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4-hour wait for 5 gallons of gas: Oil shortage sparks panic-buying in Kyiv

“I will need to evacuate if anything happens,” said Olexandr Eremenko, 44, explaining why he waited four hours to buy 20 liters of gas.
Drivers line up in long queues at a gas station amid the fuel supply cutoff in Kyiv on May 11, 2022.
Drivers line up at a gas station Wednesday amid the fuel supply cutoff in Kyiv, Ukraine.Dogukan Keskinkilic / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

KYIV, Ukraine — For the second time in one week, Marina had to wait more than three hours in the car with her newborn baby to buy gas.

Sitting in a line that stretched as far as the eye could see down the side of a highway, Marina, who spoke on the condition of omitting her last name, said she was waiting to fill up another 20-liter can of fuel to add to her stockpile at home. The amount — just over 5 gallons — was the maximum allowed at the gas station.

She said she wanted to make sure she, her husband and their two kids would have enough fuel to make it safely to the border if Russians forces ever returned to the region.

“Who knows how events will unfold,” she said. “In case of danger, the four of us will get in the car and go.” 

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine stretches into its third month, gas shortages are starting to pop up around the country. Cities like Kyiv and Lviv face a particularly hard time as more people return home following the Russian retreat to the east last month.

In recent days, shortages have grown worse as the uncertainty of war has sparked panic-buying, and many Ukrainians are now hoarding jerrycans of gasoline at home.

“I will need to evacuate if anything happens,” said Olexandr Eremenko, 44, explaining why he waited four hours early Friday morning to buy 20 liters of gas. It would not be enough to get him to the border if the Russians were to return. “I will stand in line again.”

Some gas stations were looted and burned to the ground by Russians during their occupation of the area in March. Others have completely run out of fuel, and some have begun limiting the amount of fuel each driver can purchase.

Vladimir Rivega, 21, said he arrived at a station in Kyiv at 6 a.m. Thursday morning to put as much gas in his empty tank as the station attendants would allow. He was nearing the front of the line at 5 p.m. when the station ran out of fuel.

At 12 p.m. Friday, he was still waiting for gas to be delivered. The gas station attendants kept telling him it would just be a few more hours.

Vladimir Rivega at a gas station in Kyiv.
Vladimir Rivega at a gas station in Kyiv, Ukraine.Laren Egan / NBC News

“It is frustrating,” he said. “But I understand the situation; it is war. If we have to wait, we have to wait.” He hoped that his perseverance might convince the gas station attendants to give him a full tank.

Before the war, Ukraine’s energy industry suffered from corruption, leaving all of the oil refineries bankrupt except for one in the central city of Kremenchuk, around 220 miles southeast of Kyiv.

It forced the country to be heavily dependent on imported petroleum. 

Russian forces have targeted the Kremenchuk refinery, along with oil storage facilities, and cut off Ukraine’s access to ports on the Black Sea.

As a result, the Ukrainian government has scrambled to find alternative ways to get fuel into the country, patching together new systems to bring fuel overland via trucks.

Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that the gas shortage is squeezing the country.

In a video address at the end of April, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy said long lines and rising prices at gas stations “are seen in many regions of our country.”

“The occupiers are deliberately destroying the infrastructure for the production, supply and storage of fuel,” he said. “Russia has also blocked our ports, so there are no immediate solutions to replenish the deficit.”

Zelenskyy promised to stamp out fuel shortages within two weeks. On Friday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said his country had agreed to import oil products from the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Azerbaijan.

A checkpoint at the border was being prepared for the importation, Shmyhal said in a statement posted to the Ukrainian government’s website. He did not say when the oil would start to arrive or where the border crossing would be.

So for the moment, the problem is only getting worse.

The fuel situation is raising concerns about how Ukraine will support essential industries such as agriculture and whether it will impact military logistics and supply chains. Government officials have encouraged civilians to avoid driving their personal vehicles and to use public transportation when possible.

Ruslan Irkis, 38, who operates a small farm outside of Kyiv, said that he needed fuel to keep his farm running and to deliver his products to nearby stores. 

He and his wife had set aside the entire day to drive around Kyiv collecting 20 liter cans of gas at a time. He said he couldn’t go home until they had at least 100 liters.

“We have to earn a living, it’s the only way.”

Oksana Moiseenko, 42, said she had followed the government’s guidelines to take public transportation ever since she returned to Kyiv in mid April.

But the thought of the Russians returning terrified her. She waited more than three hours Friday morning to purchase just 20 liters of fuel. She planned to keep coming back to the station until she had enough gas to make the roughly 8-hour drive to the border.

“I am of course worried,” she said of the possibility of being forced to leave Kyiv again. “How can you not worry?”