Ukraine, Stalled on the Battlefield, Strikes Russia’s Oil Industry

Ukraine, Stalled on the Battlefield, Strikes Russia’s Oil Industry

With its army short of ammunition and troops to break the deadlock on the battlefield, Ukraine has increasingly taken the fight behind Russian lines, attacking warships, railways and airfields in an attempt to diminish Moscow’s military operations.

Most recently, that campaign has focused on oil infrastructure, hitting refineries deep in Russian territory and driving home the country’s vulnerability to such attacks.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Ukrainian drones hit four Russian refineries, officials on both sides said, adding to a series of recent attacks that have set fire to depots, fuel tanks and other oil infrastructure across Russia. Since the beginning of the year, Ukraine has claimed responsibility for nearly a dozen such assaults, and local Russian authorities have reported five more.

Experts and Ukrainian officials say Ukraine hopes to disrupt the Russian military’s logistical routes and combat operations by targeting refineries, which supply gasoline, diesel and fuel for tanks, fighter jets and other critical military equipment.

Beyond that, they hope to chip away at the profits that Moscow makes from the exports of oil products and cause disruptions in Russia’s domestic oil market.

Mikhail Krutikhin, an independent Russian energy analyst living in exile in Oslo, said the strikes had prompted Moscow to introduce a six-month ban on gasoline exports, starting March 1, to try to ensure that domestic demand is met while repairs are made to damaged refineries.

British military intelligence said last week, “It is likely that Russia’s refining capacity has been temporarily reduced” by multiple Ukrainian attacks against refineries.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that the goal of the attacks, coupled with armed incursions by Ukraine-backed Russian groups into Russian territory this week, was “if not to disrupt the presidential elections in Russia, then at least somehow interfere with the normal process of expressing the will of citizens.”

Mr. Putin, who will undoubtedly win a fifth term in the election this weekend, added that another goal was to get some kind of “trump card in a possible future negotiation process.”

The appeal of Ukraine’s recent drone targets is obvious.

Oil plants are sprawling and hard to protect, and there are so many of them across Russia that Moscow cannot realistically provide them all with air defenses, according to Mr. Krutikhin and Damien Ernst, an energy expert and professor at the University of Liège in Belgium. Many of the plants that have been struck are in the west, closer to Ukraine.

Refineries in particular have been a prime focus, because they turn crude oil into valuable products like gasoline, diesel, kerosene and jet fuel.

Mr. Ernst and Mr. Krutikhin noted that, unlike in other oil infrastructure such as pipelines, a lot of complex machinery and sophisticated engineering goes into refineries, and they can take several months to fix. Some analysts say the repairs could take longer than usual because sanctions prohibit Western sales of certain components to Russia.

After this week’s attacks, the Russian authorities said operations had been temporarily halted at two of the refineries that were hit near Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow, and in the southern Rostov region. Fires also broke out at two other Russian refineries that were struck, according to local authorities.

But such disruptions do not mean Ukraine can truly undermine the Russian energy behemoth, which is at the core of its economy and war efforts.

It remains unclear what impact, if any, the attacks will have on the fighting. Russia still has the advantage on the battlefield, and has been pressing along the front line in recent weeks.

Sergey Vakulenko, an energy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research group, said Russia was producing far more diesel than it needed to supply its troops. “It will be quite a while before Ukraine manages to hit enough refining units to have an impact on Russia’s diesel capacity,” he said.

Mr. Vakulenko, a former top manager at Gazprom Neft, one of Russia’s larger oil producers, added that the impact of this year’s attacks on Russia’s revenues from oil exports had been “quite minimal.”

Attempts have been made before to undermine Russia’s oil industry.

After Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Western nations introduced sweeping sanctions targeting Russian sales of hydrocarbons — including oil, gas and coal. And most of Europe managed to wean itself off Russian gas.

But Russia has softened the blow by expanding sales to friendlier countries, primarily China and India, and even investing in a “shadow” fleet to export its oil clandestinely.

Since the war began, Russia has collected about $450 billion from exports of crude oil and refined oil products, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent research organization in Finland. Military experts say this revenue has helped Moscow expand its defense industry and buy missiles and drones from Iran and North Korea.

On Thursday, Pavel Sorokin, Russia’s first deputy energy minister, suggested that Russia was pivoting again to meet a new challenge. He acknowledged that he expected the output of refineries to decrease this year, according to the Russian state news agency Tass. But he indicated that the country had options and would instead increase its crude-oil exports.

“The situation is stable,” he said, according to Tass. “There is nothing critical because it means oil exports will be higher.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.

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