How to save Ukraine’s energy infrastructure

Photos of Kyiv draped in darkness have become a shareable illustration of winter in Ukraine this year: dark, cold, dangerous. Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is under attack from Russia, which has failed to defeat Ukrainian forces on the battlefield and is now once again targeting civilians.

These dark days and nights should not conjure romantic images of Ukrainian families huddled around candles at home. When Russian attacks cut power, Ukrainians suffer: the elderly can be left stranded in their apartments when the elevators don’t work; without electrical ovens and microwaves, mothers cannot provide warm food for their children; absent reliable electricity, businesses weigh shutting down; hospitals rely on a limited supply of diesel generators to keep intensive care units running.

Fortunately, images of blackouts in Ukrainian cities and towns and their attendant hardships need not become the norm.

After the most recent spate of heinous Russian bombing attacks on civilian infrastructure, the U.S. and some of its European allies sent air defense systems to Kyiv. The arriving American NASAM and the German IRIS-T systems are crucial to defending Ukrainian civilians from Russia. The ability to reliably shoot down Russian rockets and kamikaze drones will make Ukrainians safer and make it more difficult for Russians to hit key energy grid nodes. The US will also soon send its short-range Avenger systems to Ukraine, which will help defend against drones. But Western aid must not end at air defense systems — all the NASAMs, Avengers and IRIS-T systems in the world cannot protect all of Ukraine.

In addition to air defense, Ukraine needs electrical transmission equipment like transformers and subsoil cables and short-term shelter facilities that give people a warm place to sleep when the power does go out. Ukraine also urgently needs budgetary support to fund repairs and replace grid infrastructure when Russian missiles or drones strike. The Ukrainian military has proven that it can succeed on the battlefield when provided with sufficient weapons — if the speed with which Ukraine has patched up its roads is any indication, the country’s grid operators will prove the same.

In recent weeks, Russia has fired rockets and sent kamikaze drones to take out substation facilities and electrical transformers, very specific pieces of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure that connect power generation plants to the rest of the grid. Ukraine can generate all the power it wants, but if the grid cannot transfer that electricity to cities and towns, apartment buildings will become cold, dark iceboxes and community infrastructure such as water treatment stations and sewage treatment plants will cease to function.

We have seen this scenario play out earlier in the war. In March, advancing Russian forces cut power to the northern city of Chernihiv. Of the roughly 750 people killed by Russia’s attacks on the city, more than 300 froze to death.

Russian forces also pose a major threat to Ukraine’s power generation facilities. In 2021, Ukraine’s total energy generation capacity amounted to just over 56 gigawatts (GW) of power. Russia’s full-scale invasion in February has damaged or destroyed many of Ukraine’s power generation facilities, and others have fallen into the hands of occupying Russian forces, taking more than 15 GW offline.

Most notably, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) — the country’s single largest source of power — remains under Russian occupation. The ZNPP alone accounts for 6 GW that Ukraine relies on as a reliable cushion against shocks to the electrical grid. Without this steady source of power, the grid becomes more vulnerable to the kinds of intermittent blackouts seen in Kyiv and elsewhere. To make matters worse, 16 thermal power plants, which mainly burn coal, are now inaccessible; only 13.3 GW of 21.8 available GW of thermal power are under Ukrainian control. Roughly two-thirds of Ukraine’s wind power capacity remains under occupation.

Russia seeks to curtail Ukraine’s energy production capacity and cut civilian access to electricity. Moscow’s goals are threefold: cause as much pain and suffering as possible, amp up the pressure on Kyiv to keep the lights on and divert precious resources away from the front lines. It’s a cynical strategy that Russian forces have employed for months but leaned on more in recent weeks as their battlefield losses mount and their other military capabilities weaken. Western countries have provided some assistance to combat Moscow’s attacks on infrastructure, but they can do more.

Even with integrated air defenses around large cities and strategic energy nodes, Iranian-made kamikaze drones and some Russian cruise missiles may still threaten Ukraine’s grid infrastructure. Ukrainians are adept at shooting down these drones and rockets, but some will hit their targets. When that happens, Ukraine’s grid operators need to have the necessary equipment on hand to restore power. The U.S. can cheaply and easily send electrical transformers, circuit breakers, and long-range cables.

While grid operators work 24/7 to repair damaged transmission systems, civilians will need ways to stay warm in the cold Ukrainian winter. Establishing portable shelters in large cities powered by diesel generators can give ordinary families a place to rest and be safe, even without power. No electricity means no running water, so shelters should include mobile water treatment stations and the large mobile heaters most frequently seen by Americans on NFL sidelines. The Ukrainian government has asked publicly for these items to be transferred as soon as possible.

Western governments should therefore focus on air defense systems, electrical transmission equipment, and mobile heating and water supplies to help Ukraine survive the winter. Energy companies, too, can donate equipment and NGOs can raise money for these big-ticket humanitarian aid items. This integrated approach will not only help keep the lights on; it also will save civilian lives and make Ukraine more resilient to Russian attacks if the war drags on. 

Ukrainians will fight Russia on the battlefield. It’s up to the U.S. and its allies to support Ukraine on the home front.

Andrew D’Anieri is assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow him on Twitter @andrew_danieri.

Victoria Voytsitska is a former member of parliament in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. Follow her on Twitter @VVoytsitska.

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