Britain has imported £ 400m of Russian diesel since the invasion of Ukraine despite protests that the trade is funding Vladimir Putin’s war machine.
Thirteen tankers carrying more than 400,000 tonnes of diesel – enough to run almost 500,000 cars for a year – have docked at UK ports from Merseyside to Essex during the 11 weeks since Moscow’s tanks and soldiers crossed into Ukraineanalysis by the has found.
The tankers are among 33 vessels carrying Russian fossil fuels, including heavily polluting coal and fuel oil, which have arrived in Britain since the 24 February invasion.
The continuing trade is a source of despair among Ukrainian leaders who have repeatedly pleaded with European leaders to halt purchaseswhich according to one estimate will this year pour £ 145bn into Vladimir Putin’s coffers – a 45 per cent increase on 2021.
Vadym Boychenko, mayor of Mariupol – the city which has become a symbol of both Ukrainian resistance and Russian brutality – told the that Moscow’s forces should be seen as a “terrorist organization” and Britain should call an immediate halt to oil shipments.
He said: “I’m 100 per cent sure that Boris Johnson should stop Russian oil today. We should have a clear understanding – Russia uses this money to fund the war with Ukraine, to destroy our cities and infrastructure.
“More than 20,000 people have been killed in Mariupol in this blood-shedding war. I want to underline that the money Russia obtains from the sale of oil and gas goes to finance their army. It is financing a terrorist organization. “
Britain has banned Russian ships carrying cargo of any nature from entering UK waters. But vessels registered elsewhere are still permitted to carry oil and coal from Russia, meaning that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of environmentally-damaging hydrocarbons will have arrived in Britain before a ban on such imports comes into force at the end of the year.
An investigation by the has established that Russian producers are offering diesel shipments with steep discounts as they attempt to dispatch as many cargoes as possible before embargoes and sanctions begin to bite.
The latest Russian shipment of 33,000 tonnes of diesel docked at an oil terminal on the Thames at Purfleet on Wednesday on board a Greek-flagged tanker, Andromeda, after the vessel was initially forced to turn back by protesters.
Maltese-flagged tanker Nolde, carrying as much as 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, is also currently en route from a Russian refinery at Vysotsk on the Baltic Sea to an anchorage off the Suffolk town of Southwold.
The anchorage is used for ship-to-ship transfers, a process whereby vessels dock alongside each other to allow cargo to be pumped from one to another.
The scale of the shipments suggests that hundreds of thousands of UK motorists are unwittingly filling their vehicles with Russian diesel.
Prior to the war, some 18 per cent of Britain’s diesel requirements were met from Russia, meaning it is difficult to rapidly find alternative supplies at a time of constriction on global diesel production.
Georgia Whitaker, oil and gas campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “The UK’s attachment to fossil fuels has backfired in the worst possible way – we’re funding a war, our energy bills and fuel costs are sky-high, and we’re driving the climate crisis. It has to stop. ”
Figures collated by Vortexa, a specialist London-based energy shipping consultancy, show 13 vessels carrying 410,000 tonnes of diesel have arrived at the UK from Russian ports since 1 March.
Further analysis by the shows the shipments equate to a cumulative value of at least £ 372m and contained enough diesel to power 488,000 cars for a year.
Separate data provided by Greenpeace and Global Witness shows diesel shipments have arrived at five UK terminals – Tranmere on Merseyside, Immingham on Humberside, Purfleet and Canvey Island in Essex, and Teesport on Teesside.
Greenpeace said on Friday that activists had witnessed fuel trucks from the big four supermarkets arriving at and leaving the Navigator terminal in Purfleet, Essex, just hours after Russian diesel was delivered there by an oil tanker.
They tracked trucks from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons to petrol station forecourts in Norfolk and Bedford, while an Asda tanker could not be tracked to its destination.
Morrisons said it was standing by a statement by the British Retail Consortium, which said members were “fully committed” to phasing out Russian oil by the end of the year in line with Government guidance.
Asda said its position is not to use Russian oil and, as far as it knew, none of its fuel suppliers are importing fuel from Russia. Tesco said it does not buy any fuel directly from Russia, and purchases from several suppliers who source globally and who are working to phase out Russian fuel by the end of 2022.
Sainsbury’s said: “We are already working to reduce the amount of diesel we sell which comes from Russia and we will stop selling diesel from Russia in our petrol filling stations in line with the UK’s action against Russian oil imports, by the end of the year . ”
How Russia could be getting ready to smuggle oil
Russia may be preparing to adopt smuggling tactics similar to blacklisted countries such as Iran to get around Western sanctions.
Embargoes on oil sales from countries including Iran and Venezuela have led to the development of a range of strategies aimed at evading the detection of tankers carrying illegal oil cargoes.
The tactics largely revolve around ship-to-ship transfers, whereby two vessels – one carrying sanctioned oil and another empty tanker with no obvious link to the embargoed country – rendezvous in the open sea to transfer the illicit cargo.
The European Union is yet to agree a ban on imports of Russian oil and a UK prohibition does not come into force until the end of the year, meaning that as yet there is no reason for Russian vessels to engage in subterfuge.
However, experts argue the situation may well change once bans are put in place.
In order to put law enforcement agencies off the scent, the sanctions-busting vessels switch off devices known as an Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). Large vessels are required by maritime law to use the equipment, which transmits location and an identifying code to allow ships to be tracked.
Once AIS is switched off, monitoring becomes more difficult, requiring intelligence agencies and private monitoring companies to deploy tracking software and satellites to try to identify smugglers.
Vortexa, a London-based energy shipping consultancy, has developed software aimed at spotting potentially illicit transfers, and said it had yet to see any evidence of AIS manipulation by Russian vessels.
It anticipates that the Baltic Sea or eastern Mediterranean will be the most likely locations for sanctions-busting activity.
Sam Ingles, a senior data analyst at the company, said: “AIS manipulation is a key tactic used by vessels loading crude from Venezuela and Iran. It may be possible that Russia uses such or similar methods in the future. ”
Oleg Ustenko, senior economic adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, told the the volume of shipments into Britain was deeply troubling given the UK’s strong support for Kyiv in other spheres.
He said: “The UK has shown leadership since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That makes it even harder to understand why the UK continues to import Russian oil. We know that every drop of Russian oil gives Putin the means to spill yet more Ukrainian blood.
“We know this trade is funding Putin’s war crimes. The UK must match its rhetoric, and the commitment made by the US, by banning the import and trade of Russian oil today. ”
An oil trading source said there was considerable evidence that Russian suppliers were seeking to maximize their revenues by offering price reductions on shipments of $ 20 (£ 16) to $ 30 (£ 24) per tonne compared to fuel from elsewhere.
The discount can amount to an additional profit margin per shipment of anywhere between £ 400,000 and £ 800,000.
At the same time, there are signs the flow of Russian oil into Europe is beginning to slow. Several large commodity trading companies have indicated that they expect the buying and selling of Russian oil to become much harder as of this week as a result of a tightening of European sanctions, which is being interpreted as effectively banning any trading with Kremlin-linked energy companies .
The source said: “There has been a solid rate of shipments despite the war. We reckon the total number of tankers leaving Russia has only dipped by something like a fifth. But it is now very rapidly becoming too complicated to push through these purchases.
“Even if formal oil bans don’t come in for several more months, I think the reality may well be that shipments to European destinations fall off quite quickly now.”
At the same time, Moscow is turning towards Asia and rapidly increasing its sales to countries including China and India. Sam Ingles, a senior analyst at Vortexa, said the amount of Russian crude oil heading to China has been consistently above 1m barrels per day since March – roughly 20 per cent higher than the pre-war rate.
He added: “Russia is relying on a number of countries outside of Europe to sustain crude and refined products exports. India has emerged in recent weeks as a key importer of Russian oil, seeing a significant increase in imports from Russia since mid-March. ”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) insisted the UK has been “front and center” of the international response to the Russian invasion.
A Government spokesperson said: “We are taking action to completely phase out Russian oil by the end of the year, giving supply chains a short window of time to adjust, with imports of Russian liquid natural gas to follow as soon as possible.”