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EU sanctions take aim at insurance, finance for Russia oil exports

Financing and insuring the export of Russian oil will be banned by the end of the year under the latest tranche of EU sanctions on the country.

The European Commission unveiled the so-called sixth wave of sanctions on June 3. They include a ban on “insuring and financing the transport, in particular through maritime routes, of [Russian] oil to third countries”. The changes will only come into effect after a “wind-down period” of six months.

The wider package is aimed at slashing 90% of the EU’s current oil imports from Russia, and includes temporary exemptions for a handful of central European countries such as Croatia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria that are dependent on Russian imports via pipelines.

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The sanctions also remove Russia’s largest bank Sberbank from payment messaging network Swift.

The ban on insurance was widely expected, and the UK is reportedly set to enact similar measures, making a large chunk of the global insurance market off-limits due to the central role played by the London maritime insurance and reinsurance markets.

Sanctions by the US, UK and EU on Russian banks and energy companies, in addition to a desire to avoid bad press, means many large trading companies and banks have already “self-sanctioned” the Russian energy sector.

While the new measures target the seaborne exports of Russian oil, they do not prevent EU shipping companies from transporting it to third countries, reportedly due to pressure from EU member Greece, home to a large maritime sector.

Greek-owned tankers have considerably increased their share of the Russian oil export market since the war in Ukraine began, according to figures published by the Institute of International Finance.

Greek tankers are now carrying just over 60% of crude being exported from Russia by sea, almost double the level in early February, according to the institute.

Once the insurance and financing sanctions take effect at the end of the year, experts say the number of vessels available for uplifting Russian crude will take a significant hit, but won’t be decimated.

“The coordinated implementation of the EU and UK marine insurance ban alongside the EU oil embargo means that Russia’s ability to export oil anywhere in the world will be heavily disrupted,” law firm Reed Smith said in a recent client alert.

“Shipowners will now struggle to find alternative cover as P&I Clubs cover around 90% of the world’s fleet.”

While big European shipping companies have already jettisoned their business in Russia and more may do so when the insurance and financing ban kicks in, “there will always be carriers that will take those cargoes”, says Simon Ring, global head of maritime trade technologies at Pole Star, a maritime sanctions compliance firm.

John MacNamara, chief executive of Carshalton Commodities, tells GTR: “There is a whole world out there of lesser entities who see opportunity, and who are taking advantage of it.”

Financing and insurance could come from much further afield, MacNamara notes, with views on the conflict “not quite as clear cut” in South Asia as in Europe and the US. “The Chinese have been quite careful, but the Indians are very clear that they want to carry on getting Russian oil.”

The Russian government has already claimed it can work around the sanctions by partnering with friendly countries.

“This problem can be solved – insuring supplies can be secured by using state guarantees within the framework of interstate agreements with third countries,” former Russian president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel on June 7, according to a translation by S&P Global.

“They [the west] know that they will still have to find ‘grey’ schemes to get our feedstock and pay for it somehow, bypassing their own idiotic sanctions,” Medvedev wrote.

Transhipments of Russian oil, whereby it is offloaded from a ship that has uplifted it from a Russian port and transferred onto another vessel, ramped up in Greek waters during April, according to a May 20 Reuters report citing Refinitiv data. Russia can also export oil through pipelines into China.

The EU’s sanctions package does not affect oil that was extracted from third countries, such as Kazakhstan, and then exported through Russian ports.

While the exclusion of such cargoes will help secure supply from sources such as Kazakhstan, which is landlocked, it may present opportunities for Russian oil to be disguised.

“The Kazakh oil is suffering guilt by association,” says MacNamara, the former head of structured commodity trade finance at Deutsche Bank. “But I think if I were still at Deutsche Bank, I’d be looking very closely at something that claimed to be Kazakh, to make sure it wasn’t actually Russian.”

Russia’s own fleet of tankers and other vessel types has been battered with sanctions since the country’s invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Just weeks later maritime intelligence companies began reporting behaviour by Russian vessels that is consistent with efforts to avoid detection, including when conducting possible ship-to-ship transfers.

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