Russian oil infrastructure and refineries have come under increasing drone attack over the past week, with Ukraine suspected of launching long-range strikes deep into Russian territory. The attacks mark an escalation in Ukraine’s targeting of Russian economic and energy assets and could have significant impacts on global oil markets.
Latest Strike Hits Critical Refinery in Volgograd
The most devastating strike came early Friday morning, when a drone attack sparked a massive fire at an oil refinery in the Russian city of Volgograd. The blaze raged for over 12 hours before emergency crews managed to extinguish it.
Fire at the Volgograd refinery after the drone strike. Credit: Anton Vergun/Sputnik/AFP
The Volgograd facility produces over 10 million tons of oil products per year, including gasoline and diesel, amounting to around 10% of Russia’s total refining capacity. It is considered one of the largest and most critical refineries in southern Russia.
The refinery attack came just days after Ukraine utilized similar drone technology to strike an oil storage facility in Bryansk. And over the past month, Ukrainian drones have also targeted sites including refineries in Stavropol, Novoshakhtinsk, and Tuapse.
Russia Blames Ukraine, Vows Response
Though no group has officially claimed responsibility, Russian authorities were quick to blame Ukraine.
The speaker of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed regional parliament immediately accused Kyiv of launching the attack from Ukrainian territory, stating: “The Ukrainian government are terrorists, and we must protect our citizens from acts of terror.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Russia would “take the necessary measures” in response to the attacks, but did not specify details. Any direct Russian retaliation could mark a serious escalation in the year-long conflict.
Table summarizing recent suspected Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian oil infrastructure:
|Feb 3, 2024
|Jan 31, 2024
|Jan 29, 2024
|Oil storage facility
|Jan 29, 2024
|Dec 31, 2023
|Oil storage facility
|Dec 25, 2023
|Dec 7, 2023
Long-Range Kamikaze Drones Utilized
The recent attacks are believed to have utilized a new class of long-range “kamikaze drones” developed by Ukraine with significant Western technological assistance. Unlike the commercial drones adapted early in the conflict, these new unmanned vehicles are specially designed for one-way attack missions.
Equipped with powerful explosives and advanced guidance systems, the drones can travel over 1,000 km to precisely strike distant targets before intentionally crashing. Their small size also makes them difficult for Russian air defenses to detect and intercept.
Analysts say the drones open new possibilities for Ukraine to carry out strategic strikes deep in Russian territory, targeting infrastructure and economic assets. But they also raise the risks of retaliation as the Kremlin grows increasingly frustrated with the strikes.
Global Oil Supply Impacts Feared
While damage from the Volgograd refinery fire appears contained, the accumulating strikes on Russian oil infrastructure have raised concerns over global supply impacts.
Russia is the world’s second largest oil exporter, and disruption caused by drone attacks comes on top of strict Western sanctions on Russian energy exports over the invasion of Ukraine. Oil prices jumped briefly on news of the fire before retreating.
Continued targeting of export terminals, storage hubs, pipelines, and refineries could substantially impact Russia’s ability to get oil to global markets. Tight supplies have markets on edge, and analysts caution that further disruption could send prices soaring.
For now, Russia likely maintains enough output buffer to prevent severe cuts in volumes exported. But if attacks persist, the oil market impacts could grow more acute.
Escalatory Spiral Feared as Russia Vows Response
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the drone strikes is the risk they spark even wider escalation between Russia and Ukraine. The attacks on Russian soil represent a new phase in Kyiv’s strategy, hitting infrastructure far from the eastern battlefields.
In addition to economic targets, analysts warn strikes could expand to Russian military bases, weapons facilities, or command centers. But Russia has so far shown restraint in retaliating directly against Ukraine over such deep strikes into its territory.
Continued Ukrainian attacks paired with growing Russian frustration however raise the risks that Moscow opts for more aggressive retaliation. Experts caution the drone warfare could quickly spiral into tit-for-tat escalation between the warring states.
Draft no-fly zones over key energy infrastructure are reportedly under consideration in Moscow. And following the latest Volgograd strike, a member of Russia’s parliament committee on transportation threatened attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure in response:
“It is time for a tough response from Russia, we can’t leave this without consequences. Objects of Ukrainian energy infrastructure should be covered by our missiles.”
Analysts urge renewed diplomatic efforts to establish “rules of the road” preventing unlimited escalation. But compromise seems unlikely with both sides increasingly targeting one another’s vital economic assets. For now the drone war seems poised to intensify further, with unpredictable and potentially severe consequences.
Outlook: Drone Campaign Likely to Continue
In the near term, additional Ukrainian drone strikes appear highly likely as Kyiv attempts to degrade Russia’s economic capacity for continuing its invasion. Volgograd may represent the most significant hit thus far, but likely not the last on Russian oil infrastructure.
Russia will work urgently to bolster air defenses around key sites. But the small, versatile drones present a potent asymmetric threat, difficult for even sophisticated systems to consistently counter.
Meanwhile the risk of direct Russian retaliation likely depends on how much disruption its critical energy exports actually suffer. So far Moscow has avoided open attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. However, with its vital oil trade increasingly targeted, calls for proportional response may become overwhelming.
Unfortunately the escalating drone war seems more likely to intensify than to abate any time soon. Ukraine is achieving success targeting Russian economic assets with the new long-range weapons. And Russia’s vulnerability to the strikes leaves it under increasing pressure to retaliate. Diplomatic intervention may be the only way to prevent uncontrolled escalation between the warring states.
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