Challenges and Risks: Ukraine’s Offensive on Russian Oil and Gas

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Amid declining ammunition and mounting worries over the future of Western military aid, the Ukrainian army has switched mainly to vigorous defense in recent months. Nevertheless, as the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine comes to the two-year mark, talk of a stalemate remains impulsive. While heavy fighting persists at various hot spots along the front lines in southern and eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian commanders have started 2024 by attempting to convey the war home to Russia with a new air strike movement against the Russian oil and gas industry. By targeting Russia’s economically important energy sector, Ukraine expects to weaken Russia’s war machine and form a range of dilemmas for the Kremlin.

The recent long-range Ukrainian drone actions against energy sector targets in-depth inside Russia are not entirely unusual. Indeed, in 2023, Ukraine organized to carry out several successful strikes against Russian military targets. But unlike these earlier attacks, the central characteristic of Ukraine’s latest drone strike campaign is the focus on Russia’s oil and gas processing, warehouse, and export facilities. Since the beginning of 2024, Ukraine has bombed a series of buildings located hundreds of kilometers from the border, with targets varying from Volgograd in the south to Saint Petersburg and the Baltic Sea in the north.

These Ukrainian attacks strike at the heart of the economic machine that fuels Putin’s war machine. Oil and gas exports remain an effective source of Russian GDP and have demonstrated surprising resistance to Western sanctions. New clients are appearing to compensate for the loss of European customers. Ukrainian commanders consider their new long-range drone strike campaign to eventually create a significant disruption to the Russian economy that will translate into influence over the Kremlin. For now, however, the scale of the drone strikes remains restricted.

One key barrier is the size of Ukraine’s delivery systems. While Ukraine continually upgrades its drone fleet, its existing long-range UAVs cannot carry more than 50 kilograms of warheads. This represents most of the damage done at Russian energy facilities, which is pretty easy to localize and neutralize. Ukraine also faces considerable challenges navigating past Russia’s classic air defenses and electronic warfare systems. Despite these constraints, there are already signs that Ukraine’s long-range air strike campaign is keeping an impact. A February 5 report by Bloomberg revealed Russia’s weekly oil-processing rates had dropped to the lowest level in almost two months after two important refineries were compelled to halt operations following Ukrainian drone strikes.

Ukraine’s military planners are now expecting long-range drone strikes to force their Russian counterparts to make some difficult decisions. Now, most of Russia’s air defense assets are focused along the front lines of the war. These systems play a critical role in protecting the Ukrainian Air Force and Ukraine’s increasingly deadly drone forces. As Ukraine strengthens attacks on Russia’s energy sector, Kremlin chiefs will have to decide whether to keep their country’s limited air defense systems near the battlefield in Ukraine or redistribute them to protect oil and gas facilities inside Russia itself.

Both scenarios could lead to significant risks. Suppose Russia fails to protect critical oil and gas infrastructure. In that case, there is always a danger that the sheer quantity of Ukrainian attacks may cause serious harm to the Russian economy and compromise the Kremlin’s ability to wage war. At the same time, attempts to reinforce the defense of Russian energy facilities would leave Putin’s army in Ukraine exposed and vulnerable.

Moscow faces extra dilemmas due to Russia’s vast size, which makes it extremely difficult to provide comprehensive air defense coverage. Russian officials have newly indicated that the country lacks adequate air defense systems to fully protect significant cities like Saint Petersburg against Ukraine’s expanding long-range drone threat. The Russian energy industry’s reliance on Western technologies further complicates the situation. While Ukraine is currently unable to inflict significant harm due to the country’s relatively modest air strike capabilities, sanctions restrictions will likely make it difficult for Russia to replace any Western equipment damaged or destroyed by Ukrainian drones.

At present, Ukraine’s new long-range drone strike movement is too limited in scope to derail the Russian war effort or seriously disrupt the Russian economy. However, these attacks are capable of inflicting economic pain while also increasing the pressure on Russian commanders to reduce air defense protection for their army in Ukraine. This is the same dilemma Ukrainian army chiefs have faced for much of the past two years in response to Russia’s air strikes far beyond the front lines against civilian targets, including essential infrastructure.

By attacking Russia’s energy sector, Ukrainian commanders are aiming to open a new front in the war and reshape the battlefield in Ukraine itself. The recent storm of air strikes on Putin’s oil and gas industry underlines Ukraine’s responsibility to bring the war home to Russia, even while embracing a strategy of active defense along the front lines of eastern and southern Ukraine.

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