UK Accused of ‘Helping Russia’ as Refined Oil Imports From ‘Laundering’ Countries Remain at Record High

Britain is boosting the Kremlin war effort by continuing to purchase billions of pounds worth of refined oil from India, China, and Turkey, campaigners say.
Credit: 3D generator / Alamy

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 shows that imports of refined oil from India, China and Turkey amounted to £2.2 billion in 2023, the same record value as the previous year, up from £434.2 million in 2021.

India, China, and Turkey have 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. In recent weeks, UK politicians have been lobbying the U.S. to approve £60 billion in military aid for Ukraine, finally passed on 20 April, with Foreign Secretary David Cameron attending a private dinner with Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump in an attempt to break the political deadlock. Cameron has also 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, while Ukraine continues to be bombarded. 

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine reported in February 2024 that there had been 30,457 civilian casualties due to the war, including 10,582 deaths. The World Bank, United Nations, and European Commission have suggested that it will cost almost £400 billion to reconstruct Ukraine after two years of war.

However, as long as Russian oil is refined in another country it is no longer considered to originate in Russia, allowing it to evade the UK’s trade ban and boosting the Kremlin’s war chest. As a result, Russian oil is being sold to third countries for processing, before being exported to the UK. It has been estimated that one in 20 UK flights used Russian-linked fuel in the first six months of 2023.

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 £402.2 million worth of refined oil from the country, rising to £1.82 billion in 2022 and standing at £1.5 billion in 2023. 

Imports of refined oil from China have increased 20-fold since 2021 – rising from £30.2 million in that year to £395.1 million in 2022 and jumping to £663.9 million in 2023. 

The value of refined oil imports from Turkey, meanwhile, has increased from just £1.8 million in 2021 to £60.3 million in 2023. 

Lela Stanley, senior investigator at Global Witness told DeSmog: “Millions of barrels of fuel made from Russian oil continue to pour into the UK. Last year alone, this trade was worth over £100 million 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.”

Global Witness has estimated that throughout 2023, some 5.2 million barrels of refined petroleum products produced from Russian crude oil were imported to the UK, with jet fuel accounting for most of the imports (4.6 million barrels). 

The government says that it has strengthened proof of origin to demonstrate that goods are not of Russian origin. A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said: “After Vladimir 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.”

Fuelling Russia

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

As reported by DeSmog in June 2023, this has resulted in a surge in fossil fuel imports from authoritarian petrostates. The UK spent £19.3 billion on oil and gas imports from Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the year to March 2023 – a 60 percent increase on the previous year. 

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 130 million barrels from refineries processing Russian crude oil in 2023. These purchases would likely have contributed €1.1 billion (£940 million) to the Kremlin in tax revenues, the campaign group estimated. 

Russia is now China’s largest crude oil supplier, with the volume of trade increasing by 24 percent in 2023 compared to the previous year. 

Oil and gas purchases by China and India have helped to stabilise the Russian economy, which shrank by just 2.1 percent in 2022 – considerably less than the forecasted 12 percent.

India has been unashamed about its purchasing of sanctioned Russian oil. In November, the country’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that 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 percent of its oil imports. The country imported 1.76 million barrels per 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. U.S. 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. 

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has been approached for comment. 

A version of this article was published by The Guardian

Sam is DeSmog’s UK Deputy Editor. He was previously the Investigations Editor of Byline Times and an investigative journalist at the BBC. He is the author of two books: Fortress London, and Bullingdon Club Britain.

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