Blood Oil: How Russia’s Shadow fleet launders oil off the coast of Europe

How to #OSINT: It has an end now. Hundreds of so-called Ship-to-Ship oil transfers were organized in a small Gulf in Greece — the Laconian Gulf. Until now. The transfer of crude and other commodities by old-age oil tankers remains dangerous, and facilitates sanctioned trade, so the allegation — cash that Russia uses for its aggression war. It wouldn’t work if the Greek authorities weren’t so “helpful”, aiding Putin’s shadow fleet to greenwash its oil from its origin. A months-long investigation utilized forensic tools. Here is the background on the #OSINT work.

18 min readMay 24, 2024
A complex network of STS Transfers — Over 800 alleged at-sea “connections” that took place in EU waters. By connecting the dots, journalist at SZ verified how Putin’s oil might have flowed since December 2022 (Data source CREA)

Within seven hours, the dozens of ginormous oil tankers were cleared off the Laconian Gulf. “There is a possibility that the Navtex will be extended for a longer period of time beyond June 24”, one Greek government official told Reuters.

What’s here, is great but two years late. It’s here, the Laconian Gulf, in the south-eastern Peloponnese, where the world’s most devious regimes used to rendezvous. Not in person. But with gigantic oil cargo fleets. Iran, and especially Russia, found this spot very cozy. It’s quiet. It’s beautiful. And the Greeks are easy to please. Over the past two years, it became a safe haven and playground for Russian shadow fleet operators. Their oil tankers allegedly performed sanction busting ship to ship transfers (STS).

Especially recently, until the big bust by the Greek Navy, the number of oil smuggling surged. Between January and May 1st, data analytics firm Kpler counted 61 STS. Now it’s the end of the illicit oil trade bonanza? Why now? And will the hiatus last?

The big throw out in a place that used to house dozens of ships loitering at any given time, was caused by measures taken by the Navy: The called it: “international automated service for communication of navigational and meteorological warnings and forecasts, as well as urgent maritime safety information to ships”, short NAVTEX. And of all the people, it is thanks to the Greek government.

The pressure on Greece mounted. Not only took many of these illicit oil trades place right in front of Greek eyes. They were also accommodated with greek tankers that Russia purchased through third parties, shell firms.

Greek was found to “facilitate” these transfers in its Gulf over a long time. It’s the results of several investigations. A wave of international reporting took place in the past months, including one piece by the SZ.

Did it help? The number of STS now drastically slowed. The Greek authorities seem on top of their “naval advisory”. A moment of victory. Yes! But there remains a bitter taste. It should have happened years ago. Meanwhile, the Kreml used the money to finance its war.

Swept clean of oil tankers (red): After (left, 24. May) and before (right, May 1st, 2024)

What Oil Sanction: Status until end of April, 2024

Can Russia afford the war in Ukraine? Some economists think Putin can neither afford to win nor to lose it. Too expensive to rebuild Ukraine, so they claim. But to lead its aggression war, and sustain high military spending — to give the impression the country grows at a several percent GDP growth — Putin needs to sell oil. The oil buys the weapons and fills the defense industry’s factory halls with material and workers. A deadly cycle, that the Kremlin pursues with deadly ignorance.

Set under heavy sanctions by the EU, that selling spree of oil is challenged. Instead of being accommodated openly, it moved “dark” and undercover. Russia’s largest state oil firms manage to keep selling oil. In February, Russia’s monthly fossil fuel export revenues rose again. So, things looking good for the Kremlin, despite the EU trying to stop where possible, so they claim.

If, Russia should probably thank one country more than any other, then it’s Greece. It’s here where, in a quiet Greek Gulf, with the help of brazen maneuvers, Russian oil is being laundered. It’s here where it’s being transshipped from one to the next tanker, that later brings the oil off to refineries around the world. Only, in parts, to end up again in the EU.

After being “cleaned” from its original provenance, the oil can safely be imported to the EU. No one knows or wants to know. And those who do, don’t care or earn so much money, that they intentionally don’t care.

Especially concerning is the risk of an oil spill. A huge spill would spoil hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers of delicate coastline. It’s the short summary of a long investigation by reporters of a Germany newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung. The research used a number of nifty OSINT techniques, worth revealing. This post delves into those, apart, that are probably most interesting for journalists and researchers.

The shadowfleet

“They do it in international waters so they can escape scrutiny”, says Michelle Wiese Bockmann. Bockmann works for Lloyds List, a big analytics firm, that built its own dataset on Russian Shadwofleet tanker vessels. Bockmann and her team applied a number of “factors”, rules if you will, to find out what oil vessels Russia controls and what they would classify as the Russian shadow fleet. At the beginning of 2024 Lloyds tracked some 530 Tankers worldwide that match their criteria. It is not an easy feat to link them to Russia, as the tankers are not directly owned by Russian entities. Instead, they are often owned by shell firms, often based abroad, such as in India.

What is according to Lloyds some 12 percent of the global trading fleet (if not more), are nebulous vessels that can’t be associated with a country or the business of a reputable owner. Data shows this development really well. As the number of tankers that Russian bought from mainly Greek shipping companies, the number of vessels in the “unknown” categories steadily increased:

About a year ago, there were violent jumps in the export volume from Russia’s ports, an expert said. That was immediately after the G7 price cap came into force, explains Robin Brooks from the American research institute Boorking’s Center. The volume of the ships of unknown owners (in black) attributes Brooks to the Russian shadow fleet. Last month (March), 36 million barrels were shipped by them, the third highest value since January 2020. They became more and more powerful over time. (Loading volume per month of cut oil from Russian ports, divided by oil tankers at the location of the owner. In millions of barrels)

The problem is, the tanker ships Russia bought to export his oil to third countries, are old and vulnerable. They may break easily. Experts see a jaw-dropping risk that they might cause a devastating oil spills. As these ships spend so much time in front of the Greek coast, OISNT techniques describe the facts on how dangerous the situation is.

The CLIO: A German vessel in the midst of Russian STS Transfers

On 30st of April, the oil tanker CLIO is on its ways again. According to open records, the vessel is owned by a German company based in Hamburg. Since 2022, it came to the Greek gulf several times. Here it “met” with tankers such as the ECO FLEET, that frequently visited Russian oil ports, since the war started.

The AIS tracking signal allows calculations that suggests who met with whoom. The behaviour of the CLIO notified ship trackers. There it clearyl “met” several times with other tankers in that very spot where the Russian shadow fleet is operating.

How do STS work?

In April, 2023 the 16-year-old CLIO (IMO: 9396660) had just stopped in the Greek Gulf of Laconian. It never crossed the Greek economic zone line, the 12-mile limit zone, data shows. It remained at all times here in international waters. The rendezvous with other tankers didnt last long.

Open Data Vessel Information (link)
CLIO (9396660) In the STS Transfer data, in EU waters: CLIO appears several times and met at least with two other vessels. Insurer was “Assuranceforeningen Gard Norway

A big trunk is being connected to the other vessel at high sea. Then the oil is being pumped. The process can take everything from 12-24 hours to days, depending on how much crude is transferred. There are also support vessels between the tankers, for extra safety, with so-called fenders. In the laconian gulf, those were greek. They help avoid collisions.


Transshipping, at high sea, can be a dangerous maneuver. Spills can happen all the time. It’s one reason why they are typically being done in port. But for Russia, that’s not an option. At-sea STS, transfers should only be done in accordance with trained people and port authorities in presence, one expert says.

In April, the 16-year-old CLIO had just stopped in the Greek Gulf of Laconian. It never crossed the Greek economic zone line, the 12-mile limit zone. It remained at all times here in international waters. The rendezvous with other tankers didn’t last long. Oil that is often illegally sold above the price cap, a sanction enforcing measure set to 60 USD in December 2022.

…Oil tanker A comes from Russia with russian oil…

Frequent visits to Russia, by the oil tanker ECO FLEET

….in Greece, they “meet”. Then oil tanker B takes oil to other places where it can be laundered ….

After meeting with other oiltanker, including Marshal Island flagged ECO FLEET or ship DINAH, a ship is on its way to another port

The company TB Marine Shipmanagement GmbH & Co. KG insists in a statement, it carries out its global activities in accordance with the international laws and regulations and has been shown to adhere to all current and new EU, US and UN sanctions rules.

The Network: AIS Data of hundreds of alleged STS transfers

Since December 2022, the 250m long CLIO tanker allegedly rendezvoused at least six times with other vessels in EU waters. Such meetups are per se not illegal. There is no international law that forbids encountering other vessels in open international waters.

No one would have even noticed, if the CLIO weren’t part of hundreds of a complex network of vessels and several hundreds of such encounters that happened here off the coast of Greece after the start of the War in Ukraine.

Data shows the complex network of encounters. Collected were they by an analytics firm using AIS tracking data since December 2022. The Open Graph Viz Platform software Gephi helped to visualize these connections of transfers.

In gray, dots resemble tanker vessels, connections(in blue) are where ships “met”, allegedly STS oil transfers (analysis tool: Gephi)

Among the Russian shadowfleet, there are so-called mother ships and support vessels. Mother ships resemble kingpin tankers, that meet more frequently and come from Russia. Support vessels span out to other ports across the world, to ship crude to refiners.

Who rendezvous whom the most?

With 17 encounters has the tanker oil tanker AGNES (IMO 9314167) the most rendezvous in the dataset

The 17-year-old AGNES met the most times with other tankers, according to the data: the Most notable partners were the ZELDA (IMO: 9327372), the tanker FOTUO and the KOCATEPE. Latter with its registered owner KOCATEPE SHIPPING LTD, was allegedly involved in the Russian illicit petroleum trade, according to Blacksea News. The AGNES, with its 228-meters, represents the core of this transshipment system.


Another ship that has repeatedly visited the Laconic Gulf is the Aframax oil tanker Turba, which has already played a role in Bloomberg’s reporting (LINK).

Until December 2023 called the Turba, now ROBON, also appears in the data of this investigation. She rendezvoused with the oil tanker TAKMA (IMO 9252333). Now 27 years old (built in 1997), the Turba is one of the oldest and dangerious of Putin’s shadow fleet, and therefore poses a significant risk to the world’s oceans, experts say.

Accidents involving such old oil tankers are no rare sight. One example is the accident of the Prestige, a 26-year-old oil tanker with an unknown owner that sailed from Russia and contaminated 60,000 tons of crude oil off the coast of Spain in November 2002, polluting around 2,300 kilometers of coastal beach (source).

Russia shadow fleet tankers have shown up as having perculiar accidents. Last May, the Gabon -flagged tanker Pablo caught fire off the Malaysian coast.

The Turba: Old and rusty: No shipping engineer needed to see that this ship is at its end of its lifespan

And in October, the engine of the Turba broke down. The Turba has received its last inspection in 2017. And so it happended that last October, the 243 m long vessel simply stranded penniless 300 kilometers off the coast of Indonesia and was no longer operational. Suddently it was the problem of the Indonesian government.

In December, the authorities had to rescue a 23-year-old tanker. For experts is the Turba an established part of the Russian shadow fleet. Data shows it encountered several other vessels in the Laconian Gulf. According to the investigation by Bloomberg, together with the Simba, it applied advanced GPS spoofing techniques to mask its location, to contraband oil.


Like many of the tankers part of the Russian shadow fleet, they have to sail through the Bosporus. So-called shipspotterstake videos or photos from land and record their existence and verify AIS data. On September 23, 2023, the tanker Nargis (IMO 9353125 ) sails on the way to the Laconic Gulf. The Nargis appears at least eight times in the data of the STS transfers.

Like its fellow vessel, the oil tanker ATACAMA (IMO 9248801), the ship was built by the Indian company Gatik Ship Management, allegedly a proxy firm by the Russian state to contraband its crude to other markets. Unlike many of its fellow vessels, did the Atacama not move from Gatik Ship Management to Caishan Ship Management in early 2023, before again
transferring to Unic, so the report by lloydslist.

Filmed while passing through (link)

The ATACAMA, is not a sanctioned entity. Its presence in the Laconian Gulf STS transfers data — present at least 9 times — however, is still deeply concerning. Especially because possible ties to Europe. Allegedly at least once it was insured by Standard P&I Club per Charles Taylor & Co, according to STS transfers data.

In Georgia, the ship caused an outcry. The vessel attracted attention after being spotted entering the Black Sea port of Batumi, Georgia, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara. That the ship entered port in 2022, the deputy Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development Guram Guramishvili did not deny. However, that the vessel was sanctioned, he insisted, was not the case, a piece of disinformation spread by the media.

Connecting the dots: the ATACAMA

As a Russian shadow fleet vessel, the ATACAMA checks all boxes. It’s simply predestined to be part of the core fleet of Russia’s nefarious oil sanction breaching game, a number of sources told, who are familiar with the shipping business.

The 176m long and 31m broad vessel was built in 2003 by the Hyundai Mipo Dockyard Co. Ltd. This is ancient. It changed its flag state time and time again. It frequently traveled between Greece and Russian ports, forth and back. And displays a suspicious behavior. Both AIS data and satellite images confirm that the ship was involved in ship to ship transfers. The now 21-year-old vessel is much older than the age of the average oil tanker. How much older show statistics. For tankers, carrying oil and other liquids the two-decade peak that was just reached, was 12.9 years, according to FT reporting.

Its ownership history shows how the old age vessel ended up in the hands of the Kremlin. In 2022, the Atacama belonged to the company Marine Compass Inc. The manager was the Indian company Gatik Ship Management. Gatik is now well known. It acted as a proxy company for Russian oil exporters.

Many the ships that Gatik once owned, at least 30 ships, have already been resold and are now sailing under new flags. The ship received its new flag in August 2023 . The owner is now Marine Compass in Mumbai, and the manager, Unic Tanker Gemi Isletmediligi AS ., in Izmir, Turkey . The registered owner, according to shipping data, is now Felicia Seaways Company in Greece.

At the beginning of last year the turkish media website Cagdaskocaeli reported that the an inspection team at Kocaeli Metropolitan Municipality in northern Turkey spotted a vessel in the Gulf of Izmit, allegedly polluting the sea. The website showed several images of ATACAMA and claimed the operator was fined more than 30 million turkish lira, 858,762 Euro.

Oil can be seen spattered over the port plattfrom and also in the water, shimmering on the surface.

The IMO number matches that of the vessel in the data

Video here:

Geolocation verification by satellite (google): oil polluting Atacama in the gulf of Izmit (not the same ship, satellite image was taken end of May 2022, incident was beginning of 2022)

OSINT can uncover AIS Spoofing techniques

Spoofing, the act of masking the AIS signal the vessels send out for safety, is said to have occurred too. It is defined as the intentional alteration of one’s own GPS transponder signal.

At the end of September, Bloomberg was able to provide an analysis on the Turba, and how it managed to adjust its AIS signal during an STS transfer maneuver.

No AIS is not per se illegal: It does constitute a breach of SOLAS Annex 17 of the AIS requirements. This is the IMO Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) V/19.2. 4 ships of 300 or 500 tons ( large tonnage ) must have an AIS transponder on board and send a signal.

TankerTrackers co-founder Sam Madani classifies actions of the Russian Shadow Fleet in the Laconic Gulf. Spoofing hasn’t happened that often lately, he said. Russia’s spoofing activities have been reduced in most places. Spoofing would still be used on a large scale in the Black Sea. Regarding oil tankers, Madani says that ships are much more likely to turn off AIS altogether.

That some turm platanly their AIS off isnt hard to validate. Simply compare whats on the tracking platforms and whats on satellite.

Countring vessels on satellite (Sentinel 2, sentinel browser) and noting it down as data in a datasheet

What the analysis showed, that on satellite data, there were frequently more tankers to be seen than AIS records suggested.

The discrepancy for February 9th, 2024, showed up on Vesselfinder ‘s live tracking map with 16 large ships. 26 large ships at a similar time were shown on satellite images. There were approximately 10 pairs of ships in the Gulf.

The Greek tug Othello moved back and forth between the pairs, sailing more slowly as it approached each pair of ships. The AIS signal from Greek passenger ships also gives the impression that crew members were brought to and fro the port in Gytheio. There were other Greek ships doing the same. For experts, a clear sign that the Greek authorities know about the transfers, and are complicit in the illicit ones.

MaritimeInsight wrote in a report that as a rule, ships involved in an STS transfer must seek permission from the relevant port state authority to carry out the transfer.

Madani from TankerTrackers explained that As a rule, tugs are sent from the Greek coast to circle the STS pairs with a boom line to be able to collect spilled oil in the event of an accident: “ If the STS’s were carried out unsupervised in the Mediterranean Sea, this would probably immediately alert Frontex and this would give rise to all sorts of liability cases ,” so Madani.

Tracking ship to ship transfers with big data: Madani shows Windward’s new platform that where STS transfers take place around Greek waters (big thanks to TankerTrackers and Sam Madani) — most took place in the Laconian Gulf off the coast of Greece

Old, rusty, badly in shape

The shadow fleet consists of old and badly maintained tankers. That’s no secret for anyone who takes a look at them. When Russian proxy companies bought the lot of tankers, the ships are ever since often cheaply serviced and checked, one source said. Often this is where they cut corners, simply to save money. Recently shot images of some of the Russian shadow fleet tankers, show how on some the coat of paint was poorly added, so that the old vessels’ names shine through.

Here 2019. below 2023/24 (source: Yörük Işık)
Source: Yörük Işık
Soruce: Yörük Işık

Risk of an oil spill

In April last year, Rolf Thore Roppestad, chief executive at Norway’s Gard, one of the largest ship insurers, warned that thousands of ships without liability took a great risk by performing these STS maneuvers. A social and ecological catastrophe is waiting to happen, he told the Financial Times

How high is the risk that something will go wrong during an STS transfer and trigger an oil catastrophe? It’s difficult to pin down. The fact is, a lot can go wrong. If ships do not more in the port, but transfer crude oil on the high seas. Experts warn of high risks of pollution and a fire risk, according to a report by one outlet. A leak could simply form, especially on the high seas, with waves, wind and weather. In the event of an accident, the crew must be well-trained, experts advise. In the best case, there is equipment for fire fighting. But for that, the operator of a vessel must invest in equipment and to train crew well. It’s unlikely to be the case, on the old vessels part of the shadow fleet.

Fire Fighting and Oil Spill Equipment to be present and crew to be well trained to use them in Emergency. & All Guidelines to be followed as Per Mepc 59, Marpol Annex 1 Chapter 8, Sopep, SMPEP, STS Transfer Guide and Operational Plan (link)

Environmental damage analysis: Air pollution and noise

The tankers cause noise that cause a problem in the picturesque bay. Some protected animal species live in the coast.

Air pollution, emitted by the tankers, is a problem too

Worst case scenario: An oil spill

In a case of an oil spill, the coast would be directly affected (Google Earth)

Cormac McGarry at the company ControlRisk explains that aging tankers pose a high risk, and possible accidents should be taken seriously.

Pictures of the port in Gythion show emergency vessels, that would step in, in the the event of an oil disaster. The Greek authorities are apparently aware of the risk.

Petros Kokkalis, left-wing EU parliamentarians in October last year, placed a request and the EU Commission entitled “Dangerous Operations in the Laconian Golf, a sea protection area”.

Nature 2000 protected area would be affected in the event of an oil spill. And data shows how: In the event of an accident of one tankers, several Several Natura 2000 areas, would be affected. An oil spill would affect at least 200 km of coastline. But a much larger area would be affected by a disaster for years to come.

Protected Natura2000 zones likely to be affected: 4 protective coast zones (Thalassia Zoni Notias Manis (4 habitats, probably birds), Ekvoles Evrota (12 genera), Periochi Neapolis Kai Nisos Elafonisos (5 genera) and Thalassia Periochi Kythiron (1 genus)

Several Sentinel 2 satellite images portray hints of streaks of oil at the water surface in the Gulf.

Similar to the example of Finland, the Russian shadow fleet vessels are insufficiently insured. In the case of an oil catastrophe, none would know or be responsible for to pay up, experts say.

How much would a spill cost

Alex Prezanti from the organization explains how to calculate the possible costs of an oil spill.

“I can only give a very crude estimate because how much an oil spill would cost depends on many factors including the volume of oil; the geographic spread of the slick; the type of marine and coastal environments that it would affect; the time and resources that it would take to clean it up”, he explains. There is also a separate cost in terms of loss of biodiversity and long-term impact on the ecology — so any estimates are purely cost of cleanup.

There are actually very few examples to look at in terms of precedent, and not so many recent ones. The two most relevant examples are the Deepwater Horizon spill, and the FSO Safer operation. In the former case, BP estimates that the cost of cleanup was $61.6 billion USD for 3.19 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Crudely, that works out at about $20,000 USD per barrel of spillage, he says. A UN-commissioned study on the impact of FSO Safer tanker spilling its crude off the coast of Yemen concluded that it would cost $20 billion USD to clean up the 1.1 million barrels of oil in the tanker — which works out at about $18,000 USD per barrel.

The Russian shadow fleet consists of Afromax tankers (750,000 barrel capacity) and Suezmax tankers (1 mil barrel capacity). Based that a full Suezmax tanker spilling its entire crude load would cost in the region of $19 bn USD to clean up. An Afromax tanker spillage would cost around $14.2 bn USD to clean up. Much would depend on how much crude the tanker is actually carrying and how much is actually spilled, as well as where it is spilled, he thinks.

“I suspect that a cleanup operation in the Laconian Gulf would be on the expensive side — given the relative cost of labor, the nature of the coastline and the famously fickle ocean currents”, Alex Prezanti


The risk these old ships bear on the situation for Greece remains underestimated and underreported. Often it is too complex for journalists to explain, next to the sanction breaking behavior, what bearing the shadow fleet has on the environment. For questions on the OSINT techniques used here, get in touch on Twitter/X: @Techjournalisto

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Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice