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Russia sells oil above price cap, boosting export revenues

In the ongoing economic battle between Russia and the West, Moscow has managed to breach the Western-imposed price cap on its most prized crude oil, signalling a significant victory for the Kremlin.

The price cap, introduced last December by the U.S. and its allies as part of a pressure campaign against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, aims to drain the Kremlin’s war funds while encouraging Russian oil producers to maintain their exports to prevent global inflation.

Data from commodities-data firm Argus Media reveals that the price for Russia’s flagship Urals grade of oil exceeded the $60-a-barrel limit for the first time since the sanctions were implemented.

This achievement suggests that the Kremlin has successfully adapted to the restrictions to some extent.

The price cap has been a crucial component of Western sanctions, targeting Russia’s primary revenue source, oil exports.

However, it has taken a toll on Russia’s oil-export revenues, which dropped to just over half their level from a year ago, as reported by the International Energy Agency. The decline in exports and the embargo on Russian oil in Europe have also impacted Russia’s tax revenue from energy, putting a strain on its budget.

Despite the cap, the discount for Urals crude compared to benchmark Brent has narrowed to $20 a barrel, indicating a partial recovery for Russia’s oil industry.

Output cuts implemented by OPEC+, which Russia is part of, and high demand in Asia have further propelled Russia’s crude prices above the imposed cap. Russian oil producers have shown little interest in negotiating prices with Western players, signalling their confidence in the face of the restrictions.

To mitigate the impact of the cap, Russia is gradually establishing an alternative network of tankers that are unaffected by sanctions. This move undermines Western influence over Russia’s oil exports and allows the country to evade some of the constraints imposed by the cap. As Sergey Vakulenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre and former oil executive in Russia, suggests, this development demonstrates the resilience and adaptability of Russian oil companies.

Despite Russia’s efforts to circumvent the cap, the U.S. and Europe still maintain some leverage, as Russian companies will likely require Western ships and insurance for a considerable portion of their oil exports. By reducing the price cap further, Western nations could exert additional financial pressure on Moscow. However, disagreements within the European Union and concerns about gas prices have hampered efforts to lower the cap.

The effectiveness of the cap has been complicated by the difficulty in accurately measuring the price at which Russian crude trades, particularly after the invasion of Ukraine. Price-reporting agencies now rely on estimates and market contacts to gauge crude prices due to a lack of hard data.

Critics argue that the initial cap was set too high, and Ukraine and its allies have pushed for a reduction. Instead, the U.S. and EU have focused on stricter enforcement to prevent oil laundering and other illicit practices used to evade the cap.

One significant challenge for the sanctions is the emergence of a new logistics system developed by Russia and its allies, featuring tankers owned, insured, and chartered outside the Western sphere. The shadow fleet, as it’s called, has grown substantially, and more tankers are now working with sanctioned producers, indicating a weakening of Western leverage.

Although the West once held considerable pricing power, the increased presence of European tanker companies in the Russian market has dwindled as Russia gains access to tankers owned outside the Group of Seven (G-7) nations. This trend is diminishing the Western influence over the oil trade.

While the Biden administration acknowledges Russia’s efforts to create an independent fleet, they assert that it hasn’t significantly affected oil flows. However, U.S. officials maintain that the process of building this alternative export system diverts funds from Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.

As Russia continues to navigate the constraints imposed by the price cap and Western sanctions, the geopolitical struggle over oil and its global impact persists. With Moscow showing resilience and adaptation, and Western powers seeking ways to maintain financial pressure, the dynamics of the oil market remain in flux, and the outcome of this economic battle remains uncertain.