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How Russia Could Try to Get Around the European Union's Oil Sanctions

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  • Moscow could respond to European sanctions on Russian oil by seeking other buyers for its crude or cutting production to keep prices high. Its actions would have a global economic impact — unless OPEC intervenes.
  • EU leaders on Monday agreed to ban 90% of Russian crude by the end of the year as part of the bloc's sixth sanctions package on Russia since it invaded Ukraine.
  • "The Russian response obviously will bear close watching," Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, in a note on Tuesday.

Moscow could respond to European sanctions on Russian oil by seeking other buyers for its crude or cutting production to keep prices high. Its actions would have a global economic impact — unless OPEC intervenes.

EU leaders on Monday agreed to ban 90% of Russian crude by the end of the year as part of the bloc's sixth sanctions package on Russia since it invaded Ukraine.

"The Russian response obviously will bear close watching," Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, in a note on Tuesday.

Russia is the world's third-largest oil producer after the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and the second largest crude oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia, according to the International Energy Agency.

"What is going on now will change oil-natural gas trade into the future. Oil prices will not decline any time soon and the fallout of Russian sanctions will be felt for a few years," said Hossein Askari, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business. "The U.S. should have used strong preemptive sanctions on Russia and been tougher with OPEC oil producers to increase oil output."

Hunting for other buyers

Whether Russia manages to offload its sanctioned crude and how much it can sell would affect oil prices globally. Roughly 36% of the EU's oil imports coming from Russia.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, said the country will look for other buyers for its oil.

"As she rightly said yesterday, #Russia will find other importers," Ulyanov said via Twitter, referring to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

"Whether those barrels find homes in India, China, and Turkey could hinge on whether the EU ultimately opts to target shipping and insurance services and whether the US chooses to impose Iran-style secondary sanctions," RBC's Croft wrote.

Moscow already has two likely buyers for its crude: China and India. The countries have been buying discounted Russian oil and industry watchers say that looks set to continue.

While India traditionally imports very little crude from Russia — only between 2% to 5% a year, according to market watchers — its purchases have soared in recent months.

India bought 11 million barrels in March and that figure jumped to 27 million in April and 21 million in May, according to data from commodity data firm Kpler. That's a stark contrast to the 12 million barrels it bought from Russia in all of 2021.

China was already the largest single buyer of Russian oil but its oil purchases have also spiked. From March to May, it bought 14.5 million barrels — a three-fold increase from the same period last year, according to Kpler data.

Production cuts

Russia could also cut crude production and exports to cushion the blow to its finances. On Sunday, Russian oil firm Lukoil's vice president, Leonid Fedun, said the country should slash oil output by up to 30% to push prices higher and avoid selling barrels at a discount.

"Officials in Washington have expressed concern that Moscow might move to upend an orderly year-end wind-down by slashing exports over the summer to inflict maximum economic pain on Europe and test the collective resolve of the member states to defend Ukraine," Croft said on Tuesday.

Given the "alarmingly low" inventory and the scarcity of refining capacity, a preemptive Russian cut-off could have a very damaging economic impact this summer, she added.

"For Russia, we think the impact of lower export volumes this year will be mostly offset by higher prices," Edward Gardner, a commodities economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a Tuesday note. He predicted Russian oil production and exports could fall by about 20% by year end.

While Urals crude, the main oil blend that Russia exports, is trading at a discount to global benchmarks, it's currently priced at $95 per barrel – still well above where it was a year ago, according to Gardner.

But if Russian output drops, other players may step in to help tame prices. The Financial Times reported Thursday, citing sources, Saudi Arabia is prepared to raise crude production if Russia's output significantly falls following European Union sanctions.

The OPEC+ alliance, which Russia is part of, is set for its monthly meeting later on Thursday.

'Deceptive' shipping practices

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, there have been 180 ownership changes of vessels from Russian entities to non-Russian ones, according to maritime artificial intelligence firm Windward, which cited its own proprietary data.

Windwards said those changes recorded in just three months was already more than half of ownership changes for Russian vessels in all of 2021.

Many of the Russian vessels were sold to firms based mostly in Singapore, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Norway, according to Windward.

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