A guide to Russian merchant shipping vessels
We think this subject is interesting and important because it reveals more accurately than any electronic data or physical documents what Russia is shipping out to the world. This in turn reveals more about her strategic geopolitical priorities.
Russia has a massive merchant shipping fleet - one of the biggest in the world. The reason for this is that she is the world's biggest country by geographical territory and she also has one of the world's most comprehensive interconnected internal waterways. Movement of goods and resources by river was always a better bet in Russia than the use of non-existent roads across sub-arctic tundra (Russia must have more settlements unconnected by road than any other country in the world), and railways, that on the whole are mostly used to move people and military equipment. Russian rivers are and always have been the way to move goods around the CIS.
Now there are several things you need to know about international shipping of goods from Russia.
The ports and berths in Russia are distinctive and not necessarily compatible with equivalent ports and berths in western Europe (a bit like the railway lines in the former Soviet Union, that are of a different gauge to railway lines in central and western Europe). Soviet ports and berths may slope at near-45 degree angles, something that Soviet vessels can use but western vessels cannot. It follows that western vessels cannot use Russian rivers. But Russian / Soviet vessels can use (more) western ports and berths and in particular those in central Europe, such as in the former Yugoslavia and in countries such as Hungary (a Danube riparian).
Almost all vessels designed to ply Russian rivers are owned by the governments of the CIS member states. They may be owned through complex networks of shell companies; but they are virtually all of them state owned.
The way to tell which state owns them is to look at the flag they fly on Russian rivers and associated river networks. There is an informal rule that on Russian rivers, vessels must fly the flag of their state owners. Whereas outside Russian rivers and associated waterways, they can fly any flags they like.
From the foregoing it already follows that document fraud relating to CIS river vessels is endemic, if they feel free to change the flags routinely depending on the voyage.
Indeed document fraud is more than endemic on vessels plying Russian rivers and associated waterways; it is virtually 100 per cent, as forged and fraudulent bills of lading, charter parties, certificates of quality, certificates of origin and other shipping documents are routinely forged in order to get around various western sanctions.
So for example, Iranian hydrocarbons have often been traditionally mixed with Russian hydrocarbons, and shipped under bills of lading that conceal the Iranian origins of part or the cargo, in order to get around Iranian sanctions and western banks' prohibitions on trade finance for Iranian origin cargoes.
Given the colossal range of sanctions the West has recently imposed upon Russia, this tradition of shipping document forgery, and in particular providing trade finance documents from Russian banks where the bank is not actually financing anything, in order to be able to obtain vessel and cargo insurance on the international markets, is a modus operandi likely to continue or even be amplified.
Russian and CIS shipping is dominated by what are called 'river-sea vessels', sturdy but primitive merchant shipping vessels that can operate both in rivers (including during Russian winters, where they may need to serve virtually as ice breakers) and in associated seas such as the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
A good example is the Volgadonmax class, a series of vessels able to transit the Volga-Don canal that connects the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov via the Volga and Don rivers. These vessels are as narrow as the canal and and as long as the canal's shortest lock. They are very distinctive. (The photo that heads this article is of such a vessel.)
In practice most legitimate (or even partially legitimate) Russian cargos are trans-shipped at sea to ocean-going vessels in the Sea of Azov or close to the straits of Kerch in Crimea, for onward global transactions. Given the consistently cheap market rates of freight (the price for a voyage charter of a vessel from one destination to another) over the last few years, Russian hydrocarbon sales by sea can be reasonably profitable even to east China ports using Azov transhipment.
Hence if you see a Russian riversea vessel ploughing a European waterway, there is most likely something dodgy going on. The journey from Azov to Danube may be over two weeks in a Russian riversea vessel; it makes no sense to take such vessels out of the Russian waterways system (via the Black Sea to the Danube and/or via the Bosphorous and the Mediterranean) unless the process of Azov transhipment would reveal impropriety or render some very specific voyage (e.g. Danube cargos) unviable
A person familiar with Russian rivers shipping documents (and there are not so many of those outside Russia and without a financial incentive to keep their knowledge secret) can take an educated guess, from the nature and content of the forgeries, what is really going on.
Otherwise, the only way to work it out, given the capacity of Russian vessels to change flags, promptly scrub serial numbers and names, give misleading and incomplete vessel and cargo information to Marine Traffic organisations, and carry multiple inconsistent shipping documents for different fraudulent purposes, is to board the vessel with experts and test what they are carrying, for example by taking hydrocarbon samples and testing for sulfur content in all the vessel's chambers. (Not just the first one that the vessel's Master suggests.) Obviously this is an intrusive process and it requires substantial skill, potentially plus an element of surprise, to get it right.
One needs to have a good eye for the distinctive appearances of Russian riversea vessels on European waterways.
The large number of totally (or virtually) empty passenger cruise ships of designs consistent with Russian rivers dimensions, ploughing the Danube, is a particular mystery. It is hard even to take a guess as to what their true cargoes are: perhaps people of a certain kind, perhaps something else entirely.
A motor tanker (riversea class) at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, carrying likely Donbas coal to Republika Srpska, part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.