Turkey has become Europe’s wide-open back door for Russian oil, with Turkish refineries and big oil traders maintaining the flow of crude and diesel around the EU’s embargoes. Even as countries implement sanctions that Ukraine hopes will reduce revenues to the Kremlin, Global Witness research reveals how Russian crude is taken from ports in the Baltic and the Black Sea to Turkish refineries, before being refined & imported into the EU by major traders. Those include Shell and Vitol, which have sworn off Russian oil.

Turkey imported Russian oil before the war, and it exported diesel to Europe too. But since the war made Russian oil comparatively cheap, Turkish refiners, under no legal restriction themselves, brazenly stepped up Russian crude imports. Even as Russia committed growing numbers of war crimes against the Ukrainian people, this trade continued to expand.

Analysis of data from Kpler, a commodity tracker, shows that in 2022 Turkey imported 143 million barrels of crude from Russia, a 50% increase from 2021. One refinery dominated that trade – the STAR refinery in Aliaga, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Owned by SOCAR Turkey Energy, the Turkish arm of State Oil Co. of Azerbaijan, STAR took more than 60 million barrels of crude from Russia in 2022, totalling more than 73% of its imports last year.

Finally, as of December, it became illegal to import Russian crude into the EU, and as of this February, Russian diesel imports also became illegal. As European embargoes loomed on the horizon, oil analysts noted a decrease in Turkish imports from Russia. And in early December, a source told Reuters that the SOCAR refinery was ‘’reviewing the situation in order to remain compliant with Western sanctions’’.

But Global Witness research shows that these bans are failing to quash Turkey’s appetite for Russian crude. This January, Turkey imported more than 10.1 million barrels of crude from Russia. The STAR refinery seems to have concluded its review, itself importing 3.2 million barrels of crude from Russia in January.   

The EU responded in kind, snaffling up 5 million barrels of refined products from Turkey since its own Russian oil embargo came in. The bulk of that, more than 3 million barrels, came from the STAR refinery. Indeed, of the 27 million barrels of refined products that the EU imported from Turkey last year, a full 20 million came from refineries awash with Russian crude – from STAR, but also the Tupras refineries in Izmit & Aliaga, which ran respectively on 59% and 33% Russian-origin crude last year. STAR alone sold 17 million barrels of refined products into the European Union in 2022. To put it bluntly, a large portion of that diesel originated in Russia, and helped fund the war. 

The players involved in this controversial route of the trade are familiar. Shell, the British oil major, which in March announced its ‘’intent to withdraw from its involvement in all Russian hydrocarbons… including crude oil & petroleum products’’, imported more than 600,000 barrels of refined products into the Netherlands from Turkish refineries running on Russian oil since the embargo came in. On a recently updated FAQ page, Shell says that it ‘’does not currently exclude purchasing products that have been refined from Russian crude … in third countries’’.

And Vitol, the largest private oil trader in the world, which counts former Tory foreign office minister Alan Duncan among its executives, brought 900,000 barrels into Latvia from the STAR and Tupras Izmit refineries since December 5. In April, Vitol told the Financial Times that it would not ‘’enter into any new Russian oil transactions and intends to cease trading Russian origin crude oil and product”. Vitol told Global Witness that it trades ‘’in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations’’.

In its role as a refining hub for Russian oil on the EU’s borders, Turkey is undermining efforts to cut off the Kremlin’s cashflow, but also showing up systemic weaknesses in Western sanctions. Europe’s rules ban the direct import of Russian oil and refined products. But these rules have an explicit loophole built in – the so-called ‘substantial transformation’, or refining loophole. Nearly one year after Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, it’s legal to import 100% Russian-origin diesel or petrol into Europe, so long as it was refined in a third country.  The refining loophole is making it painfully clear that these rules never prioritised keeping Russian oil out, instead placing a premium on the global flow of fossil fuels. 

This loophole is mirrored in the US and UK sanctions regime and reflects a thorny policy problem. Crudes of different origin are often blended at refineries, making it essentially impossible to say where any given barrel of diesel came from. What’s more, Russia won’t see additional tax revenues from the diesel sales, since it already collected them from the original crude cargo.

But if the West keeps buying Russian derived refined products, there’s no incentive for refineries around the world to stop importing Russian crude. Which means that instead of Western embargoes shutting down Russian production, some of that trade can simply be rerouted, as Russian oil simply takes a less convenient route to Western forecourts. 

Western countries clearly have limited leverage over Turkey’s domestic policies, and the Erdoğan regime has shown no willingness to cooperate on sanctions against Russia. It will continue mainlining Russian crude until it is uneconomical to do so, regardless of the impact on the war in Ukraine.

This is where the West does have leverage. A massive 63% of the STAR refinery’s exports were to the EU or United States in 2022. Europe and the United States should institute a ban on imports from refineries that run on Russian crude – and if those refineries want to continue selling to some of their biggest customers, they will adapt and shun Russia’s blood oil.

This would at once incentivise refineries around the world to stop buying Russian oil, and further extricate Europe and the US from complicity with the war. But as with all questions surrounding Russia’s energy weapon, it will come down to priorities. We can choose, as we have done so far, to prioritise the flow of fossil fuels and business as usual. Or, faced with a spiralling climate crisis and proliferating fossil-fuelled war crimes, we can choose to prioritise the energy transition, renewables, and an end to the war.

STAR Refinery & Tupras did not respond to requests for comment from Global Witness