.

While the spirit of these laws has been embraced by governments publicly insisting that Putin must be held accountable, due diligence from some member states has been less than searingly proactive.

The European Commission has stated that the information provided by the 13th package will help it gather more information on the shadow fleet currently used by Russia to get around the oil and products price cap imposed by earlier sanctions packages still, and so bring more transparency to this market.

They should probably take out a subscription to Lloyd’s List. We’ve even offered to walk them through the details.

But instead of focusing on the specifics of who is circumventing what and how — all well-known facts on which we could educate them — the focus has been on introducing successive rounds of ostensibly ever-tougher new sanctions, buttressed by the promise of tougher sanctions ahead.

All told, Britain is now targeting 2,000 Russian individuals, companies and groups. Globally, Russia is subject to 16,587 specific sanctions, in addition to the 2,695 that existed before the tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border.

At the time of writing, the US was today set to publish another 500. The relevance for shipping will only be clear once there has been a chance to analyse them.

Meanwhile, however rapidly the blacklists grow, the unspoken reality is that much of the world’s population lives in countries in which the West’s writ does not run.

There is little to stop new shipping entities popping up and setting up shop in these jurisdictions. This is not, in the strict sense, sanctions busting so much as sanctions evasion. But these efforts has robbed the cap of much of its force, and sometimes rendered it entirely irrelevant.

Some of the tanker companies that are doing so will freely admit to acting opportunistically and happy to turn a buck from the situation, but remain on the right side of the local law. Let them be at pains to make sure this remains the case.

The decision to single out named shipping companies shuts down some of the options of those seeking to swerve the sanctions and could even start to chip away at the dark fleet.

What we do know is that if sanctions were intended to drive Russia’s economy into recession, they clearly have not had the desired impact. Real GDP grew at 3.6% last year, rebounding from a 2.1% fall in 2022.

That’s a healthy enough performance compared to sanctioning countries, where growth ranged from the anemic to the negative.

If they have not crippled Russian industry by now, the probably has to be that they never will. The pace of events will now be dictated by what happens on the battlefield.

Militarily the situation remains a stalemate, and pressure is ramping up on Ukraine President Zelenskyy to reach a negotiated settlement. If US Republicans continue to block aid to his country, that pressure will become stronger; if Donald Trump returns to the White House, it will become irresistible.

The provisional conclusion for our industry has to be that we are not suffering from a dearth of rules. The number of applicable sanctions is irrelevant.

If they are to be anything more than decorative gestures, more attention might be paid to making the ones we have already actually hit home.


* Lloyd’s List defines a tanker as part of the dark fleet if it is aged 15 years or over, anonymously owned and/or has a corporate structure designed to obfuscate beneficial ownership discovery, solely deployed in sanctioned oil trades, and engaged in one or more of the deceptive shipping practices outlined in US State Department guidance issued in May 2020. The figures exclude tankers tracked to government-controlled shipping entities such as Russia’s Sovcomflot, or Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Co, and those already sanctioned.

Download our explainer on the different risk profiles of the dark fleet here


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