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Russian Court Seizes Control of Four Tugs Owned by Maersk’s Svitzer

Russia seizes Svitzer tugs
Svitzer has four tugs operating under contract to the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project (Robert Allan photo)

Published May 10, 2023 1:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

A Russian arbitration court in late April seized control of four tugs owned by Maersk’s Svitzer towage company and operating under a long-term contract to provide services at the Sakhalin-II oil and gas project in eastern Russia. Maersk had been seeking to end the services since the company announced plans two years ago to withdraw all operations from Russia in protest over the invasion of Ukraine.

Svitzer built four Robert Allan designed heavy-duty ice-class tugs in 2007 which were operating under charter to a Russian subsidiary Svitzer Sakhalin which in turn had an agreement with the operators of the oil and gas project to provide marine services. The contract was extended in early 2020 going into effect in November 2020 and running for an additional 10 years. At the time, Svitzer said it supported the mooring of more than 1,800 gas carriers with the four tugs and two mooring boats. Svitzer said it had 58 Russian crewmembers and nine onshore staff.

The Russian government took control of the Sakhalin-II project in August 2022 from the operating company that had been formed by Gazprom in partnership with minority investors Shell, Mitsui, and Mitsubishi. Svitzer’s service contract was transferred to the new Russian operator of the oil and gas project.

According to Russian media reports, Svitzer announced plans to transfer the four tugs out of Russia and re-registered them away from the Russian flag with Svitzer Sakhalin attempting to invoke a force majeure on April 17 to suspend the service contract. The Russian operator of the oil and gas project took Svitzer to court arguing that the loss of the four tugs could jeopardize production activities at the facilities. 

Russian media outlet Kommersant reports on April 24 the court temporarily arrested the four tugs and gave control of them to a third-party company. They granted the right to continue to operate the tugs in Prigorodnoye. The stories indicate that Svitzer has the right to file an appeal till May 18 seeking to regain control of the tugs and end the service contract.

In a brief statement, Maersk said “We believe the situation regarding the tugs is untenable and efforts to resolve the matter are ongoing.” Maersk reports that all of Svitzer’s employees in Russia have resigned.

The tugs were one of Maersk’s final assets in Russia. In 2020, the company took a more than $700 million write-down on its Russian assets. It sold its interest in a terminal operator and its cold storage warehouse in Saint Petersburg and inland terminal in Novorossiysk. They had indicated that they were also looking to sell the four tugboats.

The vessels, the Svitzer Sakhalin and Svitzer Aniva, were built by ASL Shipyard of Singapore, while the Svitzer Busse and Svitzer Korsakov were built by Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg, Russia. Each is 590 dwt with a length of 113 feet overall. 

When the tugs were built, Allan reported they were a unique design. Diesel powered they demonstrated during trials a bollard pull of 73 tonnes and a free running speed in excess of 13.5 knots. “The unique hull form incorporates an aggressive icebreaking ‘spoon’ bow, with shallow buttock angles in the ice contact zone, optimized for icebreaking performance,” Allan said. The tender called for tugs having the capability to break 85 cm of level ice at a minimum of 3 knots, perform harbor ice management, and when operating in pairs break a channel wide enough for the tankers calling at the terminal.