With Russian Oil Refineries Ablaze From Ukraine Strikes, Kremlin Accuses America of ‘Playing With Fire’

Ukraine’s successes with drones and missiles stand in contrast to the land war, where Ukrainian soldiers are largely on the defensive.

Telegram channel AV BogomaZ via AP
Oil reservoirs on fire in January 2024 after a Ukrainian drone strike at Klintsy, a city in the Bryansk Region of Russia. Telegram channel AV BogomaZ via AP

Flying through an area of Western Russia twice the size of Texas, hundreds of Ukrainian drones attacked oil refineries and tank farms in five cities last week. In Russia-controlled Crimea, American-supplied missiles hit the main air base. The Army Tactical Missile System rockets damaged the two-mile concrete runway and destroyed $1 billion worth of matériel — one air defense system, four war jets, and the base fuel tanks.

Piling more pressure on Russia, Ukrainian officials asked Washington to share real-time reconnaissance intel to identify military targets inside Russia. They also asked permission to use the highly accurate American tactical missiles to hit targets in Russia proper. Ukraine’s successes with drones and missiles stand in contrast to the land war, where Ukrainian soldiers are largely on the defensive.

By Friday, the drone and missile pressure was so intense that Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, warned that America and Europe “are playing with fire.” He told the TASS state news agency: “They have long been in a state of indirect war with the Russian Federation.”

For now, the Biden Administration is reining in Ukraine, saying they will not identify targets inside Russia and will not allow Kyiv to use American rockets to hit Russia. Ukrainians see this as a double standard, noting Russia uses Iranian drones and North Korean missiles to hit targets inside Ukraine. 

In this handout photo released by Krasnodar Gov. Veniamin Kondratyev in his Telegram channel on Thursday, May 4, 2023, Firefighters work at the side of the Ilsky Oil Refinery manufacturing complex in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia. Four drones struck an oil refinery in the Krasnodar region, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing law enforcement sources. (
Firefighters work at the Ilsky Oil Refinery manufacturing complex in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia, May 4, 2023. Governor Veniamin Kondratyev’s Telegram channel via AP

The Biden Administration is not expected to change its policy  before the presidential election in November. Last month, Biden administration officials asked the Ukrainians to stop bombing refineries in the belief that this could hike American gasoline prices during the politically crucial summer driving season. 

Last week, the Pentagon  said in a report that the strikes had “disrupted about 14 percent of Russia’s oil refining capacity” and that by mid-March, domestic gasoline and diesel prices had risen by 20percent  to 30 percent in Russia. 

A contrarian view came  in a Foreign Affairs article titled: “Why Ukraine Should Keep Striking Russian Oil Refineries;

Washington’s Fears About Energy Markets Are Misplaced.” The article observes that as a result of “less domestic refining capacity, Russia will be forced to export more of its crude oil, not less, pushing global prices down rather than up.” 

While America debates, Ukraine is MacGyvering its drones to put all of Western Russia within bombing range.  To reach hundreds of miles into Russia, Ukraine converts locally made single-propeller sports planes into one-way kamikazes where pilots are replaced in cockpits by GPS and 300 pounds of explosives. Flying 100 miles an hour these planes blend into  normal civil air traffic, making them hard to detect from the ground. 

Recognizing that the oil industry is Russia’s financial Achilles heel, Ukraine’s intelligence agencies sent hundreds of drones this month  to bomb Russian oil  refineries and oil export terminals. In the north, drones started an oil terminal fire at Vyborg, 40 miles east of Finland. In the south, drones shut down liquefied natural gas production  in Tuapse, Russia’s only refinery on the Black Sea.

In the 1,300 miles in between, the Ukrainians hit this month a little known archipelago of Russia refineries: Kaluga, Salavat, Slavyansk, and Volgograd. The most spectacular attack was last week on Novorossiysk, which was often the busiest oil exporting port in Russia. There, two terminals and two tank farms were hit. It was the first time Ukraine attacked the oil facilities in Novorossiysk. Before the war, Novorossiysk was often rated the busiest in Russia.

This mainland Russian port offers safe harbor to Russian war ships fleeing Ukraine’s Black Sea drones. The sea drone campaign has been so successful that Ukraine’s grain exports from its three Odessa ports have returned to pre-war levels. 

The Kremlin did not lift its de facto blockade of Odessa to be nice, but because one-third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet has sunk. Over the weekend, two more Russian Navy ships joined the underwater graveyard. 

Yesterday, a 200-feet long minesweeper, the Kovrovets, was sunk off the west coast of Crimea. There is no news of the crew, estimated at 70. Also yesterday, an ATACMS missile sank the Tsiklon missile ship in Sevastopol port. Part of the Karakurt, or “Black Widow” class, the Tsiklon was armed with Kalibr missiles, rockets capable of hitting Odessa. The price tag for both ships adds up to $85 million. However, even for oil-rich Russia, it is hard to find replacement ships.

After two years of war, Ukraine finds itself facing a shortage of naval targets. Earlier this month, a sea “victory” turned out to be a video of a Ukrainian drone blowing up a Russian patrol boat that was not much larger than the drone. Last month, a Ukrainian drone damaged at Sevastopol port a submarine salvage ship, Kommuna. It turned out the ship was launched  under the Tsars, in 1915. Considered to be the world’s oldest active duty naval vessel, Kommuna is the oldest ship still in service in the Russian Navy.


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