Why Russian oil refining industry is a legitimate military target

The war will not end when Ukraine liberates Donbas, Zaporizhia, and Kherson regions, neither will it end after the liberation of Crimea. Attacks on the Ukrainian energy and civil infrastructure can resume at any moment, even if we imagine the impossible — finding, on paper, a compromise solution for cessation of hostilities with Putin’s regime. The war will end on one condition only: when Russia runs out of oil in Russian oil pipelines and at oil refineries.

According to Bloomberg, in 2023, the Russian budget revenues from exports of crude oil and petroleum products amounted to USD99.3 billion, and from the sale of petroleum products on the domestic market — to about USD60 billion. Oil revenues to the state budget of the occupying country exceed its entire official military budget more than one and half times. One should also keep in mind that oil is the blood of war, with which the Russian army is fed daily, by tens of millions of dollars. Hence, the destruction of a critical part of Russia's oil and gas sector is a much more reliable "peace agreement" than the conclusion of any treaty, which, as it has been known since the time of Bismarck, is not worth the paper it is written on.

During the full-scale Russian aggression, Ukraine lost up to 60% of all generating capacities from massive missile and drone attacks and seizure of the Zaporizhia NPP, thermal, solar and wind power plants. Even the most sophisticated air defence systems and the best physical protection cannot reliably protect the energy infrastructure from regular massive strikes by the Russian air and missile forces, in the long run.

Taking into account all the above, the top military-political leadership of Ukraine made the only correct decision in this situation: to move military operations to the enemy's strategic depth in order to take out its oil refining industry, as a legitimate target in the war. After Ukrainian armed UAVs hit the large petrochemical terminal of the Novatek company on the Baltic Sea in Ust-Luga on January 21, 2024, a new stage of the war began, which made its conclusion on fair terms achievable. Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy facilities were not unpunished any longer.

The first test strikes on Russia's oil refining and petroleum product supply system were carried out as early as May 2023. Then Ukrainian drones attacked the Ilsky and Afipsky Refineries in Krasnodarsky Kray. However, real work of the SBU, GUR and SSO on Russian oil refining began early this year. In the period from January 21 to March 23, successful strikes were carried out on at least 12 refineries and petrochemical enterprises and four oil depots located at a distance of up to 1,200 km from the Ukrainian border.

In particular, such giants of the Russian oil refining industry as Lukoil-Nizhegorodnaftoorgsintez and the Ryazan refinery with a capacity of 17 million tons of oil per year suffered significant damage. The second in Russia in terms of processing volumes, Kirishinefteorgsintez refinery (20 million tons of oil per year) was also attacked, but the damage caused to it was not so significant. There was also a successful attack on the Tuapse Refinery, which processes light, high-quality oil to obtain petroleum products for exports.

According to Bloomberg and the SBU head Vasyl Maliuk, Russian oil refining lost 12% of all its capacities, amounting to about 320 million tons per year, as a result of the UAV strikes. In total, there are about 30 big refineries and 80 mini-refineries in the Russian Federation, which in recent years processed 270–280 million tons of oil yearly, producing 40–45 million tons of gasoline, with domestic consumption amounting to 38–40 million tons, and 80-85 million tons of diesel fuel, with domestic consumption of about 40 million tons.

As you can see, there is still a surplus of diesel fuel after the airstrikes, but problems with gasoline in Russia should be expected soon, even despite the government ban on exports from March 1. At the same time, one should not overly optimistically expect a crisis on the market of petroleum products in the coming weeks. However, certain results of reductions in oil refining are already seen. First of all, exchange prices for motor fuel in January–March rose by 50%. In the retail sector, prices are kept stable by administrative methods, but it is unrealistic to avoid an increase in the price of petroleum products at gas stations in the coming months.

The Russian petroleum product supply system is fairly stable, primarily, regarding diesel fuel. The oil refining industry can use idle capacities, and oil companies are able to increase oil deliveries to Belarus and obtain petroleum products from it for the Russian market. Meanwhile, Russian oil exports rose by 10% in February–March, which roughly correlates with the lost refining capacities.

To create a real crisis in the Russian oil market, the Defence Forces of Ukraine should continue to attack the enemy's refineries with maximum intensity for at least another four to five months, destroying 8–10 primary processing units per month. Today, more than 60% of all refining capacities in the European part of the Russian Federation are within the impact zone of Ukrainian drones. In my opinion, first of all, we should focus on the most modern and powerful refineries within reach and strike again at the still intact facilities of the previously attacked plants, paying special attention to the Kirishinefteorgsintez refinery, and add the Moscow Refinery to the list of new targets.

The most vulnerable and at the same time important types of refining equipment include the oil treatment and primary processing plant ELOU-AVT. It is difficult to defend because the rectification column is as tall as a 12-storey building. The cost of this equipment can reach UDS1 billion, and its restoration will last more than 14 months. The purpose of the rectification column is to separate oil into fractions, from light hydrocarbon gases and gasoline to heavy vacuum distillates and tar.

In my opinion, the further plan to destroy the key Russian oil and gas infrastructure should rest on an all-round approach. This means that, while continuing UAV strikes on refineries, the "menu" of strikes should also include the main oil pipeline system of the Transneft company, namely: the main oil pumping stations. Taking out base gas compressor stations designed to create regulatory pressure for gas transportation from the fields of Western Siberia to the European part of the Russian Federation can finally "pacify" the enemy.

In case of successful implementation of this plan, total losses for the Russian economy will reach a critical level, almost without victims among the civilian population. After receiving fair "karma", it will not be necessary to persuade the Kremlin leadership to end the war, since it will no longer have the resources to continue it. Actually, after the first results of employment of Ukrainian UAVs, the Russian leadership should have realized all the consequences of the undeclared war it unleashed, but common sense is not among its strengths.

It is becoming more and more obvious that the main battleground in this bloody war, after the line of engagement has stabilized, is energy. The one whose fuel and energy sector survives will win. In this context, air defence systems, EW, attack drones, missiles, the scale of sanctions on the aggressor's energy resources, and the ability to manage the energy system and quickly restore it, are of crucial importance.

Instead, the White House for some reason is upset by the efficiency of Ukrainian drone attacks on legitimate Russian military targets. Apparently, this is explained by Washington’s illusion that it is possible to reach some kind of a compromise with the Kremlin in the next six months to stop hostilities in the absence of powerful military pressure on it, with an efficient sanctions policy. It is difficult to find another explanation, because in reality, Ukrainian attacks cannot affect oil prices in any way, since the reduction of oil refining in the Russian Federation does not reduce its supply to the world market. This is an obvious fact.

There is an impression that Washington strategists have found themselves in a Zugzwang of their own conservative thinking, which looks as follows. On the one hand, it is absolutely unacceptable for them to provide Ukraine with sufficient weapons, simultaneously toughening sanctions, so that the Kremlin loses or is weakened to the point where it cannot preserve the integrity of the country, as this will lead to chaos in the nuclear state and significantly strengthen the main strategic adversary of the US, which is considered to be China. On the other hand, the Putin regime is not going to abandon its revanchist intentions, threatening to undermine the entire world order formed over the past almost 80 years under the leadership of Washington.

Some high-ranking US officials see the way out of this trap, slowly and "inconspicuously" pushing Ukraine to a Realpolitik-style "compromise", due to its resource and political limitations, since it is much harder to force Moscow to return to the international legal framework. However, such a short-sighted position only whets the geopolitical appetites of Putin's KGB team and makes this strategic trap even more hopeless.


Volodymyr Omelchenko

Director, Energy Programmes

Born in 1967 in Kyiv

Education: Kyiv Politechnic Institute, Department of Chemical Engineering (1992)

Author of over 50 scientific works and op-ed publications. Took part in development and implementation of international energy projects and scientific research in international energy policy


1992 – 1996 — worked in different positions in the mechanical engineering industry

1997 – 1998 — Head Expert of the Division of Oil, Gas and Petroleum Refining Industry of the Ministry of Economy of Ukraine

1998 – 2003 — Naftohaz Ukrayiny National Joint-Stock Company, in Charge of Oil Transportation Section

2004 – 2007 — Chief Consultant at the National Institute of International Security Problems of Ukraine’s NSDC

since February, 2007 — Leading Expert, Razumkov Centre. Director of Energy Programmes since 2013

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