January 25, 2024
Last night the Russian Rosneft oil refinery at Tuapse in Krasnodar Krai was ablaze, cellphone video showing flames reaching high into the night sky. A Telegram news channel said witnesses saw a drone hit the refinery immediately before the fire started. This is the just the latest in what looks like a co-ordinated series of attacks against Russian oil and gas installations.
Bringing The Detonator
On January 19, four oil tanks at a large Rosneft storage facility in the town of Klintsy in Russia’s western Bryansk region caught fire. Klintsty is just a few miles from the border with Ukraine. “An aeroplane-style drone was brought down by the defence ministry using radio-electronic means. When the aerial target was destroyed, its munitions were dropped on the territory of the Klintsy oil depot,” regional governor Alexander Bogomaz wrote on Telegram.
On January 21, a major fire accompanied by explosions broke out at a gas terminal at Ust-Luga near St. Petersburg, which the operators said was caused by “external action.”
A pro-Kremlin Telegram channel said before the Ust-Luga fire their forces had shot down a drone carrying 3 kilos/7 pounds of explosive. They described it as a piston-engined aircraft with a wingspan of about 20 feet. These attacks are based on the principle which TX Hammes described in a 2016 article on drone warfare as “bringing the detonator.” Small, low-cost drones do not carry the weight of explosive as traditional strike aircraft, but with good targeting they can strike stockpiles of ammunition or fuel. “Against these targets even a few ounces of explosives delivered directly to the target can initiate the secondary explosion that will destroy the target,” Hammes wrote.
The Houthis showed how small drones can have a disproportionate effect, setting the Abqaiq oil plant ablaze in 2019, and conducting simultaneous attacks on Aramco facilities in Ras Tanura, Rabigh, Yanbu and Jizan in 2021, and starting a spectacular fire under the gaze of the world’s media outside Jeddah in the run-up to the Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix in 2022.
Ukraine’s Shahed Arsenal
When Russia started bombarding Ukraine with Iranian-built Shahed kamikaze drones, people started asking when the Ukrainians would send their own. The Shahed is unsophisticated, the most advanced elements being commercial electronic components from China, Europe and the U.S., and costs in the region of $20k-$40k. Ukraine has an extensive drone ecosystem, and designing, building and testing long-range strike drones, then moving them into production and service, has taken a matter of months.
Ukraine now has quite an array of long-range attack drones, which typically carry a 45 kg /100 lbs warhead to about 1000 km/ 600 miles.
In November, Oleksandr Kamyshin, Ukraine’s Minister for Strategic Industries, said that the country was making “dozens” of Shahed-type drones per month. In December he announced plans for production on a much larger scale. “We are already capable of producing more than 10,000 medium-range (hundreds of kilometers) unmanned combat aerial vehicles and 1,000 + drones with a range of more than 1,000 kilometers next year,” Kamyshin told Ukrainian media.
In particular, drones like the new AQ-400 Scythe made by Terminal Autonomy are designed for ease of mass production. The Scythe’s body is made from pre-cut plywood sections, produced by companies that normally make furniture, and can be assembled by unskilled labor with basic tools. Terminal Autonomy aims to produce 500 Scythes per month in the first quarter this year.
This volume of drones may be enough to achieve strategic goals. Russia used its Shaheds alongside missiles last winter to target Ukrainian energy infrastructure, knocking out electrical transformers and substations in an attempt to freeze Ukraine into submission. This approach is being repeated this year but with limited success.
But if Russia hopes to win by ice, Ukraine’s drone war is going for fire: burning down Russia’s vital oil and gas industry.
A commenter using the Twitter handle Tendar notes that Russia has just five major strategic pipelines ending in sea ports, three on the Baltic and two on the Black Sea. Other Russian pipelines go overland through Ukraine or NATO countries and are subject to sanctions. The attacks have so far hit two of the five sea ports. Operations at Ust-Luga will be suspended for some weeks, during which time there may be further strikes.
Oil and gas exports are a key pillar in sustaining Russia’s economy. Potential customers may be reluctant to send tankers to a terminal which is under continuous drone attack. As in the Red Sea, the threat may be more important than the level of risk.
Meanwhile the Russian people are suffering waves of heating and power cuts. According to the Moscow Times, 43 regions are suffering municipal emergencies, leaving hundreds of thousands of people with heating or electricity cut off. These are caused by ageing infrastructure and inadequate spending on maintaining it – a situation which will not be improved by a 43% cut in spending on housing and utilities this year. Disruption of oil and gas supplies can only cause further problems.
Russia has transitioned to a war economy, but is looking increasingly fragile. Massive military spending is keeping the economy afloat but nobody knows how long this can be sustained.
A vast number of oil and gas facilities are now within range of Ukrainian attacks. Defending all of them would be impossible, even if the air defenses were pulled back from the front line. In any case, Russia’s current air defense systems are not effective against small drones.
It looks like all Putin can do now is sit back and watch his oil and gas industry go up in flames – and hope that this does not trigger economic collapse, a coup, or mass uprisings.
David Hambling is a freelance science and technology journalist and author based in South London. His non-fiction books include Weapons Grade, Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world and We: Robot. His Lovecraftian science fiction includes the popular Harry Stubbs series set in 1920s South London, and his time-travel adventure City of Sorcerers will be out in 2022.