Russian Oil Tankers Going Dark, ‘Turning Off Transmissions Deliberately’ to Avoid Sanctions

Russian Oil Tankers Going Dark, ‘Turning Off Transmissions Deliberately’ to Avoid Sanctions
Russian oil tanker Volgoneft-147 stands under an Omani naval escort in Muscat's Mina al-Fahl port on Feb. 7, 2000. Mohamed Mahjoub/AFP/Getty Images.
Naveen Athrappully

Following international sanctions, tankers from Moscow carrying oil and other petroleum products are increasingly going dark—the practice of switching off the ship’s transponders—and vanishing from tracking systems.

“We're seeing a spike in Russian tankers turning off transmissions deliberately to circumvent sanctions,” Ami Daniel, CEO of predictive intelligence company Windward, said in an interview with CNN. “The Russian fleet is starting to hide its whereabouts and its exports.”

Ever since the Russia–Ukraine war began on Feb. 24, there has been a 600 percent spike in dark activity among Russian oil tankers. Russian tankers went dark 33 times during the week of March 12, which is 236 percent higher than the weekly average for the previous 12 months, Windward said. The company uses artificial intelligence to track activity in the maritime industry.

International maritime law requires commercial vessels to have the ships' automatic identification system (AIS) switched on while at sea. The U.S. Treasury Department has classified the disabling or manipulation of AIS as a top deceptive shipping practice.

Western sanctions have put pressure on the Russian economy, and multiple banks have been banned from the SWIFT international payment system, affecting the country’s ability to make cross-border payments. Nations and businesses are increasingly avoiding doing business with Russia to prevent being in violation of the sanctions.

As such, Russia’s fleet will be under pressure to persist in dark activity and engage in illicit shipping, said Ian Ralby, CEO of the maritime law and security consulting firm I.R. Consilium, in an interview with Bloomberg.

“Russia has quickly become a pariah state so they are obscuring some of their activities because a lot of people on both ends of a transit don’t want any association to Russia,” Ralby said.

“Anywhere that Russia appears in the overall management or operation and ownership of the vessel, there are concerns about dark activity right now. Almost anything that they are going to be doing is gaining scrutiny and legal concerns because of all the various sanctions,” he added.

According to Windward’s data, the number of ship-to-ship meetings between Russian and non-Russian vessels lasting at least three hours has remained almost unchanged. Three hours is enough time for Russian oil tankers to transfer goods to other vessels not subject to economic sanctions.

Some vessels have also entered Russian waters and visited the country’s ports for the first time, the company said. Since Feb. 24, Windward has identified 22 such vessels, which includes those belonging to companies registered in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, Russia is planning on making “unfriendly” nations pay for oil in rubles. Russian President Vladimir Putin had issued an order in this regard on March 23. However, implementing ruble payments for international trade on Russian energy will take some time, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov recently said.