Ukraine rushes to protect power network from Russian destruction

Ukraine’s engineers are racing to protect the country’s power installations after waves of Russian missile and drone strikes last week damaged a third of the electricity network as it heads into winter.

The bombardment of Ukrainian cities, Moscow’s retaliation for an attack on a crucial bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland, was the heaviest since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion began in February.

Despite the apparently random targeting of some of the strikes, Ukrainian officials say Russia is trying to systematically destroy the country’s power and heating plants as the weather gets colder.

Almost a third of Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure was damaged by Russian missile, drone or artillery strikes on Monday and Tuesday alone, according to energy minister German Galuschenko.

The attacks caused rolling blackouts across swaths of the country including the capital, Kyiv, and forced heavy industrial consumers, such as steel plants, to scale back production.

People visit a grocery store without electricity in Lviv
People visit a grocery store without electricity in Lviv © Roman Baluk/Reuters

Kyiv says that after losing ground on the battlefield, Russia is trying to terrorise the population and break civilian morale. “Now the occupiers are not capable of opposing us on the battlefield . . . that is why they resort to this terror,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last week.

Zelenskyy pleaded with western leaders to provide more air defence systems and equipment to protect vital infrastructure. Russia is using swarms of Iranian-built kamikaze drones to destroy electricity grid connections.

A big danger for Ukraine is the destruction of Soviet-era centralised heating facilities during sub-zero temperatures which, if not rapidly fixed, could cause pipes across the network to freeze up and crack. These plants also require electricity to function.

Just two combined heat and power plants in Kyiv supply 650,000 homes in the capital with heating and hot water.

“Can you imagine if the whole system froze. That would be a real humanitarian catastrophe,” Galuschenko told the Financial Times in an interview.

Galuschenko said since early last month Russia’s military had been attacking the electricity system in a methodical way. It led him to believe that it was receiving advice from energy experts familiar with the Soviet-era energy system on how to destroy it.

“I’m sure all the maps are available as to how it works,” he said. “And this time someone can solve [the question] how to hit massively a number of stations which doesn’t allow us to quickly reconnect and provide supply.”

Ukraine’s internal security service the SBU said last month it had uncovered a group of Russian agents who had been scouting the capital to identify critical infrastructure targets, including power plants.

Maxim Timchenko, the head of DTEK, Ukraine largest private power generator, said his company, working with the grid operator, was rushing to erect protective structures around transformers and other grid equipment. These kind of fixed installations are easily damaged by Iranian-supplied Shahed-36 loitering munitions.

“They are using more and more drones for these attacks,” Timchenko said. “They are not very sophisticated technology. They don’t need special missile systems.”

Russia has struck hundreds of heating and power facilities since February. But the attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure intensified following Kyiv’s lightning counter-offensive in the north-east of the country last month.

On September 11, during a wave of retaliatory strikes at critical infrastructure, Russian missiles badly damaged a combined heat and power plant in Kharkiv, the second-largest such facility in the country.

“It is another crime against humanity,” Ihor Terekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv, told the FT. “They want people to freeze to death.”

Ukrainian officials in the summer ordered the evacuation of civilians from the east of the country where power and heating plants and the gas network were destroyed in fighting. But until the latest aerial attacks, they appeared confident they had sufficient gas, coal and power generating capacity for the rest of the country to get through the winter without outages thanks largely to the collapse in industrial demand.

Prime minister Denys Shmyhal said peak evening power demand would have to fall by a quarter if the country was to avoid rolling blackouts. The minimum temperature in apartment blocks served by centralised heating facilities will be lowered to 16 degrees.

“Let’s not embellish the reality — this winter will be difficult,” Shmyhal said. “Therefore, we once again urge everyone to carefully prepare for winter. It is desirable that every family has a stock of the necessary basic things: warm clothes, candles, flashlights, batteries. It is important to prepare this in case, as a result of massive missile attacks, the light or heat will disappear,” he noted.

Ukrainians are girding for a chilly and potentially dark winter, but Russia’s missile and drone strikes have also stiffened their resolve.

Denys, a taxi driver from Kharkiv, said some residents were prepared to live without heat — but living without power as well would be very tough.

“For sure we can stay if there is electricity. But it will cost a lot. And if everyone turns on an electric radiator it is going to be hard on the system. People are very patriotic. If its helps to win, people will spend the winter without heat.”

Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

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