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The US-led price cap on Russia’s oil sales is being almost completely circumvented, according to western officials and Russian export data, forcing countries to explore ways to reinforce one of their key economic sanctions against Moscow.
One senior European government official said “almost none” of the shipments of seaborne crude in October were executed below the $60-a-barrel limit that the G7 and its allies have attempted to impose.
“The latest data makes the case that we’re going to have to toughen up . . . there’s absolutely no appetite for letting Russia just keep doing this,” the official said.
EU officials have held discussions in recent days on reinforcing the cap, including options for strengthening enforcement or clamping down on Russia’s access to the used oil tanker market.
Concerns among western officials are backed up by official Russian statistics on oil sales in October, which Moscow says shows the average price received was above $80 a barrel. While Russian economic statistics have been questioned during the war, the level recorded is the basis for how much Moscow taxes oil exports.
The jump in Russian prices has dealt a blow to G7 efforts to limit the funds flowing to the Kremlin to fund its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and comes as Kyiv has made only limited progress in its counteroffensive.
G7 members and Australia introduced the price cap measures for crude oil last December, aiming to squeeze Russia’s revenues by cutting off access to western services like shipping and insurance unless traders abided by the $60 limit.
The average price of Urals, Russia’s main export grade, moved above the $60 limit this summer as oil prices rallied due to supply cuts by Saudi Arabia and Moscow with the wider Opec+ cartel, but a substantial portion continued to trade below that level.
But by late September the FT reported that almost three-quarters of all seaborne Russian crude flows travelled without western insurance in August, a key sign that more were starting to circumvent the cap.
In October, only 37 of the 134 vessels that shipped Russian oil held western insurance and officials say the number operating below the cap is now likely to be much lower.
European officials are concerned that some western insurance providers have been given false declarations from Russian oil companies or traders, which must provide written assurances the crude is priced below $60. One mechanism by which this has been achieved previously is by inflating shipping costs.
Western officials say they remain committed to the price cap, even as they acknowledge few barrels still trade below it.
A US Treasury official said the goal was not just an effort to “make as many barrels of oil as possible travel under the cap”, but also “to change Russia’s incentives in a way that makes it make hard choices”. Shifting to selling oil largely without western insurance and shipping has caused “great cost” to the Kremlin.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management who has advised the US Treasury on the price cap, said longer journeys for Russian oil tankers, higher insurance premiums, additions to port capacity and new capital expenditures had added about $36 a barrel to the cost of Russian oil sales, limiting Moscow’s profits.
G7 members have already started to step up enforcement of the cap. Last week the UK sanctioned Paramount Energy & Commodities DMCC, a Dubai-based trader, saying it had been “used by Russia to soften the blow of oil-related sanctions”.
The US Treasury department this month requested information from 30 ship management companies about 98 vessels it suspects of violating the cap, a person familiar with the matter said. The request was first reported by Reuters.
Of the 30 ship management companies contacted, 17 of them were in G7 price-cap coalition countries. Six were in the UAE, with others in India, Turkey, China, Hong Kong and Indonesia, a person familiar with the matter said.
The price Russia is getting for its oil is still below Brent, the crude benchmark which averaged $89 a barrel in October.
But Russia has been able to reduce the discount offered on its oil from as much as $40 a barrel earlier this year to less than $10 a barrel last month.
The price cap was designed to keep Russian crude flowing in global markets, as G7 members tried to avoid a supply crunch and price spike that would benefit Moscow.
Western policymakers facing elections are also keen to keep prices in check to help tame inflation. US President Joe Biden, who faces a probable re-election battle against former president Donald Trump next year, has vowed to try and keep pump prices down in the world’s largest oil consuming country.
Russia has also placed restrictions on exports of refined fuels, blaming domestic shortages but raising fears Moscow could weaponise oil supplies.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels and Ian Johnston in London