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Marine / Prime minister to ‘investigate’ status of Russian-owned tanker

The NS Challenger berthed at Sullom Voe this week. Photo: Shetland News

UK PRIME minister Boris Johnson has said he will “immediately investigate” the presence of a Russian-owned oil tanker at Sullom Voe oil terminal following the imposition of some sanctions following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

A tanker operated by Russian state-owned company Sovcomflot – one of the world’s largest players in oil and gas transportation – was allowed to load oil at the terminal on Wednesday.

The 244-metre NS Challenger is majority owned by the Russian government with its board of management reportedly close to the Putin administration.

The Liberian-registered vessel is on charter to BP, which has not responded to a request for comment from Shetland News.

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said the Russian government clearly viewed it as “business as usual” despite some sanctions, with the tanker berthed at Sullom Voe testament to that.

The Liberal Democrat MP secured a commitment from Johnson to look into Russian tanker access in the House of Commons on Thursday.

Photo: Shetland News

“My constituents are asking me why they should be loading oil onto a Russian tanker while Russian troops are marching into Ukraine,” Carmichael said. “I cannot think of a good answer to tell them. Can the Prime Minister tell me, will anything that he has announced today ensure this will not happen again in the future?”

Johnson replied: “I will of course immediately investigate what is happening with the Sovcomflot tanker but the result of the measures passed by the house the other day is that we can target any company, any entity that has a relation with the Russian state.”

The prime minister has claimed that the UK is “out in front” globally in taking action against Putin. But opposition politicians have called for tougher action, saying the government is failing to match its rhetoric and announcing sanctions that do not go far enough.

There has also been criticism of Johnson’s government for accepting money from Russian-backed donors. Carmichael said UK and Western European governments had sent out the wrong signals since at least the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

“We may be shocked by what we have seen happen today [Thursday],” he said, “but we should not be in any way surprised. It has been obvious for weeks and months – some might even say years – that this day was always going to come.”

Carmichael said the government’s response had been “inadequate” which had been illustrated by “calls and emails I have received from constituents” regarding NS Challenger’s presence at Sullom Voe.

“What does that tell us? It tells us that everything that the government have said this week has been heard in Russia as ‘business as usual’. ‘Why on earth’, my constituents ask me, ‘are we currently exporting as strategically important a commodity as oil out of Shetland in Russian-owned and operated tankers?’

“I do not know what answer I can give them other than that we have continued to send the wrong signals. We need to return to this in the days and weeks to come, but for now the challenge that we have is to the post-war rules-based international order.

“If we acquiesce in the face of that challenge, frankly, we do not end anywhere that is a good place.”

Shetland Islands Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said that as port operator the local authority had no choice but to comply with the “open port duty” meaning the harbour must be open to “anyone for the shipping and unshipping of goods and the embarking and landing of passengers, on payment of the harbour dues”.

If UK Government sanctions are applied to shipping the council will be advised by the department of transport “how the duty has been altered and what action we must take”.

Sandison added: “The owners and charterers of vessels will, I am sure, be considering their exposure to increased sanctions and make decisions about how best to manage those risks but this is not a matter for the council to be engaging on.”