Greek Companies and Ghost Ships Help Russia Evade Sanctions and Export Oil

The United States banned Russian crude oil imports months ago, and Russian ships are banned from US, British, and EU ports. On Dec. 5, the European Union’s sanctions on Russian crude come into effect. But Greek and other European shipping companies are currently—and legally—helping Russian exporters get their oil to the desired destination.

What’s more, a growing ghost fleet of ships that officially don’t exist and cannot, as a result, be traced or investigated is transporting sanctioned Russian goods around the world, just as it was already transporting banned Iranian, Venezuelan, and North Korean commodities . The ghost fleet is likely to grow as the EU’s oil sanctions kick in. That seriously undermines the sanctions—and creates risks on the high seas.

In May, Lloyd’s List Intelligence, which monitors global shipping, began noticing an odd pattern at the Russian ports of Ust-Luga, Primorsk, Novorossiysk, and St. Petersburg. Of the 204 large tankers departing the ports between the 1st and the 26th of that month, 58 belonged to Sovcomflot, the Russian shipping giant. But many more of the oil tankers—79—were Greek owned. “A vast increase in voyages to India, Turkey and China indicates where the cargo, normally bound for North America and Western Europe, is now going,” Lloyd’s noted in a subsequent report.

The United States banned Russian crude oil imports months ago, and Russian ships are banned from US, British, and EU ports. On Dec. 5, the European Union’s sanctions on Russian crude come into effect. But Greek and other European shipping companies are currently—and legally—helping Russian exporters get their oil to the desired destination.

What’s more, a growing ghost fleet of ships that officially don’t exist and cannot, as a result, be traced or investigated is transporting sanctioned Russian goods around the world, just as it was already transporting banned Iranian, Venezuelan, and North Korean commodities . The ghost fleet is likely to grow as the EU’s oil sanctions kick in. That seriously undermines the sanctions—and creates risks on the high seas.

In May, Lloyd’s List Intelligence, which monitors global shipping, began noticing an odd pattern at the Russian ports of Ust-Luga, Primorsk, Novorossiysk, and St. Petersburg. Of the 204 large tankers departing the ports between the 1st and the 26th of that month, 58 belonged to Sovcomflot, the Russian shipping giant. But many more of the oil tankers—79—were Greek owned. “A vast increase in voyages to India, Turkey and China indicates where the cargo, normally bound for North America and Western Europe, is now going,” Lloyd’s noted in a subsequent report.

During the same month, the research outfit observed seven other large oil tankers leaving the waters off the Greek city of Kalamata and the Maltese cities of Marsaxlokk and Marsaskala and then heading to India, China, and the United Arab Emirates. They had been loaded with Russian oil by smaller tankers traveling from the Black Sea ports of Novorossiysk, Tuapse, and Taman, Lloyd’s found. Greek vessels and ports are, in other words, helping Russia export its oil.

But, as Richard Meade of Lloyd’s List Intelligence pointed out, “there’s nothing illegal about what the Greek ports and shipping companies are doing. It’s just a shift in trade due to restrictions, and the Greek companies are not doing it in a clandestine way. But when the rules change, they won’t be able to do what they’re doing today.” That change will occur on Dec. 5, when the EU’s ban on Russian crude comes into effect, and Feb. 5, when its ban on refined Russian petroleum products does so.

Although the EU banned Russian vessels at the end of May, Russian oil can still be delivered to the EU on tankers owned or flagged in other countries. This appears to be where Greece’s large shipping industry has spotted an opportunity. Indeed, the fact that traders are now rush to fill up on Russian oil suggests that the time lapse between the planned-sanctions announcement in October and their coming into effect may have turned into a grace period for companies and countries wanting a bit more of the black gold.

“What the Greek tonnage is transporting is oil that has been already contracted and is fully approved by the EU. … It’s something that our countries desperately need,” Greek shipowner Evangelos Marinakis told the industry publication TradeWinds in July, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a Greek economic conference that Greek shipping companies were “providing almost the largest tanker fleet for the transportation of Russian oil.” But now that grace period is closing. On Nov. 21, the US government announced that it too will ban the maritime transport of Russian crude from Dec. 5. UK sanctions on Russian oil and oil products also come into effect on that date.

Those bans, though, are likely to accelerate another growing maritime trend: illegal shipping by vessels that officially don’t exist. In recent years, a whole new fleet of ghost vessels has joined the world’s official fleet of vessels. Unlike the officially existing vessels—which are registered in a flag state (most often Panama, Liberia, or the Marshall Islands), have an International Maritime Organization (IMO) tracking number, and are covered by commercial insurance—the ghost vessels are not registered with a flag state or the IMO and don’t have commercial insurance.

That puts them in a different category from the Greek tankers, which are shipping Russian oil in the very public manner in which most shipping is conducted. Such vessels are registered with a flag state and the IMO; their owners, managers, and crews are documented; and they’re commercially insured. The shadow vessels, by contrast, officially don’t exist.

To further hide their existence, they frequently turn off their AIS—the maritime equivalent of GPS—so authorities that might want to monitor them can’t see them. “What we’ve got today is a subterfuge fleet operating internationally, about 200 vessels, with very little oversight from international bodies, with an infrastructure that supports it,” Meade told me.

“Today we’re seeing new shipping companies being created in the same way we saw after Iranian, Venezuelan, North Korean sanctions. Back when sanctions were first imposed on Iran, vessels would turn off their AIS and go dark, then turn up somewhere else, and that has evolved to where we are today.” Indeed, every time new sanctions are imposed, crafty parts of the shipping industry find ways to evade them.


Today’s ghost fleet is three times larger than its estimated size only nine months ago. The IMO has even discovered fake flag authorities. In 2019, it documented 73 vessels sailing under the registration of a flag authority that was fraudulently claiming to represent the Democratic Republic of the Congo; 91 vessels registered to such an authority claiming to represent Fiji; and 150 to an alleged Micronesian one.

The existence of a ghost fleet traversing the world’s oceans poses an obvious safety risk to global shipping—and an acute headache for Western governments. “If you look at Iran, despite the massive international sanctions, goods are coming in and out of the country,” Cormac Mc Garry, a maritime analyst with risk consultancy Control Risks, told me. “And it’s no surprise that many countries are not bothering to investigate the vessels coming into their ports.” It may, in fact, be in their interest to look the other way regarding both ghost-fleet vessels and legally operating shipping companies that may be transporting sanctioned goods.

“Sanctions only work to the extent companies are willing to abide by them,” Mc Garry said. “Half the world doesn’t really care about Western sanctions against Russia. And sanctions are extremely difficult to enforce.”

Even though insurers are extremely sensitive to sanctions violations among their clients, they can’t investigate every ship covered by their policies. To be sure, underwriters could demand that shipping companies and cargo providers prove that they do business with only nonsanctioned partners—but dishonorable outfits will simply disappear into the shadow economy. What’s more, many countries depend on trade with a sanctioned country, and because ghost ships’ cargo is cheaper than legally shipped cargo, it’s sold cheaply. As Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Russia have established, there are always countries willing to buy sanctioned goods at a reduced price.

The ghost fleet, though, can’t get commercial insurance, and no maritime outfit will individually take on the considerable risk involved in operating a ghost ship carrying hazardous cargo like oil. But sanctioned countries’ governments have thought up a solution for that: These days they often provide the insurance for official vessels willing to transport their goods, and perhaps for ghost ships too—though given that ghost ships officially don’t exist, it’s difficult to know their insurance status.

“Iran has effectively developed P&I [shipping property and indemnity] insurance,” Meade said. “Now Russia is doing the same thing.” In June, the Russian National Reinsurance Company reportedly began insuring official Russian ships after Western insurers canceled coverage in response to US and European sanctions.

This month, a Djibouti-flagged tanker ran aground off the coast of Indonesia, carrying 284,000 metric tons of crude—and turned out to be a vessel long suspected of transporting cargo to and from Iran. It’s safe to assume it had Iranian government P&I insurance.

But shipping companies can’t just moonlight for the Russians, the Iranians, or the Venezuelans. Because P&I insurance policies run over a one year period, shipping companies must decide whether to be part of the commercially insured fleet that complies with Western sanctions, or to ship goods sanctioned by the West to countries without such sanctions, under insurance provided by the Russian or the Iranian government. The ghost fleet, meanwhile, doesn’t have to bother with any rules—but it also has no legal protection.

The Greek shipping companies making a quick buck on Russian crude have only a couple of weeks until the EU and US bans on crude come into effect. Morally, Greece’s large shipping industry ought never to have entered into the unusual collaboration. Indeed, Greek ships are known to have violated sanctions before. On Aug. 29, after the EU’s sanction on Russian coal had come into force, the Greek-managed vessel Stavros was sighted loading 53,000 tons of coal at a Russian port. A couple of months earlier, two leading Greek shipowners crit the EU’s sanctions against Russia, calling them ineffective and arguing that they were harming the EU more than Russia.

Had Greece’s government been more committed to the sanctions, it could have pleaded with the firms not to enable Russia. Then again, assisting Russia with its oil export will be illegal after Dec. 5. Will some of the Greek firms keep doing it anyway? And how many ships around the world will disappear into the ghost fleet? With governments unlikely to catch the offenders, it’s a good thing that journalists and NGOs are keeping a watchful eye.

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