Condemnations and commitments, asset write-offs, sanctions, and a total realignment of commodity flows. Global Witness looks at which Western companies traded the most Russian oil in the year that Russia waged war on Ukraine.
In the year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the trade of Russian oil has shifted dramatically. Pre-invasion, Western countries accounted for the majority of sea-borne exports from Russia and Western companies were involved in all stages of exploration, extraction, refinement, shipping and trade.
Now flows have realigned with India, China and Turkey as the largest importers of Russian oil. But Global Witness research reveals that Western companies retained a significant stake in the trade, helping Russia export 533 million barrels of oil & oil products since February 24 last year.
Western companies trading Russian oil did not break sanctions by dealing with Russia from the beginning of the war. But those that continued trading chose to cash in on skyrocketing prices caused by the invasion, as a result enabling Putin to build up the Kremlin’s war chest.
With commercially available data, Global Witness analysed the sea-borne exports of Russian-origin crude oil and oil products to the rest of the world. We can see where Russian oil is flowing now – and which companies have profited from the trade.
Top traders of Russian oil
Commercially available data shows that over 1.22 billion barrels of crude oil worth an estimated $97 billion has been exported from Russia via sea since the start of the war. A further 928 million barrels of refined oil products have been exported to the rest of the world since February 24th.
Western trading companies and oil majors still were involved in the trades of a significant volume of Russian oil since the invasion began – trading 533 million barrels of Russian oil, including over 171 million barrels of crude, worth an estimated $14.8 billion, and a further 362 million barrels of refined products. That equates to just under 25% of all the oil Russia exported by sea last year.
The top Western trader of Russian oil, Vitol, helped Russia sell more than 113 million barrels of oil and oil products since the invasion, including crude oil worth an estimated $2.4 billion. The Netherlands-based trader, which counts former U.K. government minister Alan Duncan amongst its senior executives, faced criticism last year, including from an advisor to President Zelenskyy, for increasing its trade from Russian ports in the months following the invasion. In April, under pressure, Vitol condemned the war and said it intended 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’’ and their “current volumes of Russian crude oil and products traded are negligible”.
Gunvor, the second largest Western enabler, helped Russia shift more than 109 million barrels of oil & oil products, including crude oil worth an estimated $772 million. The Cyprus-based trader, founded by sanctioned Russian oligarch Gennady Timchenko, has also condemned the invasion, and said it stopped doing new business in Russia from March 2022. The firm told Global Witness that “all of Gunvor’s trading is performed in strict compliance with all applicable international economic sanctions”.
The list of top traders also includes the supermajors BP, Shell & TotalEnergies.
TotalEnergies, which traded 29 million barrels, condemned “Russia's military aggression against Ukraine” in March, where they also committed to “halt all its purchases of Russian oil and petroleum products as soon as possible”. TotalEnergies told Global Witness that it is “not involved in any trade involving Russian oil and petroleum products since the end of 2022.”
BP, which traded 16 million barrels, described the war in Ukraine as an “act of aggression which is having tragic consequences across the region” in February. BP had written off its shareholding in Russian oil company Rosneft in February 2022 and committed to not enter any new contracts to purchase Russian oil or oil products. BP told Global Witness “cargoes of Russian oil or products lifted by bp in 2022 were in a limited period in the months following the invasion” and were performed to fulfil “pre-existing contractual obligations; these have now ended”.
And Shell, which traded 15 million barrels, condemned the Russian government for “its atrocities in Ukraine” in March while announcing their “intent to withdraw from its involvement in all Russian hydrocarbons”. Contacted for this story, Shell declined to comment.
The collective volume of Russian oil and refined products wound down from May 2022 onwards as these companies made pledges to exclude Russian oil. However, these companies collectively traded between 30 and 40 million barrels of oil and refined products per month until the end of 2022.
Top shippers of Russian oil
While western traders and oil majors backed off from Russian oil later in 2022, Western-owned tankers remained a crucial element in enabling Russia to sell its products. Since the invasion, Western-owned tankers have carried over 897 million barrels of Russian oil and oil products – over 41% of all exported sea-borne Russian fossil fuels.
Of the product carried by Western shipping companies, 83% was carried on Greek-owned tankers. Tankers owned by three Greek shipowners - Economou Group of Companies, Andreas Martinos & family, and Dimitris Prokopiou & family – were the second, third and fifth top shippers of Russian oil and oil products since February 24th. Tankers owned by these shipowners collectively carried 292 million barrels of oil and oil products. Minerva Marine, owned by Andreas Martinos & family, responded to Global Witness by stating “we confirm that all business is conducted always in full compliance with all applicable sanctions laws and regulations”. No other companies owned or associated with these Greek shipowners responded to comment.
What now for Russian oil
One year on, this data shows that despite their statements and pledges in spring 2022, Western traders continued to be deeply involved in Russian oil in the year since the invasion, finding ways to legally trade Russian oil around the world. The money provided to the Russian government from these trades will enable Putin to continue waging his brutal war of aggression. Western enabling of Putin’s war must come to an end.
Trafigura told Global Witness that they “strongly refute the analysis of Global Witness” and they have “terminated all long-term offtake contracts with state-owned Russian producers in advance of European sanctions coming into effect in May 2022 and substantially reduced the volume of petroleum products we purchase from the same date. Since then, we have not purchased Russian origin crude oil and we continue to comply with applicable sanctions.”
Glencore responded to Global Witness by referring us to their two statements made in March last year regarding their Russian business where they “condemn the actions taken by the Russian government against the people of Ukraine” and commit to “not enter into any new trading business in respect of Russian origin commodities unless directed by the relevant government authorities.”
The remaining companies displayed in the chart of top Western traders – MOH, Oil Terminal, Petraco, and Paramount – declined to provide a response when contacted by Global Witness.
***Following publication, Gunvor told us that Mr Timchenko co-founded Gunvor and sold his stake in the company in 2014, prior to being sanctioned, and has had nothing to do with Gunvor since. They also shared their statement that “As international economic sanctions have come into effect, Gunvor has ended trading with relevant Russian counterparties, while performing on remaining contracts which are not yet subject to sanctions.”
This report was updated on 8 March to correct an omission in our analysis of the shipping data workflow. This omission equated to approximately 1/3 of traded volumes. This article reflects those increased figures. As a result, the number of Greek shipowners in the top five shippers of Russian oil has reduced from four to three.
This report was updated on 17 March to include previously omitted data. The omission excluded the attribution of Russian oil shipments to some Western-owned tankers resulting in the volume of Russian oil carried by Western-owned tankers to be underestimated***.