Russia has positioned a liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker next to its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, in a rare move that has raised eyebrows in the industry as tensions rise with the west over Ukraine.
Kaliningrad, a 15,000 sq km square territory separate from mainland Russia that is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, normally receives pipeline gas from Russia’s state-backed gas giant, Gazprom.
But satellite tracking shows the Gazprom-owned Marshal Vasilevskiy LNG tanker, which was designed to supply gas directly into Kaliningrad’s grid, has sailed to the Baltic coast in recent days, leading industry observers to speculate that it is part of Moscow’s contingency planning in the event of an invasion of Ukraine.
Analysts said they believe Moscow may be reinforcing Kaliningrad’s gas supply options in case any Russian incursion into Ukraine results in the disruption of pipeline gas supplies, either through western sanctions or a decision by Russia to restrict supplies to Europe.
“It’s something of a conspiracy theorists’ dream to see this tanker suddenly show up off the coast of Kaliningrad,” said Tom Marzec-Manser at ICIS, an energy consultancy.
“It’s impossible to say with certainty why it’s there, but it will feed into the atmosphere of concerns about gas supplies in Europe as tensions over Ukraine rise, as it looks like Russia could be making contingencies in case of disruptions to supplies.”
Gazprom declined to comment on the tanker’s movements.
With gas prices in Europe already reaching record highs this winter, stoked by lower Russian exports, fears over supplies have risen.
The Marshal Vasilevskiy, named after the military commander who planned the counteroffensive that repelled German forces from outside Moscow in the second world war, is a special type of LNG tanker known as a floating storage and regasification unit, which can connect directly into the gas grid without the need for a separate regasification terminal.
The tanker is the only one of its kind in Russia and was launched in 2019 as part of a project designed to reinforce Kaliningrad’s “energy security taking into account its geographical setting”, according to Gazprom’s website. But the tanker has been mainly used since then for conventional shipments of LNG around the globe. This is the vessel’s first return to Kaliningrad since 2019, according to satellite tracking data.
“There are two ways to look at this; from the Russian side this is sensible contingency planning in case gas supplies through Lithuania to Kaliningrad somehow get disrupted in the coming weeks,” said Laurent Ruseckas at IHS Markit.
“From the western side you could view it as a warning that Russia believes it can supply all of its territory no matter what happens to gas exports. But it is in neither side’s interest to see gas supplies disrupted.”
A second Gazprom-controlled tanker, the Energy Integrity, briefly listed Kaliningrad as its destination last week after loading a cargo of LNG in Cameroon.
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While the Energy Integrity has since changed its destination on satellite tracking it has continued to sail north along the coast of west Africa. Most cargoes of LNG from Cameroon, which Gazprom markets under an offtake agreement, sail south to go round the Cape of Good Hope to Asia.
The US has been speaking with major gas producers such as Qatar as well as other producers to see what could be done to supply Europe in the event Russian flows are disrupted.
US officials have warned that sanctions in the event of a Russian incursion into Ukraine could be severe, though European countries including Germany are keen to avoid disrupting energy trade. Investment bank Stifel warned this week that European gas prices could quadruple if Russian exports to Europe were cut off.
“We are prepared to implement sanctions with massive consequences that were not considered in 2014,” senior White House officials said this week. “That means the gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.”
The officials added that they wanted to avoid “minimising unwanted spillovers”.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya in Moscow