MOSCOW (MRC) -- A Liberian-flagged oil tanker set sail in May from Russia's Ust-Luga port carrying crude on behalf of a little-known trading company based in Hong Kong. Before the ship had even reached its destination in India, the cargo changed hands, said Reuters.
The new owner of the 100,000 tons of Urals crude carried on the Leopard I was a similarly low-profile outfit, Guron Trading, also based in Hong Kong, according to two trading sources.
The number of little-known trading firms relied on by Moscow to export large volumes of crude exports to Asia has mushroomed in recent months, since sanctions over the Ukraine war led major oil firms and commodity houses to withdraw from business with producers in Russia, reporting by Reuters has found. At least 40 middlemen, including companies with no prior record of involvement in the business, handled Russian oil trading between March and June, according to a Reuters tally after speaking to 10 trading sources, along with analysts from think-tank Kpler, and analyzing data from Refinitiv and the non-public books of shipping companies.
The new players have shipped at least half of Russia’s overall crude and refined products exports of 6-8 million barrels per day (bpd) on average this year, turning the little-known companies collectively into some of the world's largest oil traders, according to Reuters calculations based on private information from the 10 trading sources and Eikon data.
The companies began appearing after Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation, with as many as 30 middlemen involved in trades over the course of last year, according to the tally.
The network marks a major departure from the handful of well-established oil majors such as BP and Shell and top trading houses including Vitol, Glencore, Trafigura and Gunvor that handled Russian crude and oil products for decades.
There is no suggestion the trades break sanctions, although they may make it difficult for sanctions enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States to track Russian oil transactions and prices. Earlier this month, Urals prices jumped above a price cap of $60 a barrel on Russian exports imposed by the Group of Seven nations, Australia and the European Union from Dec. 5 that was intended to punish firms involved in any trade above that level.
When prices are above the cap, the rapidly changing trading network could make it hard to identify those involved in moving the oil, five traders involved in handling Russian oil said. The reporting shows that in May, Russia, one of the world's top three oil producers, supplied record volumes to China and India, which have not imposed sanctions on Moscow and became its leading buyers after sanctions by Europe, the United States and other powers limited their own purchases.
Neither Guron Trading or Bellatrix Energy, the company that originally chartered the Leopard I and bought the cargo from Russian oil company Rosneft, responded to requests for comment. Rosneft did not respond to questions. The websites for Guron Trading and Bellatrix Energy appeared to have been taken down recently. Both were online prior to the companies being contacted by Reuters.
We remind, Russia is considering limiting the number of companies allowed to export oil products in a bid to curb illegal exports of fuel intended for the domestic market. The Kommersant newspaper reported earlier that Russia was looking at creating a list of approved refiners to combat so-called "grey exports" of subsidised domestic fuel.