Fuelling war — how European ships keep Russia’s economy afloat

Credit: Alexia Barakou

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February, Europe has been trying to figure out a way to gain leverage over Vladimir Putin and help end the unprovoked conflict. But the undertaking is neither easy or clear-cut. 

For years, the bloc has been dependent on Russia’s diverse import goods, especially fossil fuels. In 2021, Russia benefited to the tune of €400 billion from EU purchases of its energy.

Despite cutting off some of its financial, scientific and trade ties with the country and plans for more sanctions, Europe’s road towards winning a significant strategic advance over Russia is still long. It is paved with conflicting state and private interests — including those involved in the shipping industry. 

Investigate Europe, in collaboration with Reporters United, has examined how shipping firms continue to transport millions of tonnes of fossil fuels from Russia, in spite of the ongoing war and looming embargoes. European vessels have exported more than half of all fossil fuel shipments from Russia internationally since the invasion of Ukraine started. Our new series goes behind the data to detail the extent of these Europe-Russia shipping trades.

We analysed various public datasets, including from CREA, MarineTraffic, Equasis and several other sources. We followed shipments, tracked imports and studied vessel routes to identify the shippers trading with Putin’s Russia. Dive into this investigation through our in-depth data crunch and interactive visualisations

But who exactly runs the companies that still ship fossil fuels from Putin’s Russia? Take a closer look at the media moguls, football club owners and family dynasties who have continued to trade with Russia despite the country’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. And for a local perspective on how deals like this play out on Europe’s shores, follow a visual reportage from Milazzo, an ancient Italian port town at the centre of the global fossil fuel industry.

An eighth round of sanctions against the Kremlin was adopted in October, and the EU confirmed plans to introduce a price cap on Russian oil exports. It is the latest measure aimed at reducing revenues going to the country. Some fear the proposal is unworkable, while new Investigate Europe and Reporters United analysis estimates that many European firms will still be able to continue their trades from Russia once the sanctions are enacted.

And while Europe’s trade in Russian fossil fuels is on the decline, another power source has continuously avoided sanctions: nuclear. In the October round of sanctions, nuclear energy and the uranium sector were notably absent.

Sanctions are intended to curtail money flowing into Russia, but their consequences will also be acutely felt much closer to home. See the brief explainer article where we take a closer look at the sanctions and the possible impact they will have on Europeans. 

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