Nearly 900 maritime companies that have some association with Russia were formed last year, with the UAE emerging as the leading location for vessels with direct ties to the country, research has found.
As many as 777 newly formed companies with some association to Russia own vessels that made port calls in the country since December 5 last year, the date authorities in the G7, EU and Australia introduced a US$60 cap on Russian crude oil exports, according to a report by S&P Global.
Another 87 new companies have vessels in their fleet that were previously Russian-owned or flagged, of which more than a quarter are located in the UAE, the report finds.
Recently established maritime businesses in Turkey and Singapore make up another quarter, with a small number in Hong Kong, the Marshall Islands and the Seychelles.
Meanwhile, Gatik Ship Management – a company formed last year that has already acquired dozens of vessels and has raised suspicions of facilitating oil trade in breach of the price cap – has started transferring ownership of some vessels to other companies, including in India and the UAE.
These trends, coupled with a lack of disclosure of ultimate vessel ownership information, could present risks for companies operating in jurisdictions where sanctions are in place.
“These new, primarily, tanker owners have created fleets of vessels with direct and indirect links to Russian entities while retaining a general level of opaque ownership information, especially in regard to the ultimate group owner,” the report says.
“In the meantime, these new owners have helped Russian oil continue to flow when more traditional and conventional fleet owners exited the Russian market.”
In the case of the UAE, the report identifies 23 companies set up last year whose fleet contains vessels previously owned or flagged in Russia. Of those vessels, 28 are tankers that have the capacity to ship more than 21 million barrels of oil.
“The ultimate group owner of these vessels is largely unknown with 57% of the 28 tankers having an unspecified group beneficial owner,” says S&P Global, which recently warned that undisclosed ownership information is closely correlated with a higher risk of illicit activity.
Some UAE companies are using multiple subsidiaries and third parties “to obscure and provide distance between various levels of ownership and the ultimate group owner”.
Yet where a group owner is specified, the report finds tankers typically do not have a history of Russian port calls, and tend to operate between the Persian Gulf and East Asia.
A further 102 vessels owned by UAE companies made port calls in Russia for the first time since the introduction of the oil price cap, the report adds.
The UAE and India have not imposed sanctions on Russian oil trade, but authorities in the US have ramped up pressure on American banks, insurers and shipping companies involved in crude and petroleum trade.
The US Office of Foreign Assets Control, the country’s top sanctions regulator, warned in April that they may be unwittingly facilitating transactions structured to circumvent sanctions.
“These US service providers may be unaware that they are providing covered services involving Russian oil purchased above the price cap, as the non-US persons involved in the exports may have provided incomplete or false documentation or used other deceptive practices,” it said at the time.
European officials have also touted a crackdown on the continent’s imports of refined petroleum from India that were produced from Russian crude, after criticism from NGOs that such transactions – though not illegal – undermine efforts to dent the Kremlin’s revenue from oil exports.
S&P Global also uncovers organisational changes at Mumbai-headquartered Gatik Ship Management, which was established last year but whose website remains under construction and could not be contacted for comment.
Campaign group Global Witness said in a report earlier this month that Gatik had acquired nearly 60 vessels valued at over £1bn, but had its insurance cover removed by members of the International Group of P&I Clubs and had several ships de-flagged by the UK-based St Kitts & Nevis International Registry.
The wariness around providing services to Gatik was attributed to “suspicions that they are buying Russian oil above the G7 price cap”, Global Witness said. It also raised environmental concerns over potential oil spills from ageing tankers.
S&P Global now says Gatik’s corporate structure appears to cover 37 other individual registered owners, third parties or care-of associations, suggesting the size of its fleet is “wider than the 50 or 60 first assumed”.
At the same time, since April, several vessels previously registered to Gatik have been transferred to seven newly established companies, including in India and the UAE.