Can Low Fuel Supplies Be a Showstopper for NATO Allies?

“Running on Empty?” That is the iconic refrain from the 1970s hit song by Jackson Browne, but it is also a real problem facing NATO for operations on its eastern flank. It is estimated that each day a U.S. armored division on the offense can burn up to 600,000 gallons of fuel (a mix of mostly diesel variants, including JP8, a higher-grade diesel for aircraft). Multiply that by the needs of other NATO divisions and smaller size units, and it is easy to see how crucial resilient fuel supplies are to the alliance. Elements of the health of NATO’s forward fuel supply system were to have been tested in April-May 2020, during execution of the U.S. Army’s, DEFENDER-20 military exercise, focused on the Poland-Baltics region. Unfortunately, the covid-19 pandemic significantly curtailed DEFENDER-20. Thus, robustly checking NATO’s fuel supply capabilities should be an essential element of DEFENDER-21, which will take place in the Black Sea region next year.

To ensure large combined and joint NATO forces remain operational and agile for an extended period, highly advanced logistics operations are required — this means fuel and lots of it! During an attack in the Baltic or Black Sea regions, the alliance would need to quickly establish constant fuel supplies for its rapid-responder units like NATO’s Very High Readiness Task Force (VJTF), and the rest of the NATO Response Force (NRF). The U.S. Army’s newly-formed, “Immediate Response Force,” from the 82nd Airborne Division, and NATO east flank allies would likely be alerted and moving, even ahead of the VJTF. These first-to-deploy combat units would significantly increase the demand for regional fuel supplies.

During the pre-crisis phase, NATO’s fuel supply infrastructure would likely be targets of Kremlin-controlled sabotage. In a highly kinetic environment this restricts NATO’s ability to respond symmetrically to a potentially massive Russian ground, air, and maritime attack. Russia would be better able to (1) establish a foothold on NATO territory; (2) demonstrate local military superiority to break the will of the alliance; and (3) create an ambiguous frozen conflict for recognition of new spheres of influence.

Why fuel could be in short supply for NATO even before a crisis:

-Much of the oil for fuel production comes from Russia, which could cut supplies off, declaring a false emergency, or establishing an embargo during a time of crisis. Many regional refineries in Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Germany, rely on the soviet-era, Druzhba pipeline system, though, some of these refineries have alternative pipeline options.

-The existing NATO fuel supply infrastructure in Western Europe has not been extended to cover Baltic and Black Sea region allies, not even to the eastern part of Germany.

-Civilian infrastructure — refineries, pipelines, storage sites, fuel terminals, and depots — would bear the strain of supplying allied forces, industry, and civilian populations should a protracted conflict ensue. Without detailed planning, and prioritization, incoherent fuel distribution could occur among deploying forces and national forces in nations hosting vital fuel infrastructure.

-Civilian facilities are currently not adequately prepared for crisis and armed conflict situations as they are not hardened against air, or missile attack, nor are they prepared to quickly surge their capacity.

Halting oil supplies will be only part of the problem. NATO should also expect offensive actions against critical infrastructure. During hybrid war activities in Ukraine, Russia conducted unsuccessful cyberattacks against power grids and attempted to destroy gas pipelines. Thus, NATO could see major terminals like Poland’s Naftoport, Lithuania’s Būtingė, Romania’s Constanta, and smaller ones, disabled or damaged. Especially vulnerable is Naftoport in Gdańsk, because it is so vital to Polish and eastern German refineries.

Main Refineries, Pipelines, and oil terminals in the region

Source: Esperis Consulting


Source: Esperis Consulting

Responding to a Fuel Supply Crisis

The main refineries do have some alternative supply options: Lithuania’s Mažeikiai receives oil through the Būtingė terminal. Polish facilities at Płock and Gdańsk can be supplied by the Naftoport terminal. Additionally, refineries in eastern Germany at Schwedt and Leuna could prove critical to support a fuel-starved Alliance, as even though they are less prepared, they are likely more secure, based on distance from potential battle areas. Faced with a cut in the supply of Russian oil, these refineries would need to rely on the terminal in Gdańsk, or with major constraints, on the terminal at Rostock, Germany, which can only supply 25% of Schwedt’s and Leuna’s combined capacity. An additional challenge is the unlikelihood of persuading Germany to extend Cold War-era oil pipelines further east, as it views such projects as “non-compliant” with its climate goals.

Notwithstanding the noted limitations, German refineries could operate at some capacity during hostilities, and fuel forward operations, via road tankers and railway. Road tanker and railway suppliers could be augmented by southern facilities. Slovakia’s refinery at Bratislava can receive oil through the Croatian-Hungarian-Slovakian route. At the same time, smaller Czech plants in Litvínov and Kralupy can be supplied from the Mediterranean (provided consent is obtained from shareholders, one of which is Russia’s Rosneft with 11% shares). In the Black Sea region, Romania and Bulgaria can be supplied via sea, railway, and trucks — assuming NATO gains necessary sea control. Another option is transporting fuel supplies via the Danube River, however, Serbia’s deepening military alliance with Russia makes this option problematic.


NATO, in tandem with the EU, should take steps now, to meet the fuel supply challenge by:

Apply “One Flank, One Threat, One Presence” thinking — CEPA’s framework for strengthening NATO’s eastern flank, utilizing a comprehensive approach to enhance resilience in NATO’s fuel supply system. This means ensuring NATO can rapidly respond to fuel supply requirements in the Baltic or Black Sea regions.

Conduct a critical oil and fuel supply infrastructure analysis of questions such as: What additional investments are needed for alternative supply routes in the event of destruction or damage to critical infrastructure? How much fuel does NATO need to store forward, and where, for a range of contingencies? Is the fuel storage infrastructure in Poland, Romania, Baltic States, and other Central East Europe locations fully compatible with NATO, and does it have the capacity for worst-case scenarios?

Maximize opportunities to develop secure fuel supply infrastructure, via the 12-nation Three Seas Initiative.

Ensure prioritization for military access to fuel infrastructure during a crisis, as fuel disruptions can create local chaos. NATO’s Joint Support Enabling Command (JSEC) — responsible for NATO’s rear-area operations — should play a leading role in developing NATO’s resilient fuel supply system.

Close Gaps: ensure access and passage on the Danube are guaranteed, including strengthening NATO and EU relationships with Serbia. Great potential exists for a PolandCzech Republic fuel pipeline bridging the 120 km-long gap between Sedlnice, Czech Republic and Trzebinia, Poland

Adapt the Litvinov refinery to process non-Russian oil to expand fuel options and capacity.

Łukasz Antas is a managing partner at Esperis Consulting, where he is responsible for risk assessment and leads the business intelligence team.

Photo: “Belgian 29th Logistics Battalion providing fuel for all nations at Camp Sessvollmoen, Norway, during exercise Trident Juncture 2018” by NATO under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Ray Wojcik

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Łukasz Antas

May 13, 2020

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.