Reeling From Ukrainian Drone Strikes, Russia Cuts Diesel and Gasoline Exports

With Thursday’s sinking of a Russian missile carrier, almost half of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is out of action.

Carl Court/Getty Images
A destroyed truck on October 20, 2022, at Lyman, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine. Russian fuel infrastructure has become a key target for Kyiv's forces. Carl Court/Getty Images

With Ukrainians drones hitting Russian oil refineries again this week, Russia’s energy ministry is cutting exports of gasoline by 37 percent and of diesel by 23 percent. Wednesday’s announcement came hours after a drone set off a large fire at Nevsky Mazut, a downtown St. Petersburg oil tank farm.

On Monday, a Ukrainian drone crashed harmlessly on the grounds of the Slavneft-Yanos oil refinery at Yaroslavl, a 500-mile flight from Ukraine’s border. The previous week, Ukrainian drones hit energy facilities at five other cities in European Russia. This campaign coincides with Ukraine targeting fuel logistics behind Russia’s front lines.

Ukraine’s defense ministry reported Thursday on two record months for destroying fuel tanks and trucks: 937 in January and 931 in December. Gasoline and diesel constitute the lifeblood of modern militaries. America’s defense department is the largest energy consumer in the nation, if not the world. In 1942, Nazi Germany’s “Desert Fox,” General Erwin Rommel, made a famous plea in respect of fuel: “Neither guns nor ammunition are of much use in mobile warfare unless there are vehicles with sufficient petrol to haul them around.” In November of that year, his tanks ran out of fuel as they battled for control of eastern Libya. Six months later, in May 1943, the fabled Afrika Korps surrendered to Allied forces.

Russia has some of the world’s largest reserves of oil — about 100 billion barrels. Yet the challenge is to find parts to repair refineries that were built in the 2000s with Western technology. “Just like you can’t replace a faulty clutch in a BMW with a similar part from a Russian-made Lada, the same applies in industry,” a Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center oil industry analyst, Sergei Vakulenko, wrote last week. “Compressors, valves, control units, and other pieces of equipment are tricky to replace because of sanctions.”

Two weeks ago, a Ukrainian drone hit Lukoil’s Kstovo refinery at Nizhny Novgorod, a city 260 miles east of Moscow. A compressor fire knocked out production at the refinery, one of Russia’s largest. Predicting a shutdown of several months, Mr. Vakulenko wrote: “Lukoil will almost certainly experience significant difficulties in integrating non-original parts. In a worst-case scenario, the refinery may even need to acquire entirely new equipment.”

“If we are seeing the beginning of a wave of attacks on western Russia’s oil refineries, the consequences will be serious,” he concluded in a piece titled, “Russia’s Oil Industry Threatened by Ukrainian Drones, Western Sanctions.”

Ukrainian sea drones may prove as damaging to Russia’s energy industry as air drones. On Thursday in the Black Sea, three sea drones hit the Ivanovets, a $65 million Russian missile corvette. It sank within minutes. Apparently, most of the crew of 50 safely abandoned ship.

“As a result of a series of direct hits to the hull, the Russian ship suffered damage incompatible with further movement — the Ivanovets listed to the stern and sank,” Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate said on its Telegram channel. Posting a black-and-white video of the pre-dawn attack, the intelligence agency said the boat was destroyed by soldiers of its “Group 13” working clandestinely on Lake Donuzlav, a bay on the west side of Russia-controlled Crimea. One month ago, a similar Tarantul-class corvette sank in Sevastopol’s Hrafska Bay.

Last fall, Ukrainian missile and sea drone attacks pushed Russia’s fleet out of the western and central Black Sea. This lifted Russia’s naval siege of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. In the four months since Ukraine opened a grain export corridor, almost 500 cargo ships have used the route. In December, Ukraine’s exports from its three Odessa region ports hit 6.3 million tons, near the pre-war level. Before the war, these ports — Odessa, Chornomorsk, and Pivdenny — handled about half of all of Ukraine’s exports.

Even without a navy, Ukraine is beating the Russian navy. Largely a legacy of the Soviet Union, Russia’s Navy was considered before the war to be the third most powerful in the world, after the navies of America and China. In almost two years of drone warfare, Ukraine has sunk or damaged nearly half of Russia’s pre-war Black Sea fleet of 80 working vessels. With Thursday’s sinking of the Ivanovets, 23 Russian warships have been sunk. Another 13 have suffered major damage. In revenge, Russia has hit almost 200 Ukrainian port facilities since July, killing five port workers and injuring 23.

“Satellite imagery indicates that Ukrainian strikes caused Russian forces to move [Black Sea fleet] assets away from occupied Sevastopol to ports in the eastern part of the Black Sea on an enduring basis,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reports. Analyzing photos by Planet Labs, the nonprofit concludes: “Recent satellite imagery indicates that vessels moved to Novorossiysk over the fall have not returned to Sevastopol.”

Now, some analysts fear Ukraine’s next step is to turn the tables on Russia and block Russian exports from its own Black Sea ports. Novorossiysk, Russia’s busiest Black Sea port, is Russia’s third-largest oil exporting port, after two ports near St. Petersburg. Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter, with about 70 percent going through Novorossiysk and nearby Taman.

Eurasia Group’s president, Ian Bremmer, worries that Ukraine will target “oil and grain facilities on the Black Sea that could again disrupt global markets.” Writing in Time magazine before the European Union approved a $54 billion aid package to Ukraine Thursday, Mr. Bremmer said: “Kyiv is fast becoming more desperate. It’s doing its best to scale up its domestic defense production, especially of drones for the battlefield and for hitting targets inside Russia.”

To President Zelensky, this sounds like appeasement. Two weeks ago at the World Economic Forum at Davos, he said of the “don’t escalate” mantra: “Every ‘don’t escalate’ to us, sounded like “you will prevail” to Putin. … Nothing has harmed our coalition more than this concept.” Separately, in an interview with France’s Le Monde newspaper, Ukraine’s top chief, Kyrylo Budanov, recently reviewed Ukraine’s attacks on Crimea and on energy targets. Looking ahead to 2024, he promised: “This is just the beginning.”

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