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  5. Ukraine is defying the US over strikes on Russian oil refineries. Experts say it's a necessary risk.

Ukraine is defying the US over strikes on Russian oil refineries. Experts say it's a necessary risk.

Mia Jankowicz   

Ukraine is defying the US over strikes on Russian oil refineries. Experts say it's a necessary risk.
  • Ukraine continues to target Russian energy facilities despite reported White House objections.
  • The attacks are an attempt to weaken Russia's economy, straining its primary foreign currency source.

Four days after the US voted to sign off a long-awaited $61 billion in aid, Ukraine did the one thing that the White House has reportedly been asking it not to do: It struck another oil facility on Russian soil.

Ukraine says that Wednesday's drone attack took out about 900,000 cubic feet of Russian fuel. This was followed on Friday by 10 drones slamming into an oil refinery in Krasnodar, shutting the plant down, The Telegraph reported.

These are just the latest in a ferocious string of attacks on Russian energy facilities, launched by Ukraine since the start of the year.

Ukraine's rationale for hitting Russia's energy infrastructure came in response to the muted impact of Western sanctions, as well as delays in Western aid as it struggled to hold the front line.

Ukraine needed to be "more creative, or think in more 3D terms about the battle space," Ann Marie Dailey, a geopolitical strategist at the RAND Corporation, told BI.

"You need to find other ways to weaken your opponent and stretch their resources," she added.

While the US dithered over aid, Ukraine had a robust argument for prosecuting the war pretty much as it pleased.

But now that the aid bill has passed, "there's a bit more political leverage on the side of the US," Rafael Loss, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told BI.

Reports suggest that President Joe Biden's administration has tried to dissuade Ukraine from attacks on energy infrastructure. (Ukraine has denied this, while the White House has not commented directly.)

Reported concerns from the US include the impact on global oil prices, and the risk of a Russian escalation in the war, The Washington Post reported.

The debate over the attacks has also exposed fault lines in the relationship between Ukraine and its most powerful ally.

"It is a risky move to continue that," said Marina Miron, a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies at King's College London.

Defying a powerful ally

Ukraine risks alienating its most powerful ally by going against the US just days after Congress approved a hefty military aid package.

But, as multiple analysts have said, the aid package alone isn't going to win the war. Ukraine needs ways of weakening Russia, and that includes striking its energy infrastructure, Dailey said.

She likened the situation to a boxing match in which one fighter is only allowed to hit the other's arms.

And Russia has been landing body blows. On Saturday, Russia unleashed a massive attack on Ukraine's energy facilities, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

Russia has previously said that attacks like these are a direct response to Ukraine's own attacks, according to the Post, a stance that, on the surface at least, seems to validate US fears.

Even so, Ukraine has a point to prove about its own agency in the war, Olga Tokariuk, an academy fellow at London's Chatham House, told BI.

Russia has repeatedly tried to paint the conflict as a proxy battle between itself and the US, diminishing Ukraine's role, she said.

By ignoring the White House on key issues of military strategy, Zelenskyy can demonstrate that Ukrainians "have their own agency, they have functioning democratic institutions, even amid war, and they're able to make their own decisions," Tokariuk added.

And, as some analysts have noted, the political situation in the US — with former President Donald Trump vying to regain the presidency — could mean that this is the last aid package Ukraine gets from the US.

This "somehow frees them to actually keep on conducting those strikes," Miron said.

Whittling away at Russia's war economy

Ukraine's attacks are taking place hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, far from the home territory it is trying to defend.

Part of the US' unease, Pentagon official Celeste Wallander told a House panel earlier this month, rests on the fact that energy infrastructure is a civilian target and not a military one, as the Post reported.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin previously said that the US would prefer that Ukraine target Russian airfields, the outlet reported.

But there is also the question of how effective the attacks are in military terms. As Carnegie scholar Sergey Vakulenko wrote recently, even if Ukraine took out every oil and gas facility within reach, Russia would likely still have enough for its own uses.

"Taking out a particular refinery is not going to immediately undermine Russia's war effort," said Dailey, the RAND strategist. "But consistently putting pressure on Russia's oil sector would have a significant impact on Russia's ability to fight this war."

She said that, in the long term, lower oil output would cut into Russia's access to export earnings — vital foreign currency it uses to buy materials it needs for advanced weaponry.

Vakulenko, in his article, also noted that that strikes on Russian oil refineries have "little impact on Russian export earnings."

But, he said, if Ukraine keeps up the same pace of attacks it set in March, it "will be able to keep damaging Russian refineries faster than they can be fixed, slowly but steadily eroding the country's refining capacity."

There are already some signs of strain.

In February, Russia announced a six-month gasoline export ban. Later, Ukraine said that its attacks had reduced Russian oil production and processing by 12%. The attacks have some other indirect military benefits, experts told BI.

They likely create headaches for Russia's air defenses, given the size of the country and the amount of air space it has to worry about, Loss said.

There's also the political impact, Tokariuk added.

One of the reasons Russians support the war is the sense that it is a distant conflict — but incoming attacks on home soil give "a sense that the war is near," she said.

No sign of a pause

There's every sign that attacks like this will increase even after the influx of military aid, Britain's defense chief Admiral Sir Tony Radakin told the Financial Times last week.

Some experts BI talked to agree.

"I would expect at least some strikes deep behind Russian lines" to continue after the aid package arrives, said Loss.

He added that with sanctions on Russia still failing to really bite, "the urgency of the situation" means that Ukraine is right to try to hurt Russia's economy in other ways.

Loss also pointed out that despite the Biden administration's reported concerns, there's no sense that the US has actually withheld intelligence or otherwise tried to stop the attacks from happening.

James Patton Rogers, executive director of Cornell Brooks Tech Policy Institute and author of Precision: A history of American warfare, told BI that "the reports of US concerns about these strikes are often exaggerated."

The Biden administration's statements are a reflection of a standard NATO position on the matter, and "not because they expect Ukraine to stop," he said.

Patton Rogers also pointed to their impact on Ukrainian morale.

"They are publicly popular at a time when morale is low and Ukraine outgunned," he said. "When faced with delayed funds, shortfalls in munitions, and the relentless Russian bombing of urban centers, what else does the US expect Ukraine to do?"