A Russian oil tanker sought to disguise its whereabouts by using sanction-busting techniques, adding to growing evidence that Moscow-linked operators have acquired the means to blunt western oil export restrictions imposed in retaliation for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The findings by non-governmental organisation Global Fishing Watch, which were independently verified by the Financial Times, come as shipping brokers have warned that Russia has amassed a “shadow fleet” of more than 100 tankers to carry crude and circumvent an EU ban on seaborne oil imports and a G7-led initiative to impose a price cap on Russian crude shipped elsewhere. The punitive measures took effect on Monday.
“We have seen Russian tankers carrying out what looks like practice runs [for sanctions] in recent months,” said Samir Madani, co-founder and chief executive of TankerTrackers.com, a service that reports on shipments of crude oil.
GFW, which has monitored covert shipping as part of its work to safeguard fisheries, uncovered how the Kapitan Schemilkin, a 138m-long refined-fuel tanker, made two trips using concealing techniques pioneered by Venezuela and Iran. Both countries are barred from exporting their oil.
The ship first visited an offshore mooring nearing Malta from May to July, before visiting the Teknecik power plant in Northern Cyprus a month later, according to the findings. In both cases, the tanker broadcast false positions via its Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder — a safety device which continuously broadcasts a ship’s position — showing it was sailing in circles in Greek waters.
The EU has banned imports of seaborne Russian crude oil cargoes, a measure that will be followed by a ban on importing refined products in February.
The US has also led the G7 group of nations, the EU and Australia, in an attempt to impose a price cap on Russian oil shipments of $60 a barrel. Any tanker carrying Russian oil above this price will lose access to western insurance and other maritime services, which are the bedrock of the global shipping industry.
The Kapitan Schemilkin’s spoofing was subtle compared to that of other crews who would, for instance, send a signal of sailing in perfect geometric shapes. Bjorn Bergman, a data analyst working for GFW and SkyTruth, another environmental NGO, said: “We see a whole range of false tracks — and, in general, they are getting more realistic.”
GFW’s work on spoofing techniques was funded by the Defence Innovation Unit within the US Department of Defence as part of a programme to understand weaknesses in satellite navigation and monitoring systems.
GFW used European Space Agency radar satellite imagery to show that the Kapitan Schemilkin was not in the places where it was claiming to be. A vessel of the same size that was not broadcasting a position was sighted at a Maltese mooring and then in Northern Cyprus on photos taken by Planet Labs.
GFW also worked out that when the ship was claiming to be sailing off Greece, its signals were at times being picked up by telecommunications satellites over the wrong part of the Mediterranean. At various points in the journeys, the Kapitan Schemilkin also notified other vessels via AIS that it was sailing to Malta and to Northern Cyprus.
Rechmortrans, the Rostov-based owner of the Kapitan Schemilkin, did not respond to requests for comment. Rechmortrans shares a director with a company on which the US imposed sanctions in 2021 after one of its vessels made two trips to Venezuela.
Bergman said: “AIS is an open system, so it is vulnerable. However . . . we’ve also been able to develop robust solutions for detecting position manipulation. So vessel operators that choose to do this will just shine a spotlight on themselves.”
How the FT was able to verify the NGO’s findings independently
The Financial Times was able to corroborate the GFW analysis by replicating most of their findings. The FT independently accessed satellite photography from Planet Labs, satellite radar imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites and AIS data from Spire, a satellite data and analytics company.
GFW shared details underpinning their satellite analysis method. GFW also showed the FT past examples of its work which demonstrated the record of their receiver analysis technique.
Another case study: How spoofing helps bust sanctions
Spoofing is a strategy used to disguise the origins of sanctioned oil by pretending that a ship was loaded at an unsanctioned location. For example, a tanker called the Tina 5 recently broadcast signals implying that it had picked up oil off Angola in late September and early October, according to GFW.
The NGO, however, has noted that, at the time the vessel was claiming to be loading off the African coast, the vessel’s AIS signals were picked up by satellites and terrestrial antennas suggesting it had crossed the Atlantic and was in Venezuela; TankerTrackers.com then photographed the vessel in Venezuela.
According to its AIS track, the Tina 5 offloaded its cargo to another vessel off Malaysia last month and is now off the west coast of Africa again. GFW has however discovered that recent signals were picked up by satellites well to the west of its stated position, suggesting that the Tina 5 is again crossing the Atlantic to Venezuela. The FT was not able to contact the owners of the vessel for comment.