Tom O’Donnell, PhD, an expert on energy and geopolitics, sat down with Kyiv Post to explain what Ukraine’s attacks on Russia’s energy sector will mean for the larger Russian energy sector.

It sounds like a huge number. But how much do you think losing 12 percent of production, in a day, will affect Russia?

First off, although these refineries hit by Ukrainian drones yesterday represent about 12 percent of Russian production, experience shows that they might not each be totally impaired from production. Nevertheless, there are two particularly significant implications for Russia.

First, whatever percentage of Russian refined oil products this impairs, the damage will both deprive the war economy of needed export revenues and/or of much-needed fuels to keep the domestic war economy running.

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Already, Russia had announced it will ban the export of gasoline from March 1 in order to tame prices for consumers in the runup to the presidential elections mid-month. In 2023 about 17 percent of Russian gasoline was exported.

What is the origin of the current price pressure?

The present price pressure is both a result of the demands of the war economy as well as previously successful Ukrainian hits on other refineries that began in January.

This gets to my second point – the successful refinery strikes of yesterday, involving a reported launch of 58 drones, as well as recent hits on a Russian domestic gas transmission pipeline, all demonstrate that the January successes were not one-off special operations, but rather the beginning of what will be a sustained Ukraine armed forces campaign capable of, over time, significantly disrupting Russia’s all-important oil and gas import revenues and internal refined-product supplies.

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If Russia continues to lose refineries, which appears likely, what new complications will it create for Russia?

First, from a strategic point of view, it is important to see these physical strikes against Russian oil and gas infrastructure in conjunction with the sanctions efforts of the USA, EU and other allies aimed at reducing Russian oil profits. These drone strikes should be seen as a “force multiplier” to allied oil sanctions.

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How so?

Consider that, with Russia no longer having the Druzba oil pipeline flowing into Central Europe due to EU sanctions, this has forced it to shift its Urals-region oil exports to seaports on the Baltic coast of Russia and to a new western-Arctic port.  Hence, hitting any refining or export facilities inside Russia along this general Urals-oil export corridor has a significant effect on Russia sustaining export revenues. This oil mainly flows to Turkey, India and China, with Russian oil tankers representing the main users of the Suez and then the Red Sea.  Due to sanctions, most of these ships are now either directly or indirectly Russian-controlled, to avoid the sanctions oil-price cap.

There has been a discussion in US-EU security-and-sanctions circles that these ships could be stopped for inspection by Sweden and/or Denmark in the Baltic, in the straights between their countries, and many might be refused passage due to having sketchy insurance and/or being unsafe, old vessels. 

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What do you think of the oil price cap? Is it a good idea?

From the point of view of strategic impact, the allies’ choice of an oil-price cap has been, in my view, a weak and overly complex-to-enforce instrument.  However, in conjunction with Ukrainian drones’ physical damage, the overall hit to Russian revenues might become significant.

Secondly, Ukraine has also hit refineries in Russia just east of its own territory, which will mainly undermine the region’s war economy and complicate supplying the massive demand from Russia’s invasion forces.  This region already has chronic fuel-supply problems, with farmers last year protesting against a lack of diesel for harvests, causing Russia to ban diesel exports during that season.

Dr. Tom O’Donnell is Berlin-based and is a Global Fellow of the Wilson Center.

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