Ukraine Turns the Heat on Russian Oil: Intensified Strikes in Battle for Victory

by Anna-Mariia Mandzii

1 MB

Key Takeaways

  • Strategic Drone Strikes: Ukraine has intensified drone attacks on Russian oil refineries, significantly damaging 10-15% of these facilities, leading to a 20% increase in domestic diesel prices.
  • Enhanced Capabilities: Increased domestic production of long-range drones, along with substantial Western support, has bolstered Ukraine’s ability to target Russian infrastructure effectively.
  • Sanctions Impact: Western sanctions have severely hindered Russia’s ability to repair damaged refineries, exacerbating the financial and logistical strain on its economy and military.
  • Geopolitical Dynamics: The U.S. and Eu-rope are divided in their responses; the U.S. fears global oil price spikes, while Europe supports Ukraine’s right to self-defense, reflecting differing strategic interests.
  • Need for Unified Support: Ukraine’s success depends on securing unified backing from its partners, particularly regarding the use of Western weapons against Russian targets. This consensus is crucial for sustaining its strategic campaign against Russia.

Starting from January 2024, Ukraine has significantly intensified its attacks on Russian oil refineries. According to different sources, Ukraine might have damaged 10 to 15% of the Russian oil refinery facilities. One of the reasons for such a development is Ukraine’s increase in the domestic production of certain types of weaponry, particularly long-range drones. One of the top Ukrainian officials, Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, announced that the country had increased the production of long-range strike drones tenfold in 2024. “Most of the drones that attacked Russian refineries have a range of 700 to 1,000 kilometers, but now there are models that can fly over 1,000 kilometers,” Fedorov said. Additionally, Ukraine was backed by its partners, such as the UK, which has committed to allocate a minimum of $250 million to quickly acquire, manufacture, and supply 1000 one-way attack drones to Ukraine.

So far, Ukraine’s approach has focused on targeting Russian oil refineries rather than hitting Russia’s crude oil production sites or export infrastructure. Therefore, this strategy adversely impacts the Russian domestic market for refined products while largely leaving Russian exports unaffected. Furthermore, a drone can’t destroy the entire refinery, and as previous examples show, the damaged facilities were back in operation a few weeks after the attack. Less than half of Russia’s daily refining output, which stands at 5.5 million barrels, comes from domestic consumption. The nation produces twice as much diesel as it consumes and is a significant fuel exporter. The new weapons in Ukraine cannot reach 40% of Russian oil refining facilities located mostly in the Urals and Siberia, giving the country access to a sufficient amount of diesel, marine fuel, and fuel oil to satisfy its needs in key industries, agriculture, and the armed forces as well as maintain its export at a normal level.

The illustration of Russian western oil refineries that are within
the reach of Ukraine’s drone strike capability.
Source: Financial Times

Thus, although domestic diesel prices have soared by more than 20% since the start of the year due to Ukraine’s attacks, Russia hasn’t been significantly impacted, and it will still be able to handle the petroleum products shortage even in a worse scenario of losing up to 30% of its oil refining capability. Nevertheless, should Ukraine’s drone attacks keep happening at the pace they did in March, Russia’s refining capacity may eventually slightly decline as a result of Ukraine continuously damaging its refineries more quickly than they can be fixed.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial to note that Western sanctions have significantly impacted Russia’s capacity to repair damage inflicted by drone strikes. Russian oil refineries, built during the Cold War, gained substantially from accessing Western technologies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian firms invested billions in modernizing their facilities. However, this reliance on Western technology has become a significant issue since the onset of the full-scale invasion. According to Reuters, the specialized equipment required by these refineries is quite rare, and the sanctions enforced following the escalation of hostilities have further exacerbated the situation. According to British intelligence, “Sanctions are highly likely increasing the time and cost of sourcing replacement equipment. These strikes are imposing a financial cost on Russia, impacting the domestic fuel market.”

While this hasn’t resulted in a strategic turning point in the war, any factors that could potentially weaken Russian capabilities on the battlefield are significant for Ukraine.

How Does Ukraine Benefit from Targeting the Russian Oil Refineries?

Does Ukraine indeed benefit from the shelling of Russian refineries, even though it puts pressure on its relations with the United States? Yes, and here is why.

As mentioned, Ukraine targets mostly oil refineries whose products are largely directed to the Russian domestic market. Last fall, Russia experienced significant fuel shortages within its domestic market, prompting the government to temporarily ban diesel and gasoline exports and enhance subsidies for businesses. Continuous Ukrainian drone attacks may cause a similar situation. Additionally, the efficient operation of oil refineries is crucial for maintaining the combat effectiveness of the Russian military, which relies heavily on diesel and gasoline. Ukraine’s main objectives are to hinder the delivery of fuel to the front lines, intensify pressure on Russian air defense systems, and symbolically show its capability to extend the conflict closer to Moscow. Furthermore, it is widely recognized that Ukraine has a legitimate right to respond to Russia, especially considering that Russia has damaged roughly 60% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in an effort to destabilize life across the country.

Furthermore, historical examples underscore the significance of such actions in shaping the course of a war. For instance, during World War II, the air forces of the United States and Great Britain conducted a strategic bombing campaign targeting the energy infrastructure of Nazi Germany, namely, facilities supplying it with petroleum, oil, and lubrication (POL) products, significantly contributing to its defeat. While it is important to recognize that the Russian-Ukrainian war shouldn’t be compared to other conflicts, Russia’s reliance on energy resources on the battlefield suggests that lessons from past wars could help build current strategies.

The Reaction Of the Western Partners

The United States

The response from Ukrainian allies has varied, particularly after a Financial Times report suggested that Washington had issued several warnings to Kyiv regarding Ukrainian attacks. Notably, during the Munich Security Conference, in a private meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyi, Vice President Kamala Harris communicated the White House’s stance and advised against targeting Russian refineries.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Vice President Harris at the Munich Security Conference in February. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images)

In the following weeks, Washington reinforced these warnings through multiple discussions with Kyiv, including a March visit to the Ukrainian capital by National Security Adviser and other high-ranking U.S. defense and intelligence officials.

Furthermore, during Secretary Antony Blinken’s visit to Paris in April 2024, he said the following: “It has been our view and policy from day one when it comes to Ukraine to do everything we possibly can to help Ukraine defend itself against this Russian aggression. At the same time, we have neither supported nor enabled strikes by Ukraine outside of its territory”.

Washington was reported to have asked Ukraine to cease drone strikes on Russia’s oil refineries, fearing a spike in crude oil prices and potential retaliation.

Despite facing Western sanctions targeting its oil and gas industry, Russia remains a major global energy exporter. Oil prices have increased approximately by 15% this year, reaching $85 per barrel. From the Biden administration’s perspective, this situation’s major threat is particularly the increase in fuel prices in an election year. Any dissatisfaction with rising prices could negatively impact the fall elections and the incumbent president’s chances for re-election. Nevertheless, despite the U.S. warnings, it appears that Ukraine has not been deterred from continuing its shelling campaign against Russian refineries.


Unlike the United States, Europe has taken a less critical position. As mentioned above, the UK pledged to supply Ukraine with 1000 attack drones. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has just announced that Ukraine is entitled to use weapons supplied by London to target sites within Russia, stating that the decision to do so rests with Kyiv. This is a profoundly different stance in comparison with the U.S. one.

“The Ukrainian people are acting in self-defense, and we consider Russia the aggressor,” said French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné during Antony Blinken’s visit to Paris.

Following Russia’s prolonged attack on energy infrastructure, which destroyed Kyiv’s largest power plant in April, Estonia’s Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur stated to reporters last week, “Ukrainians have the right to do the same.” Furthermore, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative affirmed that “Ukraine has the right to strike military targets on Russian territory.”

Overall, the most supportive of Ukraine’s actions are Central and Eastern European states. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson is convinced that Ukraine’s drone strikes are justified by “all the targets of the invader” as long as these actions do not contravene international law.

The above-mentioned suggests that the primary concern for the U.S. in supporting Ukraine’s drone attacks on Russian oil refining infrastructure is the potential impact on global oil market stability. In 2024, the U.S. administration will likely avoid unpredictable scenarios that could negatively influence President Joe Biden’s approval ratings. In contrast, European countries are not negatively impacted by these developments. Furthermore, they view Ukraine’s actions as a fully legitimate and necessary response to ongoing Russian bombardments rooted in Ukraine’s right to self-defense.

Why Should the United States and Europe Capitalize on the Momentum?

The experts’ opinions on the effectiveness of Ukraine’s drone attacks on the Russian oil refineries split, with one part suggesting Ukraine pay attention to possible implications for the global oil price. In contrast, the others view this as a logical move, though unlikely to result in major strategic shifts at the frontline. Nonetheless, Ukraine should seize every chance to diminish the Russian Federation’s capacity to carry out military operations and sustain its internal stability.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis offers compelling arguments to demonstrate the significance of Ukrainian drone strikes as part of the collective West’s broader strategy to ensure a long-term reduction of Russia’s global influence, particularly in the energy sector. First, the sanctions and a price cap imposed on Russian oil exports haven’t significantly affected the country’s energy sector. It managed to overcome most of the consequences. Moreover, given that China and India have become the main importers of Russian energy resources, Russian revenue soared in 2023, reaching a peak of $320 billion. A third of this money is spent on financing the war against Ukraine.

Therefore, if the collective West is willing to cut Russian capabilities, it should push harder to target the most strategically important sources of Russia’s revenue. The global economic situation is relatively stable, and inflation worldwide is lower than in 2022 and 2023, making the international market more resilient to the consequences of tougher pressure on Russia. U.S. domestic oil production has risen since the outbreak of the Russian war against Ukraine, creating an alternative for Russian energy, especially for the European states.

Ensuring a prolonged and more detrimental impact on the Russian economy and curtailing its capacity to fund the war against Ukraine is crucial, particularly in 2025, when Ukraine might be gearing up for a new counteroffensive. Ukrainian strikes on oil refineries are critical in exerting pressure on Russia. Increased fuel prices and inflation within the Russian domestic market could significantly destabilize internal conditions. Consequently, these dynamics compel the Kremlin to undertake various measures, such as implementing temporary export restrictions on certain oil products, allocating additional financial resources, and absorbing profit losses. For instance, Russia has already prohibited gasoline exports for six months starting from March 1.


In conclusion, Ukraine’s strategic targeting of Russian oil refineries serves multiple objectives, impacting Russia’s internal stability and its military capabilities. By exploiting Russia’s dependence on its domestic oil refineries and leveraging historical strategies of crippling an enemy’s energy infrastructure, Ukraine not only hampers the operational efficiency of Russian military forces but also triggers economic repercussions within Russia.

The international response, particularly the divergence between U.S. caution and European support, highlights the geopolitical complexities and differing strategic interests. While the U.S. remains wary of escalating global oil prices, European nations, driven by proximity and immediate security concerns, are more supportive of Ukraine’s actions. Many experts argue that the U.S. and Europe should seize this opportunity to weaken further Russia, which has managed to maintain stability internally and sustain its trade despite Western sanctions. It is suggested that Western economies, which can more easily absorb the impact of rising global oil prices, are well-positioned to implement such measures. Additionally, the continuation of Ukraine’s campaign targeting Russian refineries is seen as strategically important in the long term for both Ukraine and the West, which should set a goal of gradually weakening Russia and undermining its dominance in the energy sector.

Ultimately, Ukraine’s intensified drone attacks on Russian refineries, while not altering the strategic balance of the war immediately, contribute to a sustained degradation of Russian military and economic strength. This approach not only embodies Ukraine’s right to defend its sovereignty but also intensifies pressure on Russia’s internal dynamics, increasing the burden of war.

[1] At the time of publication, the list of states that made an official statement granting permission to use weapons of their own production on the territory of the Russian Federation includes Sweden, Finland, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Norway, the United States. Against are Italy and Belgium. The United States has changed its policy on Ukraine’s strikes against Russia, but this does not apply to ATACMS missiles.

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