By Michael Hoff, Hussar Innovations

Imagine if a Finnish cargo ship ran aground off Newfoundland in the fall of 1941. As a supporter, at the time, of Nazi Germany, Finnish naval vessels would be considered a threat to the western world; the U.K. officially declared war on Finland on Dec. 6, 1941. If this ship was shown to be ferrying supplies to the Finnish war effort—or worse, directly supporting the Nazis—the vessel would surely be impounded and its crew interrogated. The last thing the U.S. would do in these circumstances is tow it to harbor and affect repairs.

Yet if we change the date to October 2014, the coastline to western instead of eastern Canada and swap the ship’s flag from Finland to Russia—a country currently under a state of heavy embargo—the song remains the same. Although in both incidents the provocateur “appears” to be Russia, the similarities end in terms of ideology and imperialism; as does the reaction of big media to news of a global trade machine seemingly unaffected by political saber-rattling.

For those who missed the story, incapacitated Russian cargo ship Simushir was towed by U.S. tug Barbara Foss to Prince Rupert, Canada, after losing power on Oct. 17 near the Queen Charlotte Islands. Her cargo was mainly mining equipment and related supplies, but included 400 to 500 tons of petroleum, loaded at port in Everett, Washington. Russian shipping firm SASCO contracted local mechanics for a few days repair before setting sail again.

Since March 2014 the U.S. has pursued and enforced a policy of sanctions against Russian entities and individuals, including banks, defense contractors and energy companies. Ostensibly to slow Russian-supported troops in Ukraine, the U.S. policy is also meant to disrupt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of advisors and oligarchs.

Politics may make strange bedfellows, but apparently even the specter of war doesn’t stop countries from trading in petroleum byproducts. If you add in the possibility of an environmental shipping disaster from a regime that—intentionally or unintentionally—has carried a less than stellar record, the risk increases beyond the pursuit of a good sale. If the ship had leaked its 400-ton cargo of bunker oil on the west coast of Canada (which is also a player in sanctioning Russia), it would open up questions beyond the death of marine life by hazardous materials.

Questions like:

  • How could trade in products that supports someone’s military be allowed under the current sanctions?;
  • Why is petroleum being shipped to Russia at all? Shouldn’t we be concerned with environmental standards when trading with an “aggressor”?;
  • How many other ships are in-flight despite the sanctions and what is their cargo?;
  • Are the goods being shipped supporting the military exploits of “separatists” in eastern Ukraine? And
  • What else are Westerners selling to Russians that will hit the New Western Front—rifles? Tanks? Anti-aircraft missiles?

The reason the petroleum industry needs to tread carefully here is that, despite this being the Nuclear Age, the machine of war needs oil and gas just like it did 70 years ago. Especially a ground conflict in Ukraine, where jet fuel and weapons-grade plutonium are not in play—once again the ability to position troops and replenish guerilla vehicles is paramount.

We could always take the Smith & Wesson approach—we just make the stuff; we don’t determine what it’s used for. Who’s to say this fuel would not be used to warm poor villagers in Uzbekistan, or power ancient locomotives across the Siberian tundra? Bunker oil is not typically consumed by vehicles—modern vehicles anyway—and is more likely used to pave roads or “kindle” coal-fired power plants. For all we know the Russians use it to flavor their borsch.

It’s well and good that we westerners are restricting the flow of money and travel for Russian millionaires. But if we want to disarm militaristic radicals, we might want to avoid fueling their effort.

Michael Hoff is a senior consultant for Hussar Innovations.