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Struggling on front lines, Ukraine strikes harder at Russian energy

Russian military vehicles drive on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9.  (Alexander Nemenov/AFP)
By Constant Méheut and Andrés R. Martínez New York Times

KYIV, Ukraine – Struggling to contain Russian advances on the battlefield, Ukraine is increasingly taking the fight to Russia beyond the front lines in an effort to disrupt its military operations and put pressure on its economy – targeting airfields, logistics hubs and critical energy facilities with missiles and drones.

That strategy was on full display early Friday when a series of explosions struck fuel depots, oil facilities and a power station in southwestern Russia and Crimea, the Russian-occupied Ukrainian peninsula. Just a day before, Ukrainian missiles hit an airfield in Crimea, destroying at least three jets.

Russia’s defense ministry said it had shot down more than 100 Ukrainian drones Friday, a figure that would represent one of Ukraine’s largest air assaults against Russia in months.

A Ukrainian security official said Ukraine was behind the attack.

Although the full extent of the damage was unclear, Russian authorities reported that an electricity substation was hit in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, leading to rolling blackouts.

Just 70 miles east of Crimea, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, fires broke out at several oil facilities, including in the port of Novorossiysk, which operates an important oil terminal.

Crimea, which Russia illegally seized a decade ago, and nearby Russian Black Sea ports have long been a prime target for the Ukrainian military.

Attacks there have three main objectives: reducing Russia’s capacity to use Crimea as a launchpad for missile and drone attacks; disrupting supply lines that funnel fuel and ammunition to the battlefield; and degrading the Russian fleet docked in the region to ease the pressure on Ukrainian operations in the Black Sea, such as exporting grain.

Ukraine has increasingly been striking Russian oil facilities in what military analysts say is an attempt to complicate the Russian military’s logistics by hitting facilities that supply fuel for its tanks, ships and planes.

Ukrainian officials also hope the strikes can undermine the Russian energy complex, which is at the core of the country’s economy and war effort – accounting for about a third of Russia’s federal budget revenue – although they do not appear to have had any serious effect yet.

The attack on Novorossiysk could mark an escalation in the Ukrainian strategy.

While Ukraine had previously attacked warships in Novorossiysk, the assault Friday was the first time it had targeted the oil facilities there, said Damien Ernst, an energy expert at the University of Liège, Belgium.

Novorossiysk is a major Russian port for oil exports, with about 1.5 million barrels of Russian oil passing through each day, Ernst said. It’s also the terminal for one of the world’s largest pipelines, which exports most of Kazakhstan’s oil, or about 1.3 million barrels a day.

Verified footage of the attack showed a large explosion above the city’s oil terminal, although it was unclear whether the attack caused any serious damage to the terminal.

But it may raise further concerns in the United States, where the Biden administration has urged Ukraine to stop attacking Russian oil refineries out of concern about global oil markets.

In addition, American oil companies have a stake in the terminal. Chevron, for instance, is a significant shareholder in the pipeline transporting oil from Kazakhstan. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ukrainian attacks on Crimea, an important logistical and military hub for the Russian army, have been more frequent.

Mikhail Razvozhaev, the Russian-backed governor of the Crimean city of Sevastopol, home to about half a million people, said on Telegram that schools had been closed across the city as a result of the attack. He added that repairs to the substation that had been hit would take about a day and that the resulting power shortages would force the authorities to introduce rolling blackouts.

It was the third attack in two days against Sevastopol. A day before, local authorities reported Ukrainian missile attacks on the Belbek military airfield outside the city. Satellite images verified by The New York Times showed that three Russian jets had been destroyed and another had been damaged.

Ukrainian officials have long maintained that targeting Russian assets and operations in Crimea is critical to their war effort. It “is extremely important for us, because it’s the way for us to reduce the number of attacks from that region,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said earlier this year.

That objective appears be even more important now that Ukrainian troops are losing ground on the battlefield.

Russia last week launched a new offensive in the northeast, quickly capturing several settlements in the Kharkiv region and forcing Ukraine to rush troops to the area.

Zelenskyy told Ukrainian journalists Friday that Russian troops had advanced up to 6 miles from the Russian border into Ukrainian territory, but had not reached the stronger defensive lines in the region. He added that the situation in the area had stabilized.

Ukrainian officials and military analysts say Russia’s offensive in the northeast is meant to further stretch Ukraine’s already thinned-out forces. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s top commander, said Russian forces had extended the front line by about 45 miles.

President Vladimir Putin has suggested that the goal of the offensive is for Russia to push Ukrainian forces back from the border to prevent them from shelling Russian villages and cities.

Speaking to reporters during a trip to China on Friday, he said Ukraine’s regular shelling of Russian border areas, including the city of Belgorod, had forced the Russian army to “create a buffer zone” in the Kharkiv region to protect civilians.


While Ukrainian drones can fly to distant Russian targets, such as oil facilities, artillery shells have a range only of several miles. But unlike drones, shells cannot be intercepted and they have been widely used in the war to pin down troops and constrain military operations.

Putin added that his forces had no plans to take the city of Kharkiv itself. Most independent military analysts consider this claim credible, saying that Russia does not have nearly enough forces in northern Ukraine to threaten the city, Ukraine’s second largest.

But analysts add that Russian forces could push within artillery range of the city and pound it, creating chaos and panic. More than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have already been evacuated from settlements and villages north of Kharkiv, according to local authorities.

Bogdan Yahno, head of the Kharkiv region for the Relief Coordination Center, a nonprofit group helping people to evacuate, said shelling had intensified on Kharkiv and its outskirts in recent days. “The fight is getting closer,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.