Russian Naval Drills Practice Guarding Oil Tankers From Possible Western Piracy: Concerns Rise Over Free Navigation

On April 19 the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet launched maritime exercises simulating the defence of oil tankers from potential Western efforts to seize them at sea. This comes amid growing calls in the West for moves to apprehend Russian civilian vessels, much as was previously done to a ship in the English Channel just hours after the outbreak of war in Ukraine. It follows the freezing of Russian assets in western countries and moves to seize the assets of Russian nationals, which are expected to eventually be appropriated by Western countries and not returned. Western navies and particularly the United States have increasingly used their maritime power projection capabilities to appropriate civilian cargo from adversary states as a means of placing pressure on their economies - although this remains highly illegal and has frequently been referred to as piracy.

A notable example was the targeting of Iranian oil tankers under the Donald Trump administration, the oil from which was taken by the United States Navy and subsequently sold with no compensation paid to Iran. Another was the seizure of the North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest by the U.S. Navy which was subsequently sold and the funds appropriated by the United States. The U.S. Naval Institute in 2020 proposed hiring mercenary privateers to target Chinese civilian shipping in a similar way should relations further worsen. Other examples of such Western actions have most often targeted North Korean and Iranian shipping, which have consistently been carried out without legal pretext. The threat to Russia of Western attacks on its civilian shipping in international waters thus remains significant, with drills in East Asia potentially having been mounted in response to intelligence indicating such action was possible. 

According to the Wall Street Journal Russian oil tankers have been sailing radio silent to avoid potential Western action against them, with the country’s largely defensive Navy with relatively few high endurance ships not having a global presence needed to guard its civilian shipping far afield. While under international law maritime commons should be freely accessible, precedents against Iran and North Korea in particular indicate that only a military presence can guarantee ships’ safety from hostile states. The Russian drills in East Asia were led by the destroyer Admiral Panteleyev, an Udaloy Class ship launched in 1988 and displaying 7,500 tons. Destroyers under the Pacific fleet are expected to be prioritised for receipt of new Zicron hypersonic missiles, and are responsible for defending a less enclosed and commercially in many ways more critical area than Russia's other fleets. 

With Russia having redeployed key Air Force assets from its eastern regions to reinforce its western borders with NATO in January, demonstrating an independent air defence capability for the Navy was considered particularly important. The exercises reportedly focused on demonstrating a robust air defence and anti shipping capabilities, and follow prior drills conducted on Russian islands near Japan aimed at both Tokyo and the U.S. Former colonel in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Yue Gang highlighted that Russia’s escort exercises was intended “to show the United States and its allies that the Russian crude oil trade is inviolable,” stressing that “the U.S. seizure of Iranian tankers in the past cannot be repeated on Russia.” With oil prices having risen very significantly since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, and since increased further due to supply issues in Libya, targeting Russian oil exports, although illegal, remains a key potential means for Western powers to redouble their efforts to disrupt the Russian economy.

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