Russia bombs power plants and Ukraine targets refineries in dogfights

As Russian missiles streaked through the skies above Ukraine before dawn Saturday, once again targeting the nation's already battered energy grid in a broad and complex bombardment, Ukrainian drones flew in the opposite direction, targeting refineries of vital oil and gas and other objectives. within Russia.

The Ukrainian Air Force said its air defense teams intercepted 21 of 34 Russian ballistic and cruise missiles launched from land, air and sea systems, but the attack caused extensive damage to four thermoelectric power plants and other critical parts of the electricity grid. in three regions.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it shot down 66 Ukrainian drones over the Krasnodar region, which lies just across the Kerch Strait in southern Russia, east of the occupied Crimean peninsula.

Veniamin Kondratyev, head of the regional government, said Ukrainian drones targeted two oil refineries, a bitumen plant and a military airport in Kuban.

Ukraine's security service, known as the SBU, said the Ukrainian military operation targeted Kushchevsk airport and the Ilsky and Slavyansk oil refineries. The airport was home to “dozens of military aircraft, radar and electronic warfare devices,” the agency said in a statement, adding: “The SBU continues to effectively target military and infrastructure facilities behind enemy lines, reducing the Russia's potential to wage war”.

The Kremlin tightly controls information about Ukrainian attacks, often making it difficult to assess their impact, and it is unclear how much damage the drone strikes caused.

Russia has also banned criticism of its war effort, aggressively stifling any voices deemed critical of the military and arresting hundreds of people as part of a widespread crackdown on dissent. Russian authorities on Friday arrested a journalist from the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, Sergei Mingazov, for republishing war-breaking information about Russian atrocities on social media, according to Russian officials and his lawyer, Konstantin Bubon .

Although Russian authorities continue to deny or downplay the impact of Ukrainian attacks in Russia, attacks on oil and gas facilities have been difficult to hide. Britain's military intelligence agency estimated last month that such attacks had destroyed at least 10% of Russian oil refinery capacity. On March 1, the Kremlin imposed a six-month ban on gasoline exports in what appeared to be an effort to avoid shortages and prevent domestic price spikes.

Ukraine has vowed to increase attacks inside Russia, using its expanding fleet of domestically made long-range attack drones, even as attacks on oil and gas infrastructure have fueled tensions between Kiev and Washington. The Biden administration publicly condemned the attacks, concerned they could lead to even greater retaliation from Russia and drive up prices in global energy markets.

“These attacks could have a ripple effect in terms of the global energy situation,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told Congress this month. “Ukraine is better aided in pursuing tactical and operational objectives that can directly influence the ongoing battle.”

The Biden administration's position is out of step with that of other allies, who have supported Kiev's use of domestically produced weapons to pursue what Ukraine considers legitimate military targets.

About a third of Russia's national budget comes from oil and gas, and Ukrainian officials have said the attacks on the facilities strike at the heart of the Kremlin's war economy. They also hope, over time, to undermine Russia's ability to wage war, since refined petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel are essential to keeping any large army moving.

“Ukraine has the right to strike legitimate military targets outside the territory of its own country to defend itself,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, said this month when asked about attacks on Russian oil and gas facilities .

But Russian attacks on Ukraine's energy grid are also increasingly taking a toll, as Moscow seeks to weaken Ukraine's domestic arms industry, stifle its economy, exacerbate the suffering of millions of civilians and undermine the state's ability to function.

Since large-scale bombings of power generation facilities resumed in late March, Russia has concentrated many of the attacks on thermoelectric and hydroelectric plants, which are important for keeping the overall system in balance during periods of peak use. .

Before Saturday's attack, Russia had already destroyed 80% of Ukraine's thermal power generation capacity, energy officials said. The extent of damage from the latest bombing was still being determined Saturday, energy officials said, but the cumulative impact is growing and threatens to cause lasting problems.

“The large-scale damage that Russia has caused recently cannot be repaired in a few weeks or even months,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in a statement, urging people “to use electricity sparingly.” .

Although American military assistance is flowing into Ukraine for the first time in months, Ukraine's air defense systems remain stretched thin and low on munitions. Ukraine is particularly vulnerable to Russian ballistic missiles, which can only be neutralized by advanced American-made Patriot batteries.

“We urgently need Patriot systems and missiles,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday at a virtual meeting of the Defense Contact Group of Ukraine, a consortium of about 50 nations that have provided military and humanitarian aid to Kiev. “This is what can and should save lives right now.”

After Russia bombed Ukraine's energy grid in the winter of 2022-23, Kiev's allies supplied three Patriot batteries. But they have run out of interceptor missiles they use. Germany has said it will soon supply a fourth Patriot battery, and Ukrainian officials are engaged in urgent diplomatic action to secure more systems and munitions they need.

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed to the reporting.

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