Sweden Thinks Russian "Shadow Fleet" Tankers May be Used for Espionage

Shadow fleet: a Russian state-operated Aframax in the years before the invasion. This specific vessel is under U.S. sanctions but was not named by the report (file image courtesy SCF)

Published Apr 23, 2024 6:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Swedish Navy's top officer believes that Russia may be using some of its "shadow fleet" tankers to spy on its neighbors in the Baltic Sea. If true, it would be an expansion of Russia's decades-old tradition of placing military surveillance equipment on fishing trawlers. In the mid-1960s, these over-equipped ships were so common that the U.S. gave them a name: "Auxiliary General Intelligence" vessels (AGIs).

According to Rear Adm. Ewa Skoog Haslum, some of the less reputable Russia-linked tankers in the Baltic have been found to be carrying "antennas and masts that typically do not belong" to merchant vessels. These are the kinds of fittings that intelligence officers associate with Moscow's "hybrid operations," a common Russian practice of espionage and disruption. Her service also has evidence that these vessels are fitted out to pick up signals intelligence from their neighbors. 

The "shadow fleet" is a large collection of tankers that serve Russian oil exporters without regard to the G7 price cap, which limits the per-barrel price of a Western-facilitated shipment to $60. To circumvent the cap, these ships have reflagged in low-enforcement registries, obtained questionable P&I cover and class, and often obscure their cargo's movements by disabling AIS and carrying out STS transfers. The ships tend to be much older than average, and given the uncertainty of their insurance cover, they have attracted scrutiny from coastal states for the possible risk of a spill. Espionage adds to the list of concerns. 

"It is clear that we feel that there are sometimes other objectives associated with their activities in terms of what is moving at sea," Haslum told SVT. "What is happening now due to the sanctions against Russia could become both a security and an environmental tragedy."

Haslum has warned about risky Russian activity in the Baltic for years, and has described the security situation in the region as "intense and very fragile." One persistent example is the constant GPS spoofing in the Baltic, which is widely believed to emanate from a Russian electronic-warfare installation in Kaliningrad. While this does not affect NATO forces much, it does feed false GPS positions to AIS transcievers, and it makes it harder for authorities to track merchant shipping. More ships are simply turning off their AIS in the eastern Baltic because of the false GPS position information, and that problem is "becoming bigger and bigger," Haslum said last year.