Sanctioned Russian Ships Are Still Doing Business With India

The vessels’ activity highlights the challenge faced by the Biden administration in enforcing Russia sanctions around the world.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Containers are loaded onto a ship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust.
Containers are loaded onto a ship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust.
Containers are loaded onto a ship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust premises in Mumbai, on Jan. 4, 2007. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

At least seven Russian vessels, sanctioned by the United States for their connections to shipping companies with a history of transporting weapons on behalf of the Russian government, have docked in India over the course of the past month, highlighting the challenges the Biden administration faces in enforcing the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the United States and its allies as it seeks to isolate the Kremlin over the invasion of Ukraine in February.

An analysis of the maritime traffic of more than 100 Russian vessels sanctioned by the United States reveals that six cargo ships and at least one oil tanker have docked in India over the past month. Although it is not known what was on board, the vessels were targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department this year for their affiliation with sanctioned Russian shipping companies with a history of transporting arms on behalf of the Russian government.

“These vessels and their owners are repeat offenders that analysts have watched for years,” said Jack Margolin, a program director with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a nonprofit that tracks global illicit networks and sanctions compliance. Margolin provided data on the sanctioned Russian ships to Foreign Policy. “They have histories of supporting both Russia’s sanctions evasion and arms trafficking.”

At least seven Russian vessels, sanctioned by the United States for their connections to shipping companies with a history of transporting weapons on behalf of the Russian government, have docked in India over the course of the past month, highlighting the challenges the Biden administration faces in enforcing the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the United States and its allies as it seeks to isolate the Kremlin over the invasion of Ukraine in February.

An analysis of the maritime traffic of more than 100 Russian vessels sanctioned by the United States reveals that six cargo ships and at least one oil tanker have docked in India over the past month. Although it is not known what was on board, the vessels were targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department this year for their affiliation with sanctioned Russian shipping companies with a history of transporting arms on behalf of the Russian government.

“These vessels and their owners are repeat offenders that analysts have watched for years,” said Jack Margolin, a program director with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a nonprofit that tracks global illicit networks and sanctions compliance. Margolin provided data on the sanctioned Russian ships to Foreign Policy. “They have histories of supporting both Russia’s sanctions evasion and arms trafficking.”

Two of the sanctioned cargo ships, the Adler and the Ascalon, were previously involved in delivering a shipment of S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia to China in 2018 while operating under different names, according to an investigation by the independent Russian news site Meduza. A second vessel, the Maia 1, which called at the port of Cochin, is reported to have been shipping military equipment. The oil tanker, the Inda, has previously been accused of transporting Iranian crude oil by U.S.-based advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran.

“Networks like these will continue to be a lifeline for Russia and its war effort so long as they can seize on gaps in enforcement,” Margolin said.

India’s dealings with sanctioned Russian vessels are not a direct violation of U.S. sanctions, which only prevent U.S. citizens and entities from dealing with blacklisted Russian companies. But it could leave India exposed to secondary sanctions for dealing with sanctioned Russian entities, said Daniel Fried, a retired career diplomat who served as the U.S. State Department’s coordinator for sanctions during Russia’s first assault on Ukraine in 2014. “In a sanctions regime as broad and extensive as that which we have on Russia, enforcement is going to be critical,” he said. 

Spokespeople for the U.S. National Security Council, Treasury Department, and Embassy of India in Washington did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

India’s continued trade with Russia has placed the Biden administration in a bind, as it seeks to cajole India, one of the world’s largest economies, to tamp down its arms and oil purchases from Moscow without alienating New Delhi, which is central to the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, including a revitalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue alliance alongside Japan and Australia. In March, U.S. President Joe Biden’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Daleep Singh, warned on a trip to India that there would be “consequences” for countries that seek to skirt U.S. sanctions on Russia while the U.S. consulate in Mumbai wrote to the city’s port authority in June asking it to block entry to Russian vessels. 

“I know that the administration for a couple of months has been cautioning countries quietly, including India I believe, to avoid providing material support to sanctioned Russian entities,” said Fried. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presented a dilemma for New Delhi, which abstained from the United Nations General Assembly vote condemning the attack in early March, and has long maintained a position of strategic autonomy. Some 85 percent of India’s military equipment is of Russian or Soviet origin, and the country has leaned on Moscow for the procurement and development of cutting-edge technologies, including air defense, supersonic cruise missiles, and naval nuclear propulsion, according to analysis by the Stimson Center. 

“[India] has long seen Russia as a loyal and potentially trustworthy friend that has gone to bat for India on the global stage,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center. 

Although Europe and the United States have sought to wean their economies off of Russian energy, in a bid to cut off one of the Kremlin’s most lucrative revenue streams, India’s imports of Russian crude oil surged by almost 300 percent between January and April of this year, with coal imports increasing by 345 percent over the same period. Still, Russia accounts for a fraction of India’s oil imports, and the subcontinent’s reliance on Russian energy pales in comparison to Europe’s energy dependence on Moscow.

While Moscow has vowed for years to pivot to Asian economies to shield itself from Western sanctions, it’s a strategy that experts say has its limits. An analysis of calls to Asian ports by Russian-flagged vessels between March and July of this year, provided to Foreign Policy by the global maritime analytics provider MarineTraffic, reveals a slight dip in the number of stopovers made compared to the same period last year. The exception is India, which saw an almost four-fold increase in traffic from Russian-flagged vessels.

“New Delhi has sought to project its decision to continue to trade with Russia as a purely economic decision, nothing less, nothing more,” Kugelman said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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