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Russian oil tankers go dark, evading name-and-shame Twitter bot

Activists from the environmental organization Greenpeace demonstrate in the Baltic Sea in front of a ship carrying Russian oil on March 23, 2022.
Enlarge / Activists from the environmental organization Greenpeace demonstrate in the Baltic Sea in front of a ship carrying Russian oil on March 23, 2022.

Frank Molter/picture alliance

First there was the Russian oligarch jet tracker; then there was the Russian oligarch yacht tracker; now there’s the Russian oil tanker tracker.

The new tool comes from data scientists at Greenpeace UK, who created an automated bot that draws from public data to tweet about the movements of oil and gas tankers leaving Russian ports. The goal, Greenpeace says, is to cut off one of Russia’s main revenue sources that’s helping fuel President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Russia draws considerable revenue from oil and gas—about 40 percent of its federal budget relies on fossil fuel royalties—which means that tankers fulfilling contracts are essentially contributing to Russia’s war machine. By tweeting the origin, identity, and destination of tankers that have docked at Russian ports, Greenpeace is hoping to shame companies and countries into shunning oil and gas purchases from the country.

“That’s a really important hypocrisy to highlight politically,” Georgia Whitaker, an oil campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told Protocol. “Politicians are saying all the right things, but they’re not necessarily putting that into action.”

Greenpeace claims that activists have already diverted a tanker that was headed for Sweden.

To be fair, none of the shipments is illegal yet. The Twitter bot soft-launched on March 11, just days after President Joe Biden announced an executive order banning imports of Russian oil and gas and the same day Australia announced it would do the same. With the executive order, the Biden administration banned new contracts effective immediately and gave existing orders 45 days to complete delivery. The UK government said it will also phase out the purchase of Russian fossil fuels, but it’s giving buyers until the end of the year to wind things down. No EU countries have enacted bans on Russian oil or gas.

Using public data

But the bot does give unprecedented transparency to an industry that tends to operate out of public view. The @RUTankerTracker bot uses data from MarineTraffic, the shipping equivalent of a flight-tracking website. The site uses the automated identification system (AIS) that all large ships (greater than 300 tons) or passenger ships are required to use. 

AIS is intended as a navigational aid to supplement radar. Ships broadcast their GPS-determined locations on VHF frequencies. Other vessels within about a 23-mile radius can pick up the signals and plot them relative to themselves and other ships in the area. AIS can also broadcast other sensor data, including rate of turn, pitch and roll, and so on. Greenpeace data scientists also use financial data sources like Bloomberg and Refinitiv to help suss out a vessel’s cargo and destination.

By drawing on all that data, the tracker can determine which ships have docked at Russian ports, announce updates to their routes, and disclose where they’re headed based on their reported destination. 

Still, even with all that data, the tracker comes with a disclaimer: tracking oil tankers is harder than tracking airplanes. Sometimes those routes change, though, for a variety of reasons—ships may change destinations depending on the price of oil or gas, or they may have left port without a destination in the first place. “We did this work as a rapid reaction to the attack upon Ukraine,” Greenpeace said in a pinned tweet. “[O]ur bot isn’t perfect and neither are we, but at least we didn’t illegally invade someone else’s country.”

Running dark

The tanker bot faces a new challenge, though, one that governments enforcing sanctions will also struggle to surmount. Windward, an Israeli maritime risk consultancy, says that at least 33 Russian tankers turned off their AIS transponders last week, twice the average rate over the past year, according to a Bloomberg report. Most “dark” operations occurred near Russian shores. In some cases, Windward followed ships as they loitered next to other tankers for a few hours, potentially transferring oil from one to the other.

This behavior isn’t new. A few years ago, Russian ships were caught turning off their transponders to deliver oil to Syria, the US Treasury Department said: “[V]essels carrying petroleum to Syria have been known to disable their AIS transponders to mask their movements.”

International maritime law requires tankers and other commercial vessels to keep their transponders on while at sea, and while that may not prevent captains or owners intent on breaking the law, it does help narrow the search for ships participating in illicit activities. “There’s no reason why they should have their AIS turned off,” Windward’s Gur Sender told Bloomberg.

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