Long lines at Ukrainian gas stations reveal just the tip of a looming crisis
By Jane Arraf, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Maria Varenikova
Long lines at gas stations across Ukraine are just the tip of a fuel crisis triggered partly by a Russian blockade of seaports and attacks on Ukrainian refineries and fuel storage depots.
At one of the largest gas station chains in Lviv, in western Ukraine, about 50 cars were in line at one station Sunday morning waiting to buy limited amounts of gasoline.
Roman Yarema, a retired civil servant who was two vehicles away from his turn at the pumps, said he had waited in line for an hour to buy what he expected to be a limit of 10 liters — less than 3 gallons — for his small car.
“It’s OK, though,” he said. “There are farmers who need to plant fields, and there is war in this country.”
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in a report in March cited fuel shortages as a major factor in whether Ukrainian farmers would be able to harvest existing crops or plant new ones this year.
That was before Russia attacked Ukraine’s biggest refinery and crucial fuel storage facilities last week.
Before war broke out in late February, almost three-quarters of Ukraine’s imports of gasoline and diesel came from the Russian Federation and its ally Belarus. Ukraine is negotiating with European fuel suppliers, but it faces formidable logistical obstacles in getting supplies from ports in Poland and Romania.
“The European Union will need to make a lot of changes of the transportation system for it to be possible to efficiently sell the gasoline to Ukraine,” said Serhiy Kuyun, director at A-95, a Ukrainian consulting firm.
Natalia Katser-Buchkovska, a former member of the energy committee in the Ukrainian Parliament, said Ukraine would need to expand its rail and road system across the Polish border as well as add terminals on the Baltic Sea coast.
Since the start of the war, Russia has targeted Ukrainian infrastructure, including the electrical grid. In March, Ukraine disconnected from the Russian power grid it had depended upon for decades. Ukraine and neighboring Moldova have now synchronized their grid with European operators, allowing them to keep the power running.
Ukraine has also carried out limited strikes on Russian infrastructure, striking an oil depot across the border, Russia said at the beginning of April.
The U.N. agricultural report said only one-fifth of almost 1,300 large agribusinesses surveyed by the government in mid-March had enough fuel to operate farm equipment needed to plant corn, barley and other crops this spring.
The lack of fuel also imperils wheat and other harvests this summer.
“As food access, production and overall food availability deteriorate in many parts of Ukraine as a result of the war, efforts to bolster agricultural production and the functioning of food supply chains will be critical to averting a food crisis in 2022 and into 2023,” the Food and Agriculture Organization report said.
In Kharkiv, once Ukraine’s second-biggest city, the fuel shortages have left even police stranded.
“How can I explain to people that this is not my fuel station and it’s not me who’s deciding how many liters of petroleum anyone gets?” said Maria, manager of an Okko fuel station. Soon after she had to tell a police officer that he would not be able to buy gas for his cruiser.
Maria, who did not provide her last name because she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said that her station’s regular supply of fuel that was supposed to arrive about two days ago never did. She said shortages of this scale were a first since the war began in February.
Orders from her company’s head office said that only civilians with prepaid gas cards could get fuel from her gas station and usually only around 5 liters. The military has a separate arrangement in which they can continue to get gas, but police officers seemed stuck in the middle.
Yarema said people in the city were driving less these days and using public transportation more.
At the gas station, the price of gasoline was listed at about 90 cents a liter — about $3.40 a gallon. Only two types of gas, rather than the usual three or four, were available. Motorists said the price was slightly higher than last week but not exorbitantly so. The Ukrainian government has eliminated taxes on gasoline to ease price shocks for drivers.
Other customers were less patient after waiting in line for an hour, with one visibly irritated man brusquely laying down his credit card to pay at a cash register crowded with cases of glazed doughnuts and roasting hot dogs.
“You can see the atmosphere is not very positive because people cannot fill the amount of gasoline they need,” said a gas station worker named Nadia, who did not want to give her last name because she was not authorized to speak publicly.
She said the gas station stocks were limited by reserves being held back for military and civil defense forces. The chain’s customers with loyalty cards were also able to buy more.
Other gas stations were closed, while those that were dependent on fuel from Ukrainian refineries, rather than refined imported fuel, were selling gasoline only to people with special permits.
“People understand what the situation is, so people are quietly waiting,” said Viktor Bonchak, a patron at the gas station who works in tourism, one of Lviv’s hardest-hit economic sectors. Bonchak had arranged to have someone else drive his car and wait in line an hour for him before he arrived.
Kuyun said the attacks on infrastructure have caused fewer disruptions than they might have if the refinery had been attacked in winter, when people are even more reliant on fuel.
“May is considered as a calm month in the industry, so we have time” to find alternatives, he said.The incidents include a Russian fuel depot that burst into flames moments after surveillance video captured bright streaks of rockets fired from low-flying helicopters, and a fire that broke out at a military research institute near Moscow.
Russia has accused Ukraine of carrying out the helicopter strike, while military analysts have suggested that Ukrainian sabotage was probably responsible for other fires. Ukraine has responded with deliberate ambiguity.
“We don’t confirm, and we don’t deny,” Oleksei Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, said in an interview.
Arestovych described the policy as a strategic stance, and he compared it with Israel’s long-standing policy of ambiguity on nuclear arms, another issue of extraordinary geopolitical sensitivity.
“After what has been happening,” he said, “officially we don’t say yes and we don’t say no, just like Israel.”