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Washington denies a bedrock of warfighting

By Alan Howard & Brenda Shaffer
Real Clear Wire

The Biden administration recently pressed Ukraine to halt attacks on Russian oil refineries. Ukrainian strikes on refineries and tankers in the Black Sea have contributed to a rise in the global oil price, and specifically of oil products, especially diesel. Almost the last thing the Biden administration wants in an election year is higher fuel prices and associated inflation in other goods and services. 

But in acting to halt rising oil prices, Washington is undermining the Ukrainian war effort. Denying energy supplies to the adversary in war has long been a bedrock of military strategy. Washington’s policy toward adversary fuel supplies is likely to lengthen the Ukraine-Russia war, as well as the Gaza war.

With oil and fuel product prices rising, Washington has now slammed the brakes on Ukraine’s effective strategies, effectively constraining Ukraine at a time that the war with Russia is likely to escalate soon. This is not the first time the administration has blocked an ally’s effort to choke off its enemy’s energy supplies.  In the war in Gaza, the U.S. has demanded that Israel not only desist from disrupting such supplies but actually provide energy to Hamas. As a result, Hamas has been able to sustain tunnel warfare, which depends on liquid fuels. The provision of fuel to Hamas fighters enabled them to continue waging war from underground, prolonging the conflict and thereby endangering the lives of even more civilians in both Gaza and Israel.

In both cases Washington  has imposed conditions on its allies that fly in the face of one of the cardinal principles of military strategy: disrupt an  enemy’s energy supplies to cripple its forces. Allowing adversaries access to fuel extends a conflict and leads to more deaths as well as delays the conclusion of hostilities. Washington needs to let  Ukraine and Israel  finish the job, or indeed stop the wars. But hamstringing American partners  is the worse option, since it extends the wars.

Throughout history, disrupting an enemy’s energy supplies has been a key  war objective and has determined the outcome of battles and wars. During World War I, Germany determined that U.S. oil supplies gave the Allies battlefield advantages. Thus, Berlin sent U-boats armed with torpedoes to target American boats supplying the Allies with oil and other supplies. In World War II, energy shortages affected the advances of both the Allies and Axis. From May 1944 to May 1945, the U.S. and British air forces conducted the “Oil Plan,” which targeted German refineries, oil fields, and synthetic fuel plants to deny Germany access to energy. The U.S. and NATO have frequently disabled  the electricity supply to the civilian population in an adversary country, to disrupt energy supplies to the enemy, and also  to increase public pressure for a surrender. For instance, during Operation Allied Force in the former territory of Yugoslavia in 1999, NATO forces turned out the lights to increase public pressure on Serbia to surrender.

However, Washington is denying this same strategic benefit to others. After Russia launched its further invasion of  Ukraine in February 2022, Washington requested that Ukraine not attack Russian territory, to prevent a widening and escalation of the conflict. This limitation reduced Ukraine’s ability to disrupt Moscow’s fuel supply lines. The constraint also put Ukraine in a difficult disadvantage, as Moscow focused on destroying Ukraine’s fuel supplies and parts of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, including components of its power system.

However, beginning in April 2022, Ukraine’s policy shifted, and it began to attack Russian energy supplies. Ukraine conducted several attacks on fuel depots and refineries on Russian territory. This shift was likely facilitated by a change in policy of some of Ukraine’s Western backers to support such Ukrainian attacks. For example, The UK’s Minister of Armed Forces James Heappey stated in April 2022  that “it is entirely legitimate to go after military targets in the depth of your opponent to disrupt their logistics and supply lines”.

Throughout 2023 and continuing into 2024, Ukraine openly and explicitly targeted fuel production on Russian territory. Ukraine used multiple means to attack energy supplies in Russian territories, including missiles and drones and likely also helicopters. Ukraine claimed that it launched the attacks on Russia’s refineries to disrupt energy supplies to Russia’s troops and also to deny export revenue to Moscow. The attacks on Russian refineries did affect Moscow’s ability to export refined petroleum products in the weeks following the attacks in January 2024. Ukraine also conducted attacks on Russian oil tankers in the Black Sea, which disrupted Russian oil export.

The Biden administration also insisted that Israel supply fuel to Gaza, even though it did not dispute that Hamas was taking control of the humanitarian aid, including the fuel. Washington also pressured Israel to continue providing the fuel itself, as it has supplied, water, electricity, and large quantities of fuel  for free to Gaza for more than a decade.

Hamas needed fuel to support its underground tunnel infrastructure and thereby protect its military capacity. Hamas had established an extensive system of underground bases linked by tunnels, to allow it to launch attacks without fear of air attacks and detection. This underground system requires liquid fuels to supply oxygen and provide cooling. The importance of these fuel supplies to Hamas is illustrated by the fact that in several rounds of negotiations on releases of Israeli hostages, Hamas requested fuel supplies. The provision of fuel to Hamas fighters clearly enabled them to continue the war from underground and thus lengthened the war.

Disruption of the enemy supply lines is critical to conflict resolution. Access to energy and the disruption of energy to U.S. adversaries greatly determined the victories of the U.S. and its allies in World Wars I and II and brought an end to these wars. If the Biden administration is to avoid involvement in “forever wars,”  it should let its partners use this time-honored tactic to its full extent to end these wars more quickly and with reduced loss of life.

Alan Howard and Prof. Brenda Shaffer are co-authors together with Dr. Dan Nussbaum of the forthcoming book... Operational Energy (https://www.degruyter.com/document/isbn/9783110798104/html)

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