Ukraine strikes at Russian oil as battlefield desperation mounts

Ukraine is ramping up attacks on Russian oil refineries in a campaign that has damaged Moscow’s most important source of revenue.

Ukraine’s forces have struck oil refineries deep inside Russia at least 12 times during the war, disrupting at least 10 percent of Russian refining capacity, according to the British Defense Ministry. In March alone, Ukraine carried out five successful reported strikes on several oil refineries.

The attacks underscore how Ukraine is continuing to wield relatively cheap technology to conduct savvy strikes that damage Russia — as it has also done with naval drones against Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

But experts say the oil refinery attacks would need to ramp up to change the calculus on the battlefield, where Russia has seized the upper hand in recent months, thanks in part to Republicans in U.S. Congress refusing to pass new aid for Ukraine.

John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said if Ukraine is “able to scale this up in a big way, it could be a way to gain leverage over Russia.”

“To the extent it affects the war, it would probably be more in finances,” he said. “For every dollar that Moscow doesn’t generate through taxes on industry, that’s a dollar that it can’t put into soldiers or producing weapons.”

The attacks so far have penetrated up to 800 miles into Russia from Ukraine, but they appear to have only caused moderate damage to the Russian oil refineries, allowing Moscow to repair the targeted facilities.

A March intelligence update from the British Defense Ministry said the Ukrainian strikes have forced Russia to do “major repairs,” which “could take considerable time and expense.”

“Sanctions are highly likely increasing the time and cost of sourcing replacement equipment,” British intelligence officials wrote. “These strikes are imposing a financial cost on Russia, impacting the domestic fuel market.”

The efforts are forcing Russia to pivot and creating some headaches, with the Kremlin imposing a six-month ban on gasoline exports to try and meet domestic demand, while gas prices in the country have risen since the spate of attacks.

Giorgi Revishvili, a Fulbright scholar at Texas A&M University Bush School of Government and Public Service, said rising fuel prices could cause domestic problems for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Since the onset of the full-scale invasion, the Kremlin has maintained an unspoken agreement with the Russian public to keep any war-related disruption to an absolute minimum,” Revishvili wrote in an analysis for the Atlantic Council.

“The impact of higher fuel prices would be felt throughout Russia, particularly in regions with struggling economies, potentially creating instability.”

But Alexandra Prokopenko, a researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies, said the strikes on oil refineries “are unpleasant but not too painful for the Russian war machine.”

“They do not affect the fuel supply to the front and may only briefly increase gasoline prices on the domestic market in Russia,” Prokopenko said in an email, saying the attacks have also forced Russian oil companies to invest in antidrone systems.

Ukraine also sees the attacks as strategic because Russia has largely evaded Western sanctions on its oil exports meant to hinder the war machine.

Maksym Skrypchenko, president of the Transatlantic Dialogue Center, a Ukrainian think tank that advises Kyiv, said the oil refinery strikes are “extremely effective” and are expected to decrease Russian oil production in April.

He added the attacks are “just the beginning” and expects them to increase. “It’s not just like a fly in the room that’s disturbing you,” he said. “We are seeing the increase of prices in Russia.”

Skrypchenko also said Ukraine is exhausting Russian air defenses and hitting hard-to-repair sections of the oil refineries that will get harder and harder to fix.

“If we continue doing this … at a specific point of time they run out of spare parts,” he said. ”In the end it will lead to Russia trying to get some spare parts from abroad [and] it will take months for that to repair. It’s a viable strategy that works.”

Ukraine is also carrying out the attacks at a relatively low cost. In most cases, Kyiv is hitting the refineries with long-range drones that are easily assembled for the military. Those drones are not terribly sophisticated, but they have regularly penetrated Russian air defenses and radar.

Hardie, from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the drones are built on a low budget but noted they are less effective than missiles.

“These [drones] don’t carry anything like the warhead you would get on a conventional missile,” he said. “So the damage just isn’t as great.”

The long-range drones Ukraine is using are a substitute for long-range artillery and missiles, which the West has provided to Ukraine. But Western nations providing those weapons, including the U.S., do not want them used for strikes inside of Russia for fear of escalation.

The Financial Times reported in March that the U.S. has also privately urged Ukraine to stop targeting oil refineries out of concern for rising gas prices, along with concern for provoking a harsher Russian military response inside of Ukraine.

“It has been our view and policy from day one when it comes to Ukraine to do everything we possibly can to help Ukraine defend itself against this Russian aggression,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a press conference this month.

“At the same time, we have neither supported nor enabled strikes by Ukraine outside of its territory.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told The Washington Post in March that “the reaction of the U.S. was not positive” on the oil refinery strikes. But Zelensky said his forces are using their own drones and not Western weapons.

“Nobody can say to us you can’t,” he said. “If there is no air defense to protect our energy system, and Russians attack it, my question is: Why can’t we answer them? Their society has to learn to live without petrol, without diesel, without electricity. … It’s fair.”

The most recent attack Tuesday struck Russia’s third-largest oil refinery in the Tatarstan region. A drone hit a unit that processes more than 155,000 barrels of oil per day, according to Reuters, but the damage was minimal.

Russia is planning to cover its oil refineries by moving air defenses around, according to the British Defense Ministry. Revishvili, from Texas A&M, said that may expose Russia to attacks in other areas of the country, though other analysts say Russia has limited refineries to cover and can adapt.

The ramping up of the oil refinery attacks comes as Russia has seized the initiative on the battlefield in recent months, taking the city of Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region and advancing incrementally across the eastern Ukraine front line.

Ukraine is increasingly being pushed onto its back foot on the battlefield with critical U.S. aid on hold as a group of isolationist Republicans put up hurdles to future support for Kyiv.

Zelensky told the Post they are “trying to find some way not to retreat” with U.S. aid in limbo. Troops are struggling to defend territory against a larger Russian army as resources, including ammunition and vital artillery shells, deplete from available stocks.

George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Ukraine is “not on a good course” as they are being forced to construct defenses across a long front line without much time for preparation.

“What the Russians are going to continue to do I think is put pressure on Ukraine across the length of a very, very long front line,” he said, saying that could open the way for a collapse in the future and allow for an easier Russian taking of key cities in the east. “And in so doing continue to wear down the Ukrainians, exhaust their supplies of equipment and ammunition and manpower.”

Ukraine is resorting to putting pressure on Russia in other areas. That includes through the targeting of naval ships in the Black Sea, a push that has been successful in forcing the Russian navy back from the western parts of those waters.

The oil refinery attacks are another part of the pressure campaign. But Beebe cautioned that while both the Black Sea and oil refinery attacks can hurt Russia, neither is going to shape the momentum on the battlefield.

“They’re doing what they can, they don’t have any good alternatives,” he said, but the strikes are “not going to change the course of the war.”

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