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Russia’s methodical attacks exploit frailty of Ukrainian power system

COMMENTARY

Russia’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure have been so methodical and destructive that Ukrainian and Western officials say they are being led by electricity specialists who know exactly which targets will inflict maximum pain on Ukraine’s grid.

The two-week bombing campaign, an attempt to plunge Ukrainians into darkness ahead of their country’s bitter winter, has focused less on well-protected power-generating plants and more on grid nodes that are key to operation and security of the Ukrainian electrical network. critical services.

Already, more than a third of Ukraine’s hard-to-replace transmission centers have been damaged or destroyed, officials said.

Russia’s change in tactics is alarming Ukrainian and Western officials as temperatures begin to drop in Ukraine. They warn that the attacks could inflict suffering on civilians, create a new wave of refugees and further erode Ukraine’s war-torn economy. Many Ukrainian cities are heated by centralized power plants that require electricity and gas to operate, meaning attacks could be particularly devastating.

Western officials have condemned attacks on infrastructure as a war crime, saying they are intended to sow terror among the civilian population. The campaign has been relentless and highly strategic — unlike the Russian military’s ground tactics, which often appear ill-conceived, Ukrainian officials said.

“All the drones they’re using, the missiles, everything is targeting energy infrastructure,” Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko said in an interview. “They have a kind of road map for the military, where to shell. If they miss one day, then the next day they shell it again and again.”

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The attacks are also proving extremely difficult to defend against, and officials said there was little they could do to harden the system against the attacks, which Russia has carried out with long-range missile barrages and attack drones.

“The purpose of this is to create the most possible barriers to reconnection quickly,” Galushchenko said. “Every day, the shelling of infrastructure brings us closer to bigger problems.”

Another goal is to broadly hamper Ukraine’s ability to support its troops on the front lines.

Ukraine’s backers in Europe and Asia have promised to provide more powerful air defense systems and rush equipment and other aid to help rebuild critical infrastructure. But many of the air defense systems are complicated to use, require extensive training, and have been slow in coming.

Previously, when power plants or transmission lines were attacked, Ukrainian energy officials were able to reroute electricity around the problem, using their country’s thick network of Soviet and post-Soviet power infrastructure to bypass the problems. But that stability is eroding fast, officials said.

And repairs to damaged infrastructure are pointless as long as Russia can attack the same targets again and again. Most substations and transformers must be above ground and many must be clear of obstructions around them, making them easy targets.

“The rules of the game are unfair,” said Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, chief executive of Ukrenergo, the country’s main grid operator. “It’s much faster and easier to launch a missile and destroy the equipment or the facility than to refurbish it.”

Replacing specialized transformers and other substation infrastructure is particularly difficult because they often have to be custom-built, a process that can take months, experts said.

Kudrytskyi and others said they saw the spectral presence of their Russian energy counterparts in the decisions behind what was being struck, as if people like them planned the strategy. Russia’s and Ukraine’s networks are technically similar, as they were part of the same country until 1991, and maps of Soviet-era infrastructure can still provide a road map to destruction.

“They definitely target those substations and power plants that are most important for some regions, particular regions or for the energy system in general as a whole,” Kudrytskyi said. They know “where to hit to cause the most damage. Because their objective is terror. Their goal is to disconnect as many people as possible to create this panic.”

Right now, Kudrytskyi said, 90 percent of Ukrainians have power restored within a day of an attack. “The problem,” he said, “is that the system’s safety buffer is getting lower. At the current rate of destruction, there is no such stockpile that can last for months or years.”

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Authorities have begun asking residents to stop using power-hungry devices, and they have imposed planned blackouts of several hours in Kiev and cities across the country.

Many local governments have moved away from electric to diesel-powered trolleybuses, one of several measures they are taking to save electricity. Planned outages help ease the burden on the grid and give power companies precious hours to catch up with repair crews and redirect power flows through undamaged parts of their transmission grid.

“My personal assessment is that they can hardly create a total blackout in the country,” said Olena Pavlenko, president of DiXi Group, a Kiev-based energy consultancy. “There will still be opportunities for electricity supply in all regions. But they will create a situation where we have longer interruptions of electricity supply in cities”.

The attacks have begun to create a new reckoning among Ukrainians.

For those in the east and center of the country, many of whom had only recently returned to their homes after spending months abroad or in the west, it raised the possibility that they might need to flee again. Even for those who intend to stay, conversations have begun about what needs to be done to prepare for a winter potentially without heat and power for extended periods.

“When you have to stay without electricity, you have this feeling that you are in constant danger,” said Pavlenko, who added that her apartment in Kiev had been without power for four hours that afternoon. “You are not able to live as you lived before. It is terrorizing in all regions.”

A recent news report advised apartment buildings to place emergency kits in elevators in case residents find themselves trapped between floors during a power outage. In one apartment building, the contents included a flashlight, water, cookies, as well as two adult diapers and a mild sedative.

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At the bottom of the list of contents in the package, a request was written: “Please do not use the contents if you do not need and replace what you use.”

Ukraine’s power generation capacity plunged in the first weeks of the war after Russia seized its Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest atomic power station. But with much of the country’s industry emptied by the conflict, energy demands are also much lower than in peacetime.

Ukraine is still able to generate enough electricity for its own needs – and until just two weeks ago, was actually exporting its surplus to its European neighbours. But its ability to move electricity from power plants, many of which are in the north and west of Ukraine, to where it is needed, near the front lines in the south and east, is diminishing rapidly.

“The main objective of the Russian attack is to create a situation where the Ukrainian system cannot work together,” said Oleksandr Kharchenko, managing director of the Kiev-based Energy Industry think tank. “They want to divide it into parts. We can clearly see this plan.”

Another objective – as Russia faces battlefield challenges on the front lines and is retreating from the southern city of Kherson and other areas – is to undermine the Ukrainian military from behind.

“This is a completely different way of how Russia is now targeting infrastructure,” said Artur Lorkowski, the Vienna-based director of the Energy Community Secretariat, an international organization linked to the European Union that has been coordinating efforts to run the spare parts. and infrastructure assistance. to Kiev. “This is something that makes me fear for the future.”

Lorkowski said targeting the power grid could lead to civilian suffering beyond the already heavy toll of the war, which on Monday entered its ninth month.

“I’d like to be wrong, but if the intensity of the bombing is maintained by the Russians, you can expect a really, really harsh winter,” Lorkowski said in a telephone interview from the Polish-Ukrainian border, where he was returning from a visit to Kiev. focused on relief efforts. “They are trying to push people into a crisis situation through limited or no access to electricity and heating during the winter.”

Attacks on energy infrastructure have led to calls for allies to step in to help, both with air defense and spare parts for the energy system.

The Biden administration said it was trying. “We are working with the Ukrainians and regional and allied partners to see what can be done to support some alternative energy sources for them as winter approaches,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. He added that the United States was working hard to ensure that the Ukrainians could “improve their air defense capabilities.”

Poland recently submitted a list of Ukraine’s most urgent infrastructure needs to the European Commission.

The list, drawn up with Kiev, describes the need for items such as mobile cranes, vehicles for transporting reinforced concrete pillars, miles of power cables and more than a dozen types of transformers, as well as submersible pumps, surge arresters and saws. with a chain. among others.

A Polish diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing talks, said diplomats from EU member states had been briefed on the letter. “More and more member countries understand the situation and I think they want to help”, said the diplomat.

Some of the necessary materials can be obtained from the European Union, the diplomat said, while other items may need to be ordered from elsewhere, potentially with financial support from EU countries. Even before the latest round of Russian attacks, EU countries were donating generators, repair kits and transformers.

Kudrytskyi, Ukrenergo’s chief executive, said he felt he was in a race to make repairs faster than Russian shelling could destroy his work. “It’s a very dangerous situation,” he said, “and we don’t know their destruction capabilities.”

Stern reported from Kiev and Rauhaula reported from Brussels. Beatriz Ríos in Brussels contributed to this report.

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