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WASHINGTON — Maritime traffic to and from Russia has remained relatively heavy in recent months as companies rush to fulfill contracts to ...


WASHINGTON — Maritime traffic to and from Russia has remained relatively heavy in recent months as companies rush to fulfill contracts to purchase energy and other assets before the full force of global sanctions does not come into force.

With the European Union about to introduce a ban on Russian oil in the coming months, this situation could change significantly. But the data so far shows that while trade with Russia has been reduced in many cases, it has not yet been crippled.

Crude and petroleum product volumes shipped from Russian ports, for example, soared to 25 million metric tons in April, according to data from shipping tracker Refinitiv, from around 24 million metric tons in December, January, February and March, and mostly above the levels of the past two years.

Jim Mitchell, head of oil research for the Americas at Refinitiv, said outbound shipments from Russia in April had been supported by the global economic recovery from the pandemic, and did not yet reflect the impact of sanctions. and other restrictions imposed on Russia. after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Crude oil typically trades 45 to 60 days before delivery, he said, meaning behavioral changes following the Russian invasion were still going on in the system.

“The volume took a long time to decline because these were already established contracts,” Mr. Mitchell said. Defaulting on such contracts is “a nightmare for both parties”, he said, adding, “which means that even in the current environment no one really wants to breach a contract”.

Russia has stopped publishing data on its imports and exports since Western governments united to announce their range of sanctions and other restrictions. Oil or gas exports leaving Russia through pipelines can also be difficult for outside companies to verify.

But the global activities of huge ships calling at Russian ports to pick up and deliver containers of consumer goods or bulk cargoes of grain and oil are easier to monitor. Vessels are required to transmit their identity, position, course and other information via automatic tracking systems, which are monitored by various companies such as Refinitiv, MarineTraffic, Kpler and others.

These companies say maritime traffic was relatively robust in March and April, despite the extraordinary tensions with Russia since its invasion of Ukraine. This reflects both the time it takes for some of the sanctions issued by the West to take effect and a persistent profit motive for trade with Russia, particularly after prices for its energy products and raw materials fall. are collapsed.

Data from MarineTraffic, for example, a platform that shows the live location of ships around the world using these on-board tracking systems, indicates that traffic from major Russian ports has declined after the invasion but did not fall. The number of container ships, tankers and bulk carriers – the three main types of ships that transport energy and consumer products – arriving and leaving Russian ports fell by around 23% in March and April compared to the previous year.

“The reality is that the sanctions haven’t been that hard to get around,” said Georgios Hatzimanolis, who analyzes global shipping for MarineTraffic.

Monitoring by Lloyd’s List Intelligence, a maritime information service, shows similar trends. The number of bulk carriers, which carry bulk cargo such as grain, coal and fertilizers, which left Russian ports within five weeks of the invasion fell by only 6% compared to the period of five weeks before the invasion, according to the service.

In the weeks following the invasion, Russia’s trade with China and Japan was broadly stable, while the number of bulk carriers bound for South Korea, Egypt and Turkey actually increased, according to their data.

“There’s still a lot of two-way traffic,” said Sebastian Villyn, risk and compliance data manager at Lloyd’s List Intelligence. “We haven’t really seen a drop.”

These figures contrast somewhat with statements by world leaders, who have emphasized the crippling nature of the sanctions. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said Thursday the Russian economy was “absolutely shaken,” pointing to estimates that it would face a 10% contraction this year and double-digit inflation.

Earlier this week, Yellen said the Treasury Department was continuing to deliberate whether to extend an exemption in its sanctions that allowed US financial institutions and investors to continue processing Russian bond payments. Speaking at a Senate hearing, she said officials were actively working to determine the “consequences and fallout” of the license expiring on May 25, which would likely result in the company’s first default. Russia on its foreign debt for more than a century.

Global sanctions against Russia continue to expand in both scope and impact, especially as Europe, a major customer of Russian energy, moves to wean itself off oil and coal from the country. Trade data suggests that shipments to Russia of high-value products such as semiconductors and aircraft parts – which are crucial to the military’s ability to wage war – have plummeted due to export controls issued by the United States and its allies.

But many sanctions have been targeted on certain strategic goods or exempt energy products – which are Russia’s main exports – to avoid causing more pain to consumers in an era of rapid price increases, supply chains disrupted and a growing global food crisis.

Credit…Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images

Western governments have so far imposed a series of financial restrictions, including banning transactions with Russia’s central bank and sovereign wealth fund, freezing the assets of many Russian officials and oligarchs, and cutting off Russian banks from international transactions. .

Canada and the United States have already banned imports of Russian energy and have also banned Russian ships from calling at their ports, but these countries are not among Russia’s biggest energy customers.

The European Union, which is a key destination for Russian energy, plans to start banning Russian coal later this year and is moving towards a ban on Russian oil by the end of the year, although opposition from Hungary appeared as a recent stumbling block. Britain also has mentioned it will phase out imports of Russian oil by the end of the year.

This weekend, after a meeting of the Group of 7 countries, the Biden administration mentioned it would impose additional restrictions on imports obtained by the Russian industrial sector and impose sanctions on seven shipping companies, which together own or operate 69 ships.

The private market has taken its own action, with many companies, including in the energy sector, saying they would stop operations in Russia.

Other changes may be imminent. Refinitiv’s Mr Mitchell said shipping traffic was likely to fall further in the coming months due to the reluctance of insurers in places like Switzerland and Bermuda to insure ships that call at Russia. European governments are also discussing transport and insurance bans.

And last week Russian President Vladimir V. Putin signed a decree which would prohibit the export of products and raw materials to designated persons or entities, the list of which is still being drawn up.

Credit…Reuters

Matt Smith, chief oil analyst for the Americas at Kpler, said Russian crude exports were actually higher in April, according to their tracking, because sanctions were not yet in place to deter crude buying. Russian.

“Russian crude exports are not going down as people expected,” he said.

Russian crude oil flows to northwest Europe fell somewhat in April, but shipments to Italy and other European countries increased, driven by opportunistic buying and redirected barrels, a- he declared. And countries like India and Turkey, which don’t usually import a lot of so-called Urals oil from Russia, have “gone on a bargain hunt and bought these barrels at a very good price,” he added.

“So for all intents and purposes, nothing has really changed,” Mr Smith said.

Even if Russia’s export volumes fall, rising energy prices could help offset those losses.

Speaking on Thursday, Ms Yellen said a European embargo on Russian energy could adversely affect global energy markets while boosting Russia’s revenue. Administration officials worry that the embargoes will drive up the price of oil around the world, allowing Russia to make more money from where it continues to sell it. She said the United States and its allies were considering creating a “special payment authority” where Russia could be paid for the cost of producing its oil exports while taxes would be redirected for reparations to Ukraine. .

Longer term, as UK and EU sanctions on Russian energy begin to take effect later this year, Russia is likely to shift its sales to markets outside of Europe.

Daniel Yergin, energy historian and author of “The Prize”, said China and India were increasingly the recipients of struggling Russian oil that could no longer find a home in Europe.

“Putin has always said that the future of Russia is in Asia – it will really accelerate this change,” he said.

Keith Bradsher and Alan Rappeport contributed report.

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