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Ukraine’s attacks on Russian oil refineries deepen tensions with U.S.

BRUSSELS — When Vice President Harris met privately with Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference in February, she told the Ukrainian leader something he didn’t want to hear: Refrain from attacking Russian oil refineries, a tactic U.S. officials believed would raise global energy prices and invite more aggressive Russian retaliation inside Ukraine.

The request, according to officials familiar with the matter, irritated Zelensky and his top aides, who view Kyiv’s string of drone strikes on Russian energy facilities as a rare bright spot in a grinding war with a bigger and better equipped foe.

Zelensky brushed off the recommendation, uncertain whether it reflected the consensus position of the Biden administration, these people said. But in subsequent weeks, Washington reinforced the warning in multiple conversations with Kyiv, including by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who traveled to Ukraine’s capital in March, and other senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials.

Instead of acquiescing to the U.S. requests, however, Ukraine doubled down on the strategy, striking a range of Russian facilities, including an April 2 attack on Russia’s third-largest refinery 800 miles from the font.

The incidents have exacerbated tensions in a strained relationship as Kyiv waits to learn whether Congress will pass a long-stalled $60 billion aid package while Russia’s forces pierce Ukrainian positions across the front lines. The long-range Ukrainian strikes, which have hit more than a dozen refineries since January and disrupted at least 10 percent of Russian oil refinery capacity, come as President Biden ramps up his reelection campaign and global oil prices reach a six-month high.

U.S., Ukrainian and European officials spoke about the diverging views between Washington and Kyiv on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive dispute. A spokesman for Zelensky declined to comment.

Defenders of Ukraine’s strategy accuse the White House of prioritizing domestic politics over Kyiv’s military goals. “It sounds to me that the Biden administration doesn’t want gas prices to go up in an election year,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a hearing last week.

“While Russia is attacking Ukrainians’ oil and gas and energy sector, why shouldn’t the Ukrainians attack the Russian oil and gas and energy sector?” Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) asked during a separate recent hearing.

U.S. officials say the rationale behind their warnings is more nuanced than critics suggest.

Keeping global energy markets supplied to help cool inflation is a priority for the administration, officials acknowledge. But it’s also important for sustaining support for the Ukrainian war effort in Europe. “An increase in energy prices risks dampening European support for Ukraine aid,” a senior U.S. official said.

The military benefit of Ukraine’s bombing campaign is also of questionable value, U.S. officials say.

“Ukraine is better served in going after tactical and operational targets that can directly influence the current fight,” Austin told lawmakers.

The concern among U.S. military planners is that the strikes do little to diminish Russia’s war-fighting abilities and have resulted in a massive Russian counterattack on Ukraine’s electricity grid that hurts Ukraine far more than the refinery attacks hurt Russia.

“Drone attacks do not destroy entire refineries and usually do not even destroy individual units, but only damage them,” Sergey Vakulenko, an oil industry expert, wrote in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Ust-Luga and Ryazan refineries were both back in operation a few weeks after being attacked.”

In recent weeks, Russia has unleashed a barrage of exploding drones and missiles on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leaving millions without power and raising fears that the attacks could bring Ukraine’s economy to a halt. The attacks destroyed a power plant in the Kyiv region and damaged Ukraine’s biggest hydroelectric power plant and multiple thermal power plants.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the attacks were in direct response to Ukraine’s drone strikes on refineries and other infrastructure deep within its territory.

Previously, the Kremlin had been focusing its attacks on Ukraine’s industrial capacity, an effort that some U.S. officials say was having limited impact.

Now Ukrainian officials are in desperate need to protect their cities, causing further strain over air defense resources between Kyiv and the West. Last week, Zelensky dispatched his top diplomat, Dmytro Kuleba, to Brussels, where NATO foreign ministers gathered to commemorate the military alliance’s 75th anniversary. Kuleba’s chief demand was for Western countries to donate more Patriot batteries, a U.S.-designed air defense system that costs more than $1 billion.

“I’m sorry to spoil the birthday party, but who can believe that the mightiest military alliance in the world cannot find seven batteries of Patriots to provide them to the only country in the world that is fighting ballistic attacks every day?” Kuleba said he told his Western counterparts in an uncharacteristically harsh tone.

U.S. opposition to the refinery attacks has angered officials in Kyiv, who view the strikes as fair game given Russia’s relentless attacks inside Ukraine. They view the attacks as necessary to raising the cost of Russian aggression and reinforcing that Russian society won’t be safe until the war ends.

They also view the attacks as necessary given their shrinking supply of artillery needed for challenging Russian positions on the front lines. The transfer of U.S. weaponry to Ukraine has slowed in recent months as the Biden administration pushes Congress to pass aid for Ukraine in a measure that remains unpopular among a key faction of Republicans in the House.

Others have said U.S. concerns about higher energy prices because of the refinery attacks are unfounded, noting that the latest increases are due to OPEC Plus production cuts and instability linked to Israel’s war with Hamas. “There is a small geopolitical premium on crude attached to Middle East violence,” said Tom Kloza, head of energy analysis at the petroleum price reporting company OPIS. “Most of the move to higher prices can be attributed to OPEC Plus production cuts.”

Critics say the Biden administration’s public messaging on the attacks has been inconsistent, causing confusion among supporters of Ukraine in Congress and abroad.

When asked about the refinery attacks this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that the Biden administration doesn’t support Ukrainian strikes inside Russia regardless of the target. “We have neither supported nor enabled strikes by Ukraine outside of its territory,” he said.

Austin’s response last week to lawmakers, however, expressed a preference for Ukraine to target Russian air bases and other military infrastructure inside Russia rather than oil refineries.

Meanwhile, another senior Pentagon official, Celeste Wallander, suggested that the key distinction the Biden administration is concerned about is Ukraine hitting military versus civilian targets. “The issue on attacking critical infrastructure is when those are civilian targets, we have concerns because Ukraine holds itself to the highest standards of observing the laws of armed conflict, and that’s one of the elements of being a European democracy,” she told a House panel last week.

The U.S. positions all stand in contrast to Washington’s allies in Europe, who have barely disguised their pleasure with the Ukrainian campaign. “The Ukrainian people [are] acting in self-defense, and we consider that Russia is the aggressor,” French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné said when asked about the strikes during a news conference with Blinken. “In such circumstances, there is hardly anything else to say. I think you understood me.”

Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, has also defended Ukraine’s right to hit Russian energy targets. “It’s not as if Russia is limiting itself to only hitting military targets or only attacking on the front. It’s attacking all over Ukraine,” he told The Post.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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