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Russian strikes devastate Ukraine’s infrastructure

Jun 26, 2023

In Kyiv, residents prepare for daily blackouts. They’re typically staggered by neighborhood, and don't happen all at once; four hours off, four hours on, like that, all day, a checkerboard of light and dark, hot and cold, across the capital. People in Kyiv can look up their addresses and check the weekly schedule, so they’ll remember when to charge their phones or take a shower. The planning helps, but it isn't foolproof. The power can go out without warning. Russia can send in more missiles, as they did this week. In big apartment buildings, people leave food and water and diapers in the elevators, in case the electricity cuts off and a neighbor gets stuck, for who knows how long.

A version of this exists in other regions in Ukraine — Chernihiv, and Sumy, and elsewhere, many of which, like Kyiv, faced a barrage of Russian air strikes during October that targeted civilian and energy infrastructure, like power substations and transmission lines. In those October attacks, about 400 targets in 16 oblasts (regions) were damaged, including dozens of energy facilities, according to Ukrainian officials at the time.

On Tuesday, Russia launched another round of strikes, about 90 missiles, hitting at least 15 energy facilities across Ukraine. "Burnt residential buildings. Destroyed power plants again. Hundreds of cities were left without electricity, water, and heat. Internet traffic has fallen by two-thirds — imagine the scale," Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an address to G20 leaders.

The scale of the destruction makes quick repairs impossible. Replacement parts are not often readily available. Energy infrastructure also remains vulnerable: A lot of it is big and out in the open; once hit by a missile and fixed, it can be hit again. "It's not possible to repair quickly after it's been damaged," said Volodymyr Shulmeister, founder of the Infrastructure Council NGO and former first deputy minister of infrastructure of Ukraine from 2014 to 2015. "There were some spare parts, some electric power stations has been repaired, but there will be new problems coming from the air."

That is on top of all the other destruction Ukraine accumulated in months and months of war: houses and apartment buildings, bridges, roads, railways. There is always collateral damage in conflict, but Russia's attacks on non-military critical and energy infrastructure are intentional. "This is not a new tactic for Russia," said John Spencer, a retired Army officer and chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum. "If you think about what they did in Chechnya, and in Syria, to basically bring the civilian population to such despair that they’re willing to capitulate."

Moscow's targeting of infrastructure, which some have argued amounts to war crimes, is an effort to undermine Ukraine's economy and deprive people of essential services — heat, water, electricity — as winter approaches. Russia is struggling against Ukraine's counteroffensive in the east and south, and so Moscow is trying to extend the war and spread out that pain across Ukraine, not just in war zones. All of it will make Ukraine even more reliant on aid from the West, which is dealing with its own inflation and energy crises. "Russians are actually now acting very cruel, but also in a very well-thought-through way," said Andriy Kobolyev, former chief executive officer of Ukraine's largest national oil and gas company Naftogaz.

In areas closer to the fighting, the infrastructure destruction is even more extreme, but also harder to fully assess. Zelenskyy accused Russian troops of destroying "all the critical infrastructure: communications, water, heat, electricity," before retreating from Kherson last week. In Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, Russia cut off the city's water supply months ago; salt water had run through the taps for months, and potable water is now just being restored. Zelenskyy said in early November, before the latest round of air strikes, that Russian attacks damaged about 40 percent of Ukraine's energy infrastructure; precise data on how badly and where is hard to get, in part because Ukraine is closely guarding that information as a matter of national security.

Ukraine, so far, has been managing these challenges: stepping up public and private efforts to obtain and fund replacement parts, and deploying mitigation efforts like planned blackouts and urging Ukrainians to conserve energy. Officials have also told people who already fled the country they should not return because the energy system is stressed. "Ukrainians became energy efficient not by choice, but by war," said Maryna Ilchuk, counsel in the Kyiv office of CMS Cameron McKenna LLC and board member of the Women's Energy Club of Ukraine.

Ukraine does now have more advanced Western air-defense systems to help defend against Russian air bombardments; on Tuesday, an advisor to Zelenskyy said Ukraine shot down 70 of the 90 or so Russian missiles. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that its NASAMS air defense system, delivered recently, has had a "100 percent" success rate intercepting Russian missiles, and Ukraine is likely to push for more such systems to defend against Moscow's onslaughts.

A lot remains unpredictable. Ukraine's ability to withstand the winter depends on the things like the frequency and ferocity of Russian attacks, how effective its air defense systems are, or how cold the winter becomes. But the magnitude of the destruction so far, the difficulty of repairs, and Russia's ability to continue to wage war against the same targets multiple times, means Ukraine will struggle to maintain and protect its infrastructure this winter, to keep the lights and heat on.

But, so far, Russia's attacks have not diminished Ukrainian morale; if anything, it's hardened attitudes against Russia, and any sort of negotiated settlement. "Ukrainians," Shulmeister said, would "rather be frozen and not washed, than becoming part of Russia."

Russian attacks in October damaged five of the six thermal power plants run by DTEK, Ukraine's largest private energy investor. They had successfully undergone repairs. But after a pause of a few weeks, Russian again unleashed strikes on Tuesday.

During this latest wave, at least one of those plants was hit, and the rest were running at about 50 percent capacity, DTEK CEO Maxim Timchenko told Vox. As of Wednesday, DTEK is still assessing the scale of the damage.

Ukraine generates electricity through a few means — nuclear power, coal, and natural gas, mostly. Russia isn't really attacking Ukraine's ability to generate power, but taking out different limbs of the systems that help convert and carry and eventually distribute electricity to homes and businesses.

As experts said, power substations — which are basically the connector between the power-generating facilities to the distribution networks that get electricity to users — are a frequent target. "You have multiple ways to deliver electricity to a city, but all these delivery roads go through the substations. By damaging these large substations, they just cut those power lines effectively coming from power plants to cities," said Dennis Sakva, a Kyiv-based energy sector analyst at Dragon Capital.

Russia is also targeting things like transmission lines that carry electricity, or transformers that transfer electricity from one circuity to another. Altogether, it means providers can't deliver enough power to the cities and towns to meet the demand, and so they have to limit consumption with things like planned or "stabilization" blackouts. But if there's a sudden spike in demand, or another substation or transmission line goes down, the lights, the water, the heat can go out, without notice.

And this isn't just one substation or a few transmission lines; this is all over Ukraine — dozens and dozens of wounds to the network. "The scale of damages is so large that it makes it almost impossible for timely repairs and getting back to normal," Sakva said.

Finding spare parts to make repairs is one of the biggest challenges. Energy companies don't necessarily have huge stocks, and replacements can be difficult to produce. According to Kobolyev, the former energy chief, it can take months; the lead time for one large transformer, he said, is usually 12 months. Some of Ukraine's infrastructure, like its coal-fired plants, were built during the Soviet era, adding to the difficulty of repairs. Timchenko, of DTEK, said they have to sometimes reallocate parts from other Ukrainian plants, or find similar models from other former Soviet states, like in Eastern Europe, that might have similar specifications. "The biggest concern is that we run out of stock, and it cannot be replaced," Timchenko said.

Energy companies are coordinating with the Ukrainian government to seek emergency equipment donations from abroad, from private firms and governments, and then direct it to where repairs are most urgently needed. The wish-list includes things like power transformers, generators, pipes, insulators, and welding machines.

This acute scramble, of course, is piling on to the infrastructure struggles Ukraine has faced since Russia launched its full-on assault in Ukraine last February. Even in places like Kyiv, and its suburbs, where Russia retreated from in April, houses are still bombed out, roads still destroyed. In April, Ukrainian officials had estimated that about 30 percent of its transportation infrastructure was damaged, though, Shulmeister said, transport problems are easier to fix than energy ones.

Zaporizhzhia, the largest power plant in Ukraine and Europe's largest nuclear plant, came under Russian control, and it shut down its reactors repeatedly because of fighting and safety concerns, cutting it off from the Ukrainian grid. Russian attacks have also taken out renewable energy infrastructure — as much as 50 percent of its solar capacity, and 90 percent of its wind turbines.

"These attacks against critical infrastructure — the reverberating effects for the civilian population have been massive so far," said Alexander Grif, Ukraine country director for the Center for Civilians in Conflict. "And we have not even entered winter in Ukraine."

Ukrainian officials called Russia's latest barrage the worst of the war to date. It will stress a system already struggling from October's attacks, with few parts of society or the economy spared.

For civilians, the power going out, of course, means you don't have lights or television or an internet connection for a few hours. If you use gas for cooking, a few people said, you’re now one of the lucky ones. But electricity is also key to keeping other utilities running, like water and heat. District heating, often used in cities, depends on electric pumps to move hot water, which is used to heat homes; approximately 53 percent of urban households in Ukraine rely on such systems as their main heating source during the winter. As Sakva pointed out, if the heat and water go out, pipes might freeze up, and then when they thaw, it can create a humanitarian disaster. A big city without a water supply is also a sanitation hazard, as it creates hygienic risks and people lack clean drinking water.

Some people in Kyiv said, right now, the indoors can feel like the outdoors. But the coldest months are not here yet; the temperature in January and February hovers around 30 degrees Fahrenheit in Kyiv. Homes damaged by strikes — blown out windows, or broken pipes — would be hard to heat even if utilities were working at full capacity.

Right now, the priority is getting the most urgent systems up and running. "We are trying to restore the assets that are required immediately to survive during the winter period. So pipes, heating tubes, heated infrastructure, electricity infrastructure, and things like that," said Vladyslava Grudova, who is tracking infrastructure damages as co-head of the project

The full extent of destruction Russia has unleashed on critical energy infrastructure is hard to fully gauge. Experts and analysts told me that, especially since the Kremlin is targeting these elements, Ukraine is closely protecting that information, though official statements and industry data — along with the realities of everyday Ukrainians — offer at least some clues.

As of September, estimates of damage to energy infrastructure landed somewhere around $13.4 billion, but that predates Russia's October and November assaults, which means the figure is likely much higher. The Kyiv School of Economics, which is in the process of revising their data for October, estimates about $127 billion in total infrastructure damage as of September 1, with about $50 billion of that just housing costs alone. In September, the World Bank assessed Ukraine's physical damage at about $97 billion, with the total rebuilding costs somewhere closer to $350 billion.

Ukraine will need economic and humanitarian aid to get through the winter — generators, and winter coats, and clean water supplies, which are being delivered, though the scale of which is still unclear. Strikes and shelling make the delivery of that aid more challenging, too. Authorities are trying to come up with back-up plans, including emergency heating centers and warnings to stock up on firewood as an alternative heating source, although as someone pointed out, it's not like you can lug a wood-burning stove up to your high-rise apartment.

Energy analysts and experts also say that military aid matters here, too, specifically air defense systems that allow Ukraine to intercept Russian strikes. These systems can't cover everything, but as Spencer said, they do help Ukraine protect the critical infrastructure in major cities, which is exactly what Putin is attacking.

And these energy problems are directly connected to that battle for Ukrainian territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has targeted civilian infrastructure in response to Ukraine's counteroffensive, which has successfully wrested back some Russian-controlled territory in the east and south. Ukraine is trying to push ahead to make as many gains as possible ahead of winter, when cold weather and frozen ground and lack of coverage will change the nature of the fighting, and force both sides to adjust tactics.

But Russia sees these attacks on critical systems as a strategy to grind down Ukraine, which means the risk of more destruction will persist. A crippled energy infrastructure will affect every corner of Ukraine, as it disrupts communication and transport networks, banking and postal networks, and food and agricultural production. That will threaten to displace more people and create pockets of humanitarian emergencies.

All of these vulnerabilities may also make it harder for Ukraine to wage war on the front lines, in what will be, no matter what, a very long winter.

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