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Russia is continuing to deliver blows on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leaving hospitals, schools, and homes without water or heating and condemning millions of people who have suffered so much in the war to freezing. The Kremlin is not trying to hide its intention to trigger a humanitarian disaster and force Kyiv to negotiate. However, its plan appears to be failing, as Ukrainians are learning to cook food with candles and make power banks from scratch, Ukrainian officials are leaving no stone unturned in their search for parts to repair energy facilities, and no one even considers bargaining with Russia. Ukraine's energy infrastructure has proven to be way more resilient than Putin had hoped and cannot be fully destroyed; however, keeping houses warm will be a much greater challenge, which means the hard part is still ahead.

  • The Kremlin's terrorist plan

  • Living in a blackout

  • Ukraine's energy industry is more resilient than Putin hoped

  • TPPs as the Achilles heel of Ukraine's energy system

  • Energy equipment supplies

  • Additional financial support

  • Importing electricity

  • A proactive approach

  • Winter as an advantage for Ukraine

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The Kremlin's terrorist plan

Russia is doing all it can to turn the upcoming winter into an ordeal for Ukraine and the world at large. Starting from October 10, the Russian military has been pummeling Ukraine's energy infrastructure with massive missile attacks. November 15 saw the largest strike, with the Russians firing over 90 missiles. According to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, it left around 10 million civilians without electricity. Overall, more than 400 critical facilities of the energy and heating infrastructure have sustained damage since the beginning of the war.

Russia has targeted primarily electrical substations, which receive, transform, and distribute electricity and unite the elements of the national power grid into a single whole. Attacks on the substations were supposed to hack this whole into pieces. Secondary targets have been power-generating facilities – Ukraine’s power plants, according to Dmytro Sakharuk, the Executive Director of Ukraine's largest private energy company, DTEK. They are bigger and harder to put out of commission. The strikes of November 15 targeted gas-extracting facilities in the Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk regions. The Russians also hit the Khmelnytskyi NPP, temporarily cutting its power supply. The organizers of the attacks most likely knew how to do the most damage to the Ukrainian power grid and chose targets accordingly.

Russia has targeted primarily electrical substations, which receive, transform, and distribute electricity

Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian Ministry of Defense is shy to admit they are using “high-precision weapons” specifically to damage Ukraine's energy facilities. The Russian government pays little regard to the fact that targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure, especially ahead of winter, are interpreted as war crimes under international law. As Zelensky stated, Moscow is trying to weaponize the upcoming cold weather, which will be an ordeal for Ukrainians who have been left without heat or electricity.

“The first part [of Russia’s plan] is to make living conditions too harsh to survive in winter to provoke another wave of migration and depopulate Ukraine. The second part is to psychologically break Ukrainians, to make us wish for the war to end, no matter how,” summarized the Head of Ukraine's Presidential Administration Andrii Yermak. Innsbruck University professor Gerhardt Mangott believes that ahead of winter and throughout it, Russia could adopt this tactic as a “strategy of terror against the peaceful population”, which means Russia will keep trying to destroy the infrastructure rebuilt by Ukrainians.

Living in a blackout

Cooking food on an open fire, collecting rainwater, and using firewood to keep warm used to be the grim reality of the front line, occupied regions, or recently liberated Ukrainian communities. There, the hardship persists. In the cities of Izium and Kupiansk near Kharkiv, many still have to do without gas, electricity, or running water. Residents have had to burn firewood to keep warm, gathering it in nearby forests. Rebuilding the centralized energy system is a massive challenge, considering the scale of destruction and the ongoing Russian shelling.

Since October 10, all of Ukraine, including Kyiv, has had to adapt to frequent and prolonged power outages. Ukrainians now have to schedule their work and personal affairs around the timetable of outages. However, there are emergency power cuts as well. Blackouts may last up to six hours and will have to continue at least until Russia stops directing its missiles toward energy facilities on purpose.

A woman in Kupiansk cooking food outside her apartment block
A woman in Kupiansk cooking food outside her apartment block
Kupiansk_ IST.Metin Aktaş Anadolu Ajansı

Scheduled power cuts decrease the load on the power grid and enable energy industry specialists to conduct critical repairs after strikes. Another purpose of the schedule is to balance out energy generation and consumption, which is necessary whenever Russia takes out some of the generating capabilities or a transmission line. If consumers stay connected and continue using more energy than the system has, it will go out of sync and take more time to repair. Outages also help save energy for critical infrastructure facilities, such as water-pumping stations, hospitals, plants, and enterprises where a sudden power cut can put costly equipment out of commission. Street lighting will be reduced too.

The government has urged Ukrainians to stock up on power banks, batteries, candles, warm clothes, and thermal underwear. The Internet is rife with how-to videos on making power banks for a Wi-Fi router, heating a room with one candle, and warming food without electricity, for instance, on a gas burner or even a few candles. Ukrainian authorities recommend stockpiling foods with a long shelf life and instant foods.

A makeshift cooker from planks and candles
A makeshift cooker from planks and candles

Some of the cities have no running water, with residents lining up for water in the streets. In some of the cases, the pipes may have been destroyed on purpose – like in Mykolaiv, according to BBC. The interviewed experts concluded that the pipes may have been blown up, judging by the pattern of damage.

Kyiv residents fetching water from a standpipe in the yard
Kyiv residents fetching water from a standpipe in the yard

Energy industry specialists implore Ukrainians to save water and electricity by making sure all of their light bulbs are energy-efficient, using power-hungry household appliances one by one, and limiting energy consumption during the peak load periods – from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

“Results vary by the region and from day to day, but overall energy savings fluctuate from 5 to 10%,” shared Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, CEO of Ukrenergo, the national energy provider. Online influencers and the media are also promoting the concept of austerity, which is new for the majority of the population. Several television channels have had candlelit broadcasts.

Channel 24
Channel 24

Buildings holding critical infrastructure facilities have so far been promised uninterrupted supply. Such facilities may share the building with a residential unit, explains the Executive Director of DTEK Dmytro Sakharuk. The list includes communications equipment, vaccine storage units, Internet provider servers, and water supply and heating facilities. However, the residents of such buildings can hardly be envied because living alongside such a facility increases the risk of being targeted in a strike.

The public transportation system is in for changes too. To save energy, Kyiv has replaced some of its trams and trolleybuses with buses running on fuel. Kharkiv has increased waiting time for tram routes and the subway.

The Supreme Rada has considered transferring some of the enterprises and organizations to remote work. The deputies believe this could help compensate for losses associated with air raid alerts on business days, which have caused an estimated GDP loss of at least 7.5 billion hryvnias (~$203 million).

“It is important to streamline the remote work of both the public and the private sector outside business hours and during the weekends, not only to compensate for downtime but also to ensure the manufacturing of products necessary for our victory,” underlined Supreme Rada deputy Danylo Hetmantsev.

Kyiv residents could be temporarily relocated to other regions if the energy situation becomes critical. The EU intends to set up temporary warm shelters for resettlers in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Iryna Vereshchuk, the Minister of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, has called on Ukrainians who are abroad to avoid returning home before winter if they can.

Ukraine's energy industry is more resilient than Putin hoped

The Ukrainian energy system is highly durable and almost impossible to destroy in its entirety. “If a generating facility is down, there are others to stand in. It's a single circuit, a closed system. The architecture was designed in Soviet times and was built specifically to withstand events similar to the current situation,” explained CEO of DTEK Maxim Timchenko. He views “an Armageddon, a situation when everything is blown to pieces and lies in darkness” as an impossible scenario.

One of the largest in Europe, Ukraine's energy system has the most bifurcated transmission grid per area unit. Nuclear, thermal, hydroelectric, cogeneration, wind, solar, and biofuel power plants are all united with backbone transmission lines.

Ukraine’s power-generating capacities
Ukraine’s power-generating capacities

Another factor contributing to the resilience of Ukraine’s power grid is the excess of Soviet-era capabilities. At its height, Ukraine generated over 300 billion kilowatt hours, producing enough energy for the USSR's defense industry. Today, consumption levels are much lower. Over the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine's power consumption has dropped by almost 60%. The generating capabilities are still in place, so the country has no shortage of electricity.

In addition to the long-term trend of shrinking consumption, the demand for fuel has additionally dropped since hostilities began. The war triggered an outflux of the population and closure of enterprises, destroyed infrastructure facilities, and large manufacturing plants such as the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

“The shirking of natural gas consumption by 40% and electricity consumption by 30% has enabled us to mitigate the serious damage done by Russian missile attacks on the energy infrastructure,” stated Volodymyr Omelchenko, the Director of Energy Programs at the Razumkov Center.

The growing share of nuclear energy is also an advantage. NPPs are generating 56% of Ukraine’s energy because Russia mostly targets generating facilities running on natural gas, petroleum fuel, and coal. The South Ukraine, Rivne, and Khmelnytskyi NPP have continued normal operations. Save for an attack on the Khmelnytskyi NPP, Russia has not directed its missiles toward Ukrainian NPPs.

TPPs as the Achilles heel of Ukraine's energy system

The destruction of Ukraine's grid may leave its urban population without heat, which is the gravest danger ahead of winter. Ukrainian cities mostly have centralized heat systems, meaning that central heating is inseparable from energy generation. Thermal energy is generated alongside electricity at thermal power plants (TPPs), also frequently targeted by Russian missiles.

Time dubbed centralized heating systems “Ukraine’s secret weapon for cutting emissions” because it is relatively easy to adapt them to run off bioenergy or waste heat from data centers. This could be cheaper and potentially more energy-efficient than a decentralized system of thousands of fossil-fueled boilers like in many European cities.

However, in a war, this advantage turned into a vulnerability because a centralized network is easier to take out with a missile strike. Moreover, the Kremlin has intimate knowledge of the Soviet-era system and delivers efficient blows. Not only physical damage to a TPP that generates thermal energy but also the destruction of central heating pipes can leave an entire district or block to freeze. When temperatures drop below zero, a power outage that lasts several hours could be critical for underground heating pipes, which will burst if the water inside them freezes. Replacing them would be challenging.

Workers in Kyiv repairing central heating pipes
Workers in Kyiv repairing central heating pipes
Volodymyr Tarasov, Ukrinform ABACA Reuters

A similar scenario played out in 2006 in Alchevsk, when 60,000 of its residents had to use electric radiators to warm their homes after a major accident. A few days later, the sewage system also froze in the absence of hot water.

Today, the situation may repeat itself if boiler stations or TPPs are damaged. The scope of the disaster also greatly depends on air temperature. At –5°С, pipes will retain residual heat for a long while but will freeze in no time at –25°С. The colder it gets, the less time Ukrainians will have to complete the repairs – which will also require specialized equipment.

Energy equipment supplies

The situation in winter will largely depend on the foreign supplies of energy equipment, which is critical for the substitution and repair of damaged facilities. Most of all, Ukraine needs mobile water conditioning stations, mobile TPPs, alternative fuels, and diesel and gas generators, according to Oleksiy Chernyshov, former Ukrainian Minister of Communities and Territories Development. Such local backup units could become the backbone of power supply for many districts in winter. However, they require a stock of fuel, which is problematic: whereas Kyiv's allies are willing to provide equipment, diesel fuel is not on the menu.

The Ukrainian MFA has reported arranging shipments of mobile equipment with governments and private sector enterprises in twelve countries including Italy, France, Lithuania, Finland, Germany, and Poland. Madrid has confirmed its pledge to supply Ukraine with power generators for hospitals and ambulance vans. The total shipments border on 600 energy equipment pieces, which is not many, considering that Russian attacks on October 10 alone damaged 143 facilities, including ten TPPs and 19 electrical substations.

Olena Zerkal, former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, names the failure of energy equipment as Kyiv's number-one problem. Ukraine needs rare and costly articles that are hardly ever in stock, including at least 25 high-voltage autotransformers. Those are normally supplied by South Korea, but placing an order for such equipment out of turn is complicated. The same goes for ordering replacement parts from manufacturers, which could take from six months to three years. Therefore, Ukraine asks Western companies to move it up the waiting list or tries buying the needed equipment from third parties whose turn has arrived.

A 250-tonne autotransformer blown up by Russian troops during their retreat in the Kherson Region
A 250-tonne autotransformer blown up by Russian troops during their retreat in the Kherson Region

Since spring, PGE and Tauron of Poland, EON and 50 Hertz of Germany, Schneider Electric of France, and other companies from the US, Finland, Lithuania, and Portugal have been sending transformers, switches, generators, cables, and other equipment to Ukraine. However, as the Ukrainian energy company DTEK observes, it's a drop in the ocean. By its estimates, the total cost of equipment up for replacement borders on $40 million.

“Unfortunately, we have already exhausted the available stock of equipment since the large attacks began on October 10. We managed to procure some additional equipment. Unfortunately, today equipment costs are measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, which is a common problem for the entire energy industry,” shared the Executive Director of DTEK Dmytro Sakharchuk after yet another strike on Ukraine.

Kyiv in a blackout
Kyiv in a blackout
TWITTER Kira Rusik

Another issue is the compatibility of Ukrainian Soviet-era equipment with its foreign counterparts manufactured in line with EU standards. In Europe, legacy equipment is hard to come by, so Ukraine is asking the West to take a good look at their warehouses and supply even dysfunctional equipment to strip it for parts. According to Sakharchuk, out of 40 transformers that need replacement, DTEK has so far procured only three.

Additional financial support

Anders Åslund, a senior research associate at the Swedish think tank Stockholm Free World Forum, prioritizes foreign financial support among the factors that can ensure Ukraine’s survival in winter and the functionality of its energy facilities.

Ukraine estimates the damage inflicted upon its energy infrastructure since February at $100 billion. As Kristalina Georgieva, the Managing Director of the IMF, pointed out, Kyiv needs monthly foreign assistance of $3-5 billion until the end of next year. The Atlantic Council estimates the required assistance even higher – at $6 billion, taking stock of Ukraine's GDP plunging by 30-35% this year, which means an even greater decline in tax revenue.

The US is at the helm of the international effort to support Ukraine. Congress has adopted several aid packages totaling around $50 billion, with military aid accounting for over half of the amount and the rest distributed between financial and humanitarian aid. Washington has also announced its intention to allocate $1.5 billion a month to support Ukraine's state institutions. Meanwhile, as Zelensky points out, the EU is not doing enough. In August, the Ukrainian president accused Brussels of dragging out the provision of macro-financial support, calling it “either a crime or a mistake”. This year, the EU has transferred 2.8 billion euros to Ukraine, despite having committed to 9 billion euros in May. Furthermore, the EU's support to Ukraine comes in the form of loans, while the US mostly offers grants.

Kyiv feared that American support might shrink next year if Biden’s opponents, the Republicans, won the majority of seats in the U.S. Congress in the midterm elections this fall. Ahead of the election, Republican politicians mentioned the need to limit aid to Ukraine more often than the Democrats. The Republicans indeed won the House in November. However, it is hard to predict how the Republican majority will vote.

Many experts see it important to confiscate the Bank of Russia’s reserves blocked by the West and transfer them to Ukraine before winter. Ukrainian politicians have repeatedly asked for it. Russian assets totaling over $300 billion – one-half of Russia’s all gold and forex reserves – ended up frozen in March due to sanctions. However, Didier Reynders, the European Commissioner for Justice, suggested returning these funds to Russia instead of giving them up – on the condition that Russia contributes to the post-war rebuilding of Ukraine. By contrast, Anders Åslund believes the West should retain control over the Russian reserves, even if they were to be transferred to Ukraine. He advocates the decentralization of Western financial aid to Ukraine so that small and medium businesses that have suffered from the war could also benefit from it.

Importing electricity

Another way to supply the population with electricity in the absence of generating capabilities is by importing it. Ukraine used to buy small amounts of electricity from Belarus and Russia but stopped doing so when the war began. In December 2021, imported energy accounted for 2.8% of its national energy consumption. In March, Ukraine fully synchronized its power grid with the European electricity transmission system, ENTSO-E, laying the foundation for both importing and exporting energy from Europe. Kyiv even started exports but curbed them immediately after the massive strikes on its energy facilities.

Late in October, the national trader, the Energy Company of Ukraine (ECU), imported electricity from Slovakia for the first time in the test mode, with a power of 1 MW. So far, the initiative has been limited to tests, but the head of ECU has called for the urgent implementation of this tool.

“Imports could yield small volumes of 500–600 MW – with an overall shortage of over 1.5 GW,” argued Yuri Korolchuk, the Director of Ukraine’s Energy Strategy Institute. Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, CEO of Ukrenergo, went as far as to suggest Ukraine could start receiving electricity from abroad before the end of this heating season. In a meeting with Kadri Simson, the European Commissioner for Energy, he proposed raising the upper limit to 1,500 MW.

Two factors currently impede streamlining electricity imports from the EU. First, ENTSO-E has limited the throughput capacity of international transmission lines to 500 MW, though Ukraine could technically supply or receive up to 1.7 GW via the lines connecting it to the power grids of Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary.

Electricity prices in Ukraine and neighboring EU countries: Romania (yellow), Hungary (purple), Slovakia (navy), Poland (red), Ukraine (blue)
Electricity prices in Ukraine and neighboring EU countries: Romania (yellow), Hungary (purple), Slovakia (navy), Poland (red), Ukraine (blue)
November 1-12, Market Operator (Ukraine)

Second, Kyiv can barely afford to import its electricity from Europe. Thus, in October, Ukrainian prices per megawatt hour peaked below 80 euros (3,000 hryvnias), as compared to the Hungarian maximum of over 260 euros. Traders would have to sell electricity at Ukrainian prices while buying it at a much higher cost. Therefore, Ukraine will not begin to import electricity from the EU unless the situation becomes critical.

A proactive approach

The most reliable way of preserving and protecting energy facilities is to reinforce Ukraine's air defense systems. For now, the country only has 10% of its air defense needs covered, according to Volodymyr Zelensky. Russia's attacks have already forced the West to review their military aid to Kyiv. Thus, the US has promised to supply eight Norwegian-manufactured NASAMS air defense systems and has followed through on the first shipment of two pieces.

Iranian suicide drones are a major issue because they are hard to track on radar. Ukraine claims to have taken down over half of these drones with its air defense systems, but judging by the damage done to the electrical grid, one-half is not good enough. In addition to NASAMS, Pentagon has committed to providing Ukraine with anti-drone systems, including the VAMPIREs (Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment). They are capable of shooting down smaller quadcopters like Mavic, Russian Orlan-10 and Orion, Iranian Mojahed-6 and Shahed, and other types of drones. The system employs small 70-millimeter missiles, unlike most other anti-drone systems, which disable their targets by jamming the signal or inducing interference.

Marketing photo

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has reported that Spain supplied four Hawk and Aspide air defense systems. NATO has also committed to delivering 100 drone-jamming stations to Kyiv. This will help render Russian- and Iranian-made drones useless, believes Stoltenberg.

Germany has delivered an IRIS-T system, just one for now, but according to Ukrainian prime minister Denys Shmyhal, it has shown admirable efficiency, hitting nine targets out of ten. As Reuters reported, Italy is preparing a military aid package for Ukraine and plans to include SAMP-T mid-range air defense systems, Aspides, and Stinger man-portable air-defense systems. However, Euro-skeptics from the Five Star Movement voted against it, putting the shipments on hold. France and Germany committed to continuing the support. The question is whether they will come through on their promises and how soon the weapons will be delivered.

Against the backdrop of Russian strikes, even Israel, which used to maintain neutrality, authorized NATO members to supply Ukraine with weapons partially manufactured in Israel, such as electro-optical and fire control systems promised by the UK. The data is pending official confirmation. It is public knowledge, however, that Volodymyr Zelensky sat down with Benjamin Netanyahu, whose party, Likud, won the Israeli parliamentary election, to talk air defense on November 16.

Winter as an advantage for Ukraine

The upcoming winter has become the chief motive of the Kremlin's propaganda. State-owned media are disseminating scare stories about frosty weather exterminating all of Ukraine's army and population. In fact, the winter will become a massive challenge primarily for the Russian military, plagued by numerous materiel and logistics issues, remarks Pentagon Press Secretary General Patrick Ryder.

The winter will become a massive challenge primarily for the Russian military

Russian troops struggled with equipment shortages even in summer. Volunteers were raising funds to send teeshirts, socks, underwear, trainers, and combat boots to the front, but their efforts were obviously insufficient. Russia has failed to streamline logistics in eight months of the war, so counting on its ability to equip its troops with proper winter uniforms is too optimistic.

By contrast, Ukrainian servicemen are much better equipped for the cold season. Their logistic chains are much shorter and better organized. The US has pledged to ship 50,000 parkas, 4,700 trousers, 39,000 fleece hats, 23,000 pairs of boots, 18,000 pairs of gloves, and 6,000 tents. At the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting on October 25, a few more countries committed to providing Ukraine with winter equipment.

Senator Lindsey Graham drew parallels between the predicament of the Russian occupying forces and that of Nazi troops, who once found Russia’s brutal winter a deadly menace. In such conditions, Russia may try freezing the conflict to save strength for an offensive in spring.

For now, the Kremlin is sparing no effort in its attempts to sow discord within the EU to undermine its capacity to support Ukraine. Russia cutting energy carrier shipments to the West has resulted in hiking gas prices worldwide, while the grain deal blackmail has triggered a price surge in the agricultural market and may cause famine in the poorest countries. In a financial, food, and energy crisis, Ukraine's support is likely to wane. In all appearances, this is Vladimir Putin’s true goal, after failing to secure Kyiv's surrender in eight months of aggressive war. The further development and outcome of the conflict will largely depend on the Western political will.

The Institute for the Study of War views global solidarity and resolve as the determinant factors for the further course of the war. Putin is waiting or temperatures to drop to figure out if winter could put a dent in the Western commitment to support Ukraine. If international aid shrinks, the probability of a new Russian Blitzkrieg could be higher. However, if Ukraine gets more or at least just as much aid, Moscow is likely to reduce its claims and focus on maintaining control over the territories it has already conquered.

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