Should Ukraine Attack Russia's Oil Refining Industry?

April 21, 2024
Strikes on Russia's oil refining infrastructure became Ukraine's strategic achievement. And so, the statements by US officials about them may be confusing for many.

Given the challenging position Ukraine is in, at war against a larger and more powerful adversary, strikes on Russia's oil refining infrastructure could provide Ukraine with a valuable advantage.

However, US officials voiced concerns regarding the effectiveness of these attacks, their potential negative implications on the global energy market, and called to cease such operations.

Mykhailo Gonchar, President of the Centre for Global Studies "Strategy XXI", spoke with UkraineWorld to explain why Ukraine's decision to target Russian oil refineries is legitimate, highly effective, and how these attacks impact the global energy markets.

Why are Russian refineries legitimate military targets?

Celeste Wallander, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, made a speculative statement about the civilian nature of Russia's oil refining infrastructure. However, oil refineries produce dual-use products.

In addition to gasoline and diesel, they manufacture a wide range of specialized products specifically for military applications.

These include special fuel types for supersonic aircraft and cruise missiles, as well as unique lubricants and additives for various military equipment mechanisms that work under high mechanical and thermal loads.

The Russian Ministry of Defense maintains a permanent Military Acceptance Office at oil refineries to ensure that products meet specific military requirements.

The Ukrainian strikes on Russian refineries are not a new military strategy, but rather a fundamental principle of warfare. Depriving the enemy of vital resources like ammunition, fuel, and communication is a tried-and-true war strategy.

For example, during Operation "Desert Storm," the United States targeted Iraqi oil refineries. Similarly, the significance of oil refinery strikes is highlighted by asking whether defeating the German Reich in WWII would have been possible without targeting its oil refining facilities.

The US did not, however, mention what Russia has been doing since the start of the full-scale invasion. Russia began systematically and consistently destroying Ukrainian fuel infrastructure on February 27, just three days after launching its full-scale invasion. It wiped out Ukraine's oil depots, where fuel was stored.

The Russians sought to first target Ukrainian oil refineries in April 2022, specifically targeting the refinery in Kremenchuk, the only one running at the time. They continued to target it between 2022 and 2023, successfully striking it seven times, not just with small drones but also with cruise and ballistic missiles.

At the time, Ukraine had nothing to respond with. Yet, through gradual capability enhancements and strategic efforts, the boomerang began to swing back toward the Russians. Ukraine was able to begin targeting Russian oil depots and, later, oil refineries in 2023.

Have Ukrainian strikes on Russian oil refineries actually harmed the global energy market?

US officials' assertion that Ukrainian attacks on Russian oil refineries could cause global oil prices to rise can be interpreted as manipulation.

To begin with, the American and Russian fuel markets are in no way linked. The same is true for their oil markets.

Second, Ukraine targeted oil refining facilities rather than oil extraction sites, which are entirely different. As a result, the volume of Russian oil on the market remained constant.

So, what are the true causes of the world's oil market turmoil? They are complex and cannot be attributed to a single cause. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, particularly the challenges posed by the Houthis, are a major contributor to this situation.

Their attacks on commercial traffic from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and the Suez have forced vessel traffic, including oil tankers, to take a longer, more expensive route. As a result, the increased delivery cost causes an increase in oil prices.

Furthermore, the current oil market dynamics are influenced by the US's strained relationship with its strategic partner, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has traditionally played on the same field as the United States in the oil market, but it has now aligned itself with Russia in this regard. Russia and Saudi Arabia have a common interest in higher oil prices, which has led to their collaboration within the OPEC+ framework.

Given the complexity of these factors and the inability of those in power to address them, there is a tendency to attribute blame to convenient sources, with Ukraine and its strikes serving as a convenient target in this context.

The effect of the domestic political context from US statements regarding the Ukrainian strikes

The ongoing election in the United States has drawn attention to fuel prices as a critical factor in the electoral race. The US is the world's top oil producer, with the potential to even increase its output.

However, the current administration has garnered support from climate activists and will rely on their support once more. Increasing oil production may alienate this support base, as they advocate for production cuts, which would almost certainly result in price increases.

Another factor may not be obvious at first glance. Rising oil prices benefit not only repressive regimes like Russia or Iran but also large American oil companies that operate in Kazakhstan and elsewhere.

Companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil extract oil in Kazakhstan and rely on Russian transportation routes ("Tengiz-Novorossiysk"), which Russia may block, reducing their profits and ability to pay dividends to shareholders.

As a result, these companies take Russian interests into account and use their powerful communication networks to urge Ukraine to end its strikes on Russian oil refineries.

As early as August 2023, Ukrainian forces used a drone to strike a Russian tanker "Sig" in the eastern Black Sea. This tanker was transporting diesel fuel to the occupied Crimea to supply the occupation group.

While such tankers are legitimate military targets, attacks have since ceased. This pause came after Kazakhstani, European, and American companies petitioned European and US authorities to intervene and deter Ukraine from targeting the tankers.

And it was a mistake, especially given how ineffective sanctions against Russia's energy sector are. The Russian economy has not collapsed to a large extent because Russian oil industry revenues continue to fuel the aggression against Ukraine.

This factor, combined with the US's weak position, allows Russia to carry out more brazen and dangerous attacks.

As we can see, fluctuations in the global oil market are unrelated to Ukraine's strikes on Russian refineries, but statements from American officials, influenced by domestic political considerations, have favoured Russia.

Ukraine must continue the strikes against the Russian oil refinery industry without long pauses in between. Drones, rather than cruise missiles, are more likely to damage rather than destroy equipment.

Damaged facilities can be repaired, with the length of the restoration period determined by the extent of the damage. Russia has already demonstrated its ability to repair and reopen some of the damaged refineries.

Despite official statements suggesting otherwise, many in the US understand the adverse implications of American leadership's official statements. Respected figures in the American military and expert community have criticised the illogic of this approach, emphasising its drawbacks from both military and market perspectives.

Furthermore, it is important to note that Ukraine is conducting these strikes with its own weapons, not American ones.

Finally, the most recent PACE resolution from April 17, 2024, acknowledges that Russian oil refineries can be considered legitimate targets of military attacks under international humanitarian law.

Currently, Ukraine is pursuing objectives of a different nature, acknowledging that its capabilities are not unlimited. However, the efforts to destroy the Russian oil refinery industry should continue.

Mykhailo Gonchar, President of the Centre for Global Studies "Strategy XXI"