Red Sea attacks: Shadow fleet shields Russian exports, Western costs rise

Houthi attacks in the Red Sea disrupt trade. “Shadow fleet” carrying Russian oil is likely safe due to unclear ownership. Western tankers rerouting, raising costs and emissions.

While Houthi attacks in the Red Sea disrupt global trade, Russia’s “shadow fleet” of less transparently linked vessels appears relatively unscathed. This creates an uneven playing field, with Western-connected ships facing higher costs and potential targeting, while Russian exports potentially flow more freely.

The recent attacks on the Red Sea by Houthi rebels have thrown a wrench into global trade, forcing shippers to scramble for alternative routes to move goods between China and Europe. While ocean freight remains the primary mode of transport, disruptions have led to a surge in demand for rail routes, particularly through Russia and the “middle corridor” via Kazakhstan.

Experts believe most Russian crude and fuel travel through the “shadow fleet,” vessels with fewer Western ties and less likely to be targeted. “The Houthis seem to focus on ships linked to specific countries,” says oil trader Adi Imsirovic. Vessels can obscure connections by manipulating automatic identification systems (AIS).

A recent Houthi attack on a Russian-origin fuel tanker likely stemmed from its links to Western companies, not the cargo itself. “Other Russian cargoes without these ties face a lower risk,” says analyst Mary Melton.

Despite the attack, four tankers carrying Russian Urals crude have passed through the Red Sea since late January. The flow is expected to continue as long as economic viability and insurance coverage remain attainable, given the strong demand from India and China.

Western tankers are likely to reroute, incurring significant additional costs. Crew fees have doubled, war risk insurance premiums surged, and sailing around Africa adds time and fuel consumption. This could benefit U.S. exports in the long run, making them more competitive compared to costlier European imports.

While the shadow fleet currently protects Russian oil exports, the long-term implications of the Red Sea attacks remain unclear. The Houthis’ targeting strategy and potential escalation of tensions could disrupt this fragile equilibrium and impact global oil trade dynamics.

The Red Sea attacks have exposed the complexities of maritime trade in the region and the potential vulnerabilities of different vessels. While the shadow fleet may offer some protection, the overall impact on trade routes and costs is undeniable. The situation remains fluid, and further developments could significantly impact global energy markets and supply chains.