UK ‘helping Russia pay for its war on Ukraine’ via loophole on refined oil imports | Fossil fuels

The UK has been accused of “helping Russia pay for its war on Ukraine” by continuing to import record amounts of refined oil from countries processing Kremlin fossil fuels.

Government data analysed by the environmental news site Desmog shows that imports of refined oil from India, China and Turkey amounted to £2.2bn in 2023, the same record value as the previous year, up from £434.2m in 2021.

Russia is the largest crude oil supplier to India and China, while Turkey has become one of the biggest importers of Russian oil since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

This comes as Russia is increasingly targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, with only a few major power plants not yet damaged or destroyed. UK politicians have been lobbying the US to approve £60bn in military aid for Ukraine, which finally passed on 20 April. The UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, has been advocating for frozen Russian assets to be deployed to Ukraine’s war effort.

In response to the 2022 invasion, allies of Ukraine pledged to divest from Russian oil and gas. The UK officially banned the import of Russian oil products from 5 December 2022. However, a loophole in the legislation has allowed Russian oil to continue to flow into the UK.

As long as Russian oil is refined in another country it is no longer considered to have originated in Russia, allowing it to evade the trade ban. As a result, Russian oil is being sold to allied countries for processing before being exported to the UK.

The campaign group Global Witness has called this a “laundering” process that is undermining Ukraine’s resistance to Russia.

The value of refined oil exported from India to the UK has risen dramatically since Russia’s 2022 invasion. In 2021, the UK imported £402.2m worth of refined oil from the country, which rose to £1.82bn in 2022 and stood at £1.5bn in 2023.

Imports of refined oil from China have increased more than 20-fold since 2021 – up from £30.2m in that year to £395.1m in 2022 and £663.9m in 2023. The value of refined oil imports from Turkey, meanwhile, has increased from just £1.8m in 2021 to £60.3m in 2023.

Lela Stanley, a senior investigator at Global Witness, said: “Millions of barrels of fuel made from Russian oil continue to pour into the UK. Last year alone, this trade was worth over £100m to the Kremlin. Make no mistake: until the government closes this loophole, Britain is helping Russia pay for its war on Ukraine.

“The good news? We can fix this. The UK should act now to ban the import of fuels made from Russian oil and show its support for Ukraine is sincere.”

A valve control wheel connected to crude oil pipework in an oilfield near Dyurtyuli, in Bashkortostan, Russia. Photograph: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Global Witness has estimated that throughout 2023, about 5.2m barrels of refined petroleum products produced from Russian crude oil were imported to the UK, with jet fuel accounting for most of the imports (4.6m barrels). It has been estimated that Russian-linked fuel has been used in one in 20 UK flights.

UK government records show that direct oil imports from Russia fell from £1.5bn in the first quarter of 2022 to zero the year after.

This led to a surge in fossil fuel imports from authoritarian petrostates. The UK spent £19.3bn on oil and gas imports from Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the year to March 2023 – a 60% increase on the previous year.

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In addition to procuring fossil fuels from petrostates, the UK and the EU have been buying refined Russian oil through the likes of India, China and Turkey.

Global Witness found that the EU imported 130m barrels from refineries processing Russian crude oil in 2023. The campaign group estimated that these purchases would probably have contributed €1.1bn (£940m) to the Kremlin in tax revenues.

Russia is now China’s largest crude oil supplier, with the volume of trade having increased by 24% in 2023 compared with the year before.

Oil and gas purchases by China and India have helped to stabilise the Russian economy, which shrank by just 2.1% in 2022 – considerably less than the 12% that had been forecast.

India has been unashamed about its purchasing of Russian oil. In November, the country’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said India should be thanked for “softening the oil markets” by buying and selling Russian oil. “We have, as a consequence, actually managed global inflation. So people should be saying thank you,” he said.

Russia is India’s top oil supplier, contributing 40% of its oil imports. The country imported 1.76m barrels a day of Russian oil on average from April to September 2023, more than double the previous year.

Turkey has also been accused of “disguising” Russian oil and exporting it to Europe. US senators have even warned that oil supplied by Turkey’s Dörtyol plant may have ended up in American warships. Turkey is now the third largest recipient of Russian crude oil after Russia and China.

A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said: “After Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and weaponisation of energy, we took immediate steps to end all imports of Russian fossil fuels, including a ban of oil and oil products that came into force in December 2022. In addition to providing proof that goods are not of Russian origin, importers must now include the country of last despatch to ensure oil from Russia is not being diverted through other countries. Since the ban came into effect there has been no import of Russian oil and oil products into the UK.”.

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