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Russian Pipelines, Meet Ukrainian Drones
Ukraine's Latest Drone Strikes Raise New Complications For Russia's Pipelines
The geographic reality of Russia’s pipelines is that they are primarily oriented towards the west and towards Europe.
However, Ukraine’s latest drone strikes inside Russia, reaching over 500 miles to strike military airbases supporting Russia’s Tu-95 strategic bombers, creates a new air defense conundrum for Russia.
Once again, the maps tell the tale.
Russia’s major oil pipelines, as discussed, deliver most of Russia’s oil production to the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and the Baltic ports of Ust-Luga and Primorsk.
This geographic reality alone is what gives teeth to the recently announced oil cap. The ports from which Russia ships the bulk of its seaborne oil exports all require tankers to transit waterways where proper insurance paperwork is mandatory; the Baltic ports especially have the complication of having to sail through the territorial waters of multiple NATO countries.
To this reality we must now add the reality of Ukrainian ability to launch drone strikes deep into Russian territory, as the strikes on the Diaghilevo and Engles airbases demonstrate.
With these airfields roughly 480 and 600 miles from Kyv, there can be no doubt that Ukraine has the capacity to launch long range drones deep into Russia—and Russia’s air defenses almost certainly failed to neutralize the attacks before the drones reached their targets.
If we shift focus just a few hundred miles further east, Russia’s pipeline map shows a defense vulnerability that is no longer an hypothetical, but is now unquestionably real.
Within the highlighted section of the map, several of Russia’s pipelines from the oilfields from throughout central Siberia converge around Rosneft’s Samara refinery.
If that pipeline nexus goes offline, much of Russia’s ability to transport oil down to Novorossiisk is compromised, leaving only the Baltic ports of Ust-Luga and Primorsk available to ship oil out to Russia’s new Asian customers. Russia can’t utilize its Pacific ports for anything but its ESPO crude because the pipelines simply do not interconnect.
The Samara refinery is roughly 630 miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
Moscow is roughly 400 miles from Kharkiv
While the Samara refinery is technically not a military target, it arguably is also not civilian infrastructure essential for survival—which per the Geneva Conventions cannot be targeted for military attack. Refineries and similar infrastructure, which are generally “dual use” supporting both the civilian population and the military, fall into a gray area within the Geneva Conventions, opening the door to possible drone strikes on the Samara refinery and related pipeline systems.
WIth Ukraine in possession of Kharkiv, Ukraine has territory from which it can launch drones against Russia’s oil industry, and potentially take a substantial portion of the Urals crude off the market not just for a day or a week, but potentially for a year or more, depending on the amount of damage done should Ukraine launch a drone strike against the Samara refinery.
Moreover, while not a nexus of the same scope as Samara, Saratov, home to the Engels air base, also is home to a major Russian refinery, with numerous pipelines running through the area. Saratov is only 430 miles from Kharkiv.
While Ukraine's drone strikes present a major air-defense headache for Russia’s military, they present a larger threat to Russia’s hydrocarbon-based economy. Russia’s westward orientation of its pipeline infrastructure has the unfortunate (for Russia) consequence of putting critical refineries and nodes within that infrastructure in range of Ukraine’s drone strikes. While the explosive ordinance a typical long range drone might carry would do only minor damage to bombers, airstrips, and like military assets, a single drone could easily destroy an entire refinery.
Will Ukraine strike Russia’s oil pipeline infrastructure? At the moment, no one can say what Ukraine’s strategic plans and objectives are. Ukraine has been practicing a fair bit of ambiguity about its drones and their capacities, and so the particulars of Ukraine’s drone strategy will be revealed only by the strikes that are conducted.
What can be said, however, is that drone strikes against Russia’s oil infrastructure are very much within Ukraine’s demonstrated drone capabilities. They have the range and they have the payload capacity, and it only requires one or two strikes against the Samara or Saratov refineries to permanently degrade Russia’ refining and export capacities.
Such an attack would put a far bigger dent in Putin’s war chest than the oil cap can ever hope to accomplish.
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