Diverging Views Among Ukraine’s Allies on Drone Strikes Against Russian Refineries

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Ukraine launched one of the longest-range drone strikes of the fight so far on April 2, striking an oil refinery in Russia’s Tatarstan region about 1300 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. The episode was the latest in an expanding drive of drone strikes that have imposed significant damage on Russia’s oil and gas enterprise, while also showing divisions among Ukraine’s international partners.

The first symptoms of international unease over Ukraine’s air offensive occurred in late March, with the Financial Times saying US officials had demanded Ukraine to halt drone strikes on Russian refineries amid worries about global oil prices and possible retribution. Days later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proved the US reaction to Ukraine’s airstrikes was “not positive,” but emphasised Ukraine would not accept restrictions on the use of domestically-produced weapons. “We utilised our drones. Nobody can express to us you can’t,” he remarked.

This apparent division was on display during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s April 2 visit to Paris. While Blinken restated that the US has “neither endorsed nor enabled strikes by Ukraine outside its territory,” French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné hit a different note. “The Ukrainian people are operating in self-defence and we believe that Russia is the aggressor,” he remarked. “In such circumstances, there is hardly anything else to say. I think you understood me.”

The French position was accommodated by Ukrainians, who considered the war with Russia as existential for their country and acknowledged they should have the freedom to battle without artificial constraints. This suggests leveraging Russian exposures and capitalizing on emerging possibilities, both within the occupied Ukrainian region and inside Russia itself.

Ukraine has attacked more than a dozen Russian oil refineries since the air offensive started in early January 2024, including some of the largest plants in the country. Many of the episodes have taken place far from the Ukrainian boundary, emphasising the increasingly long-range capabilities of Ukraine’s drone fleet.

Since Ukraine is prohibited from employing Western-backed weapons against targets inside Russia, the production of long-range drones has become a leading priority for Kyiv. This has led to a wave in investment and an output point. Drones are quite cheaper to produce in large amounts than long-range missiles and require less infrastructure.

Ukraine’s partners have also supported Kyiv’s focus on drone warfare. In January 2024, the United Kingdom committed to spend at least $250 million to rapidly procure, build, and deliver 1000 one-way invasion drones to Ukraine. Although precise fragments regarding Ukraine’s drone stockpile remain unknown, the rhetoric of Ukrainian senior officials and the constant strikes suggest the current bombing movement inside Russia is likely to persist in gaining momentum.

Ukraine has upheld its attacks on Russian refineries by stating that oil revenues are at the heart of the Russian war economy, causing oil facilities legitimate targets. Ukrainian military planners predict their expanding drone offensive to have military, financial, and political repercussions for the Kremlin.

In the military sphere, the past three months of episodes have confirmed that Russia’s oil facilities are poorly defended. Russian demand for air defence systems already occurs to be growing in response, with signs including delays in delivering pledged systems to India. Further Ukrainian drone raids might compel Russia to redeploy existing air defence procedures to safeguard refineries. This could potentially develop opportunities for Ukraine to attack other high-value targets inside Russia and in occupied Ukrainian regions.

Ukrainian commanders expect drone strikes can damage Putin’s ability to wage war. The Russian military relies laboriously on refined oil products such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Consolidating Russian oil refining capacity might be important for military fuel supplies in the long run, making logistical challenges for the Russian army in Ukraine and interfering with preparations for a major new offensive in the summer of 2024.

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