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Sanction-Busting Russian Ships Are Going Under the Radar

Russia is messing with the location system that tracks global shipping.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Russians attend the launch ceremony of a Russian ship.
Russians attend the launch ceremony of a Russian ship.
Russians attend the launch ceremony of a nuclear-powered ice-breaker at the Baltic shipyard in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Nov. 22, 2020. Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

Wherever there are sanctions on trade, there will be smugglers, and Western restrictions on Russia are no exception. But in a world where every ship can be tracked from the heavens, smuggling takes on different—and surprisingly dangerous—forms. Some commercial vessels have begun disguising their travel by manipulating their automatic identification system (AIS) navigation software, the global shipping tracking setup that helps vessels avoid collisions, delays, and other risks. And Russian navy vessels, in turn, have been jamming other ships’ AIS. Such location manipulation clearly subverts the sanctions. Even more alarmingly, it puts other ships in danger. But the more the West’s sanctions bite, the more Russia is likely to adopt the techniques already pioneered by veteran sanctions-buster North Korea.

Take the Kapitan Schemilkin, a Russian-flagged vessel, that was located in the Black Sea at position 44° 46’ 09.2” N, 036° 50’ 28.3” E, as the ship-traffic site Marinetraffic.com reported on Dec. 10. The Russian-flagged oil tanker had departed from Istanbul on Dec. 4 and was sailing at 4.2 knots in a northwest direction, headed for the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, where it was expected to arrive on Dec. 6. It has not yet arrived at its supposed destination. Maritime intelligence sites often upload vessels’ data with some delay, but the Kapitan Schemilkin still traversing the Black Sea a week after its expected arrival date seemed odd.

There’s a likely answer to the Kapitan Schemilkin’s whereabouts: The tanker has been manipulating its automatic identification system. The AIS is a location transmission system used by commercial vessels to ensure that other vessels know where they are. For the past two decades, it has been mandatory for all tankers and passenger ships above 150 gross tonnage, for all vessels of more than 300 gross tonnage sailing between countries, and for all vessels above 500 gross tonnage sailing domestically. In practice, all commercial cargo and passenger vessels must use an AIS.

Wherever there are sanctions on trade, there will be smugglers, and Western restrictions on Russia are no exception. But in a world where every ship can be tracked from the heavens, smuggling takes on different—and surprisingly dangerous—forms. Some commercial vessels have begun disguising their travel by manipulating their automatic identification system (AIS) navigation software, the global shipping tracking setup that helps vessels avoid collisions, delays, and other risks. And Russian navy vessels, in turn, have been jamming other ships’ AIS. Such location manipulation clearly subverts the sanctions. Even more alarmingly, it puts other ships in danger. But the more the West’s sanctions bite, the more Russia is likely to adopt the techniques already pioneered by veteran sanctions-buster North Korea.

Take the Kapitan Schemilkin, a Russian-flagged vessel, that was located in the Black Sea at position 44° 46’ 09.2” N, 036° 50’ 28.3” E, as the ship-traffic site Marinetraffic.com reported on Dec. 10. The Russian-flagged oil tanker had departed from Istanbul on Dec. 4 and was sailing at 4.2 knots in a northwest direction, headed for the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, where it was expected to arrive on Dec. 6. It has not yet arrived at its supposed destination. Maritime intelligence sites often upload vessels’ data with some delay, but the Kapitan Schemilkin still traversing the Black Sea a week after its expected arrival date seemed odd.

There’s a likely answer to the Kapitan Schemilkin’s whereabouts: The tanker has been manipulating its automatic identification system. The AIS is a location transmission system used by commercial vessels to ensure that other vessels know where they are. For the past two decades, it has been mandatory for all tankers and passenger ships above 150 gross tonnage, for all vessels of more than 300 gross tonnage sailing between countries, and for all vessels above 500 gross tonnage sailing domestically. In practice, all commercial cargo and passenger vessels must use an AIS.

The system also helps authorities keep better track of vessels in their waters; in fact, the AIS has its origins in the Exxon Valdez’s catastrophic oil spill off the coast of Alaska, which convinced the U.S. Coast Guard it needed better tracking capabilities. Since then, the AIS has become an indispensable source of knowledge for shipping crews, shipping companies, maritime-intelligence firms, and (of course) government authorities. Marinetraffic.com’s business, the premier shipping tracking site, relies on vessels’ AIS signals.

But ships may not want their location to be known. Such dark voyages are taking place along the naval route from Iran to the Caspian Sea, where AIS gaps have been abnormally high over the past couple of months. While AIS gaps can appear as a result of bad weather or poor coverage, repeated gaps over the same journey suggest the ship has something to hide—in this case, most likely arms deliveries to Russia. Dark ships pose a considerable safety risk for the obvious reason that other ships can only see them through binoculars or when they’re very close.

Some ships, though, go one step further and manipulate their AIS, and that’s what the Kapitan Schemilkin appears to be doing. This month, Global Fishing Watch—a nongovernmental organization that uses satellite imagery to monitor harmful fishing practices—reported that the Kapitan Schemilkin’s AIS-transmitted movements this year didn’t match satellite imagery of the tanker’s journeys. Between January and August, the vessel was missing from six locations indicated by its AIS transmissions.

North Korea, a seasoned expert in sanctions-flouting, has long received desired goods on vessels that either turn off their AIS or manipulate it. “On a normal ship, the AIS is programmed to transmit the details of that vessel using its MMSI [maritime mobile service identity], a code that’s associated with the vessel,” said James Byrne, a longtime analyst of North Korea’s illegal logistics network who directs the Royal United Services Institute’s Open-Source Intelligence and Analysis program. “The North Koreans have been sailing with false identifiers. Since you can’t easily reprogram the transponders, the North Koreans have two or three and switch between them. And since they transmit on different MMSIs, observers can’t figure out that it’s different transponders but the same vessel.”

Since not even sanctions-flouting captains want to risk accidental collisions, even ships that can alter their AIS transmit correct signals when traveling through busy waterways like the English Channel or the Strait of Hormuz. “Ships not using correct AIS in busy waterways by definition increase the risk of collision, and in busy waters, other vessels and the Coast Guard would be able to see from the bridge whether the AIS of the vessel in front of them was transmitting a location somewhere completely different,” Cormac McGarry, a maritime analyst at Control Risks, told FP. “But in less busy waters, they can start disguising their location again.” That will once again throw sanctions observers off their trail.

Now that Russia has firmly parked itself in the international pariah corner, even as it depends on global imports and exports, it’s likely that it will adopt some of North Korea’s well-established practices. Indeed, Byrne told FP, North Korea’s maritime subversion doesn’t stop at AIS deception: “They’ll scrap an old vessel but keep it registered with the [International Maritime Organization] (IMO). Then they have a sanctions vessel adopt that old vessel’s name and IMO registration number. It will transmit under the old vessel’s identity. It’s like undercover spies taking the identity of a deceased person.”

Russian naval vessels, meanwhile, have taken to interfering with other ships’ AIS, which also contains a GPS portion. In June 2021, a Russian navy ship manipulated the AIS of a British and a Dutch naval vessel to make it appear that it was close to Sevastopol in Russian-annexed Crimea when it was, in fact, in Odesa, Ukraine. In the Baltic Sea, Russia interfered with Swedish navy vessels’ AIS, making it look like they too were close to the Russian coast. And in 2017, crews on more than 20 commercial vessels traveling in the Black Sea suddenly discovered AIS locations being nowhere near where they knew their vessels to be. One ship was shown as being at an airport.

An AIS-interfering country could provoke a diplomatic incident or even a war by showing another country’s naval vessels or commercial ships to be at an inappropriate location. That’s what appears to have happened to the Stena Impero, the Swedish-owned, U.K.-flagged tanker that was seized by Iranian commandos in the Strait of Hormuz shortly after Britain seized an Iranian vessel suspected of sanctions violations. In a subsequent investigation, Lloyd’s List Intelligence found that the GPS location contained in the Stena Impero’s AIS had likely been manipulated. That meant that GPS falsely showed the tanker to be in Iranian waters, which allowed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to seize her.

Global shipping thus faces the twin scourge of Russian civilian ships manipulating their own AIS and Russian naval vessels manipulating others’ AIS. “If the interference comes from a sovereign power, there is little that can be done by vessels other than to be aware and cautious,” said Neil Roberts, secretary of the Joint War Committee, a maritime insurance industry risk assessment body. There’s simply no international outfit that can force Russia nor North Korea (nor any other country) into good maritime behavior.

AIS manipulation matters not just because it undermines sanctions but because it creates real risks on the high seas. A collision between a rule-abiding ship and one with a falsified location could have severe consequences. Crews would need to be rescued, including from the manipulated ship. The damaged ship would need to be towed and repaired. Cargo that might have fallen into the water would need to be retrieved to the extent possible. If there was an oil spill, then national authorities would need to avert an environmental disaster. Fortunately, large vessels are harder to disguise than smaller ones—but even a smaller collision would be disastrous

The more sanctions Western governments impose, the more the manipulated fleet—now including the Kapitan Schemilkin—will grow. “I’m sure the Russians will start using some of the same practices as North Korea,” Byrne said. “This stuff is big business.”

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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