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Light Against Darkness: How Russia Attempts to Create a Humanitarian Catastrophe in Ukraine

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Photo: Eleven nights of missile terror against Ukrainian energy. In early April, the turbine halls of the Trypilska thermal power plant in Kyiv region were destroyed. Source: State Emergency Service of Kyiv region.
Photo: Eleven nights of missile terror against Ukrainian energy. In early April, the turbine halls of the Trypilska thermal power plant in Kyiv region were destroyed. Source: State Emergency Service of Kyiv region.

In the 21st century, there are mass rocket attacks on Ukrainian power stations and grids. Almost nightly, Russia targets key electricity distribution points with heavy drones. In May, emergency power outages occurred in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, for the first time in 14 months. How long the energy system, currently relying on three pillars - three nuclear power plants, renewable sources, and electricity imports from Western Europe, can hold up remains to be seen. This will depend on two factors: the strengthening of Ukrainian air defence capabilities and the volume of external assistance in equipment and funds. Ukrainians themselves are doing almost the impossible to preserve the energy system.


"As of now, there are emergency power outages in Kyiv. Unfortunately, there are no schedules for them. However, your distribution system operator will definitely notify you as soon as the power engineers defeat the darkness once again. Please refrain from using lifts for now," announced the local distribution company YASNO on May 15, for the first time in 14 months.


The first attacks on Ukrainian power grids did not occur now but in September 2022. However, Russian forces then primarily sought to destroy transformer substations, i.e., powerful electricity distribution nodes. Attacks on power stations that generate electricity - thermal, nuclear, hydroelectric - were still episodic. Some experts believe that this peculiar selectivity was driven by the Russians' belief in achieving the goal of occupying the right-bank Ukraine, i.e., the regions located west of the Dnipro.


In September 2022, significant destruction occurred at the Zmiivska thermal power plant. This power station, one of the most eastern ones, located in the Kharkiv region, had a capacity of 2.4 GW. It is also the largest power station closest to the border with Russia, just 70 kilometers away. In the summer of 2023, it was partially restored, but at the end of March 2024, during one of the mass rocket bombardments, it was completely destroyed.


Photo: "Given the scale of the destruction, we are forced to do everything possible to prepare for the next winter. We need even more support from the global community," said Ihor Syrota, CEO of Ukrhydroenergo (company - state operator of hydroelectric power stations in Ukraine). Source: Ukrhydroenergo


However, it was the transformer substations that experienced the most intense bombardments in autumn 2022, which distribute electricity on mainline networks. For this reason, from November 2022 to February 2023, planned and emergency power outages were in effect in Ukraine. In each settlement, electricity supply was cut off for 3-6 hours according to a certain schedule, depending on the capabilities of the networks. So, while there was no shortage of electricity generation capacities, delivering it to consumers became extremely difficult due to the destruction of distribution networks.


Now, Russia is attempting to completely destroy Ukrainian energy infrastructure to provoke a humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine. Why are they doing this now? Most likely, these barbaric attacks on civilian objects are aimed at forcing Kyiv and its foreign partners to capitulate, as Putin's army has no significant successes on the battlefield.

Russian forces deployed 367 missiles of various types and 282 kamikaze drones of the 'Shahed' type over 11 nights.

This is a harsh challenge for both Kyiv and Ukraine's partners.


Photo: Ukraine's largest hydroelectric power station, Dnipro HPP, suffered terrible destruction on the night of March 22, 2024. Source: Rbc Ukraine D.Kazansky


The First Epidemic of Darkness


The wave of destruction to the power grids in autumn 2022 brought a harsh experience, practically unknown to the modern generation of Ukrainians. But there was no complete blackout. Temporary restrictions, according to previously announced schedules, allowed energy distribution companies to guarantee almost uninterrupted supply at agreed intervals. This struck a heavy blow both to the economy overall and to the way of life of Ukrainians. But it prevented the ruination of the economy and infrastructure.


There was a mad rush for demand in Ukraine for autonomous generators with petrol and diesel engines, powerful charging stations, portable power banks, autonomous battery-powered torches, and LED string lights. There was also a surge in demand for portable gas stoves, as many households use electric stoves, and under restrictions, they could not be used at every necessary moment.


Businesses of all kinds, from hairdressers and supermarkets to meat processing plants and hospitals, purchased autonomous generators. The National Bank of Ukraine, which regulates the entire financial sector, including banks, insurance, and other financial companies, required its subordinates to develop special programs for sustainable functioning in conditions of power outages under the "Power Banking" project. The "Power Banking" program allowed for the formation of a network of bank branches and ATMs that operated independently of electricity outages.


Photo: The National Bank of Ukraine has introduced the Power Banking project to ensure the stable operation of the financial system. Source: The Gaze.


Telecommunication services also adapted to temporary outages - from cellular networks to internet providers. In the first months of outages, cellular networks were switched off for the second to third hour of electricity absence because standard batteries equipped with basic cellular base stations were depleted. But later, cellular operators additionally installed uninterrupted power supply systems at some stations, stabilizing the situation.


The national telecommunications operator Ukrtelecom installed Wi-Fi routers with free access in its communication cabinets, which are quite common. Usually, you can walk from one cabinet to another in 5-10 minutes in large cities and slightly longer in single-storey building areas. Thus, in a critical situation, a user could access the internet for their smartphone or laptop through such a router.


Many people seriously expected catastrophes in centralized heating systems and bought portable wood-burning stoves, as well as stocked up on firewood for heating. Some relied on so-called alcohol fireplaces - not very safe sources of heat, but usable in multi-storey residential buildings. Fortunately, heating network outages were avoided, so autonomous heating means were not needed.


Overall, one could write a thick volume about the measures Ukraine took to save itself from the energy crisis in autumn 2022 and winter 2023. But much of the infrastructure's sustainable functioning measures remain behind the scenes to this day, as it is a matter of national security.



Gentle Winter and Harsh Spring of 2024


In the autumn of 2023, Ukraine entered with strong fears of future blackouts because the memory of the previous autumn was too strong. Therefore, purchases of generators and charging stations continued. Much of the equipment remained from the previous cold season. Overall, readiness for surprises was significantly greater.


Everyone expected darkness, heating problems, but overall, the fears did not materialize. However, in March 2024, mass rocket and drone attacks on energy facilities began. Overall, eleven massed attacks took place. The first occurred on the night of March 21, 2024, and the last as of May 16 took place on May 8. In total, during these 11 nights, Ukraine was targeted with 367 rockets of various types and 282 strike kamikaze drones of the "Shahed" type.


But that's not all, of course. Between combined strikes, when rockets and kamikaze drones poured into Ukraine, there were also attacks exclusively by drones. Specifically, drones of the "Shahed" type of Iranian design attack Ukraine every night in numbers ranging from several units to several dozen. Ukrainian air defense systems mostly shoot them down, but unfortunately, not all. So, they also inflict significant damage on Ukrainian infrastructure objects.


Against the backdrop of Russian drone launches, there were attempts to penetrate the air defense system with isolated launches of ballistic, guided, and aviation missiles.


In total, from March 21 to May 16, in addition to approximately 400 rockets, Ukraine was attacked by almost 700 strike kamikaze drones. This overall led to the almost complete destruction of all major thermal power plants and the largest Ukrainian hydroelectric power station, Dnipro HPP. The Kakhovka HPP was destroyed by the Russians in the summer of 2023 - they blew it up by planting explosives in the dam. Thus, as of mid-May 2024, no less than half of the capacities of hydroelectric power stations were already disabled, taking into account the damage to other stations that were not completely destroyed.


During the inspection of the destroyed objects, Ihor Syrota, the CEO of Ukrhydroenergo (the company is the state operator of HPPs in Ukraine), directly appealed to foreign partners for help: "Given the scale of the destruction, we are forced to do everything to prepare for the next winter. It will take years to restore what was destroyed in an instant and billions of hryvnias (hundreds of millions of euros). We need even more support from the world community."


So far, the nuclear power plants in Ukraine remain undamaged, although the largest of them - Zaporizhzhia NPP with a capacity of 6,000 MW with six power units - is in a high-risk zone and has been decommissioned since it was occupied by Russian troops in the spring of 2022.


Photo: As of mid-May 2024, no less than half of the capacities of hydroelectric power stations were already disabled, taking into account the damage to other stations that were not completely destroyed. Source: Ukrhydroenergo


Fragile Balance


Ukrainian nuclear power plants, until the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, provided almost 60% of electricity consumption, and at present - even more. Rivne NPP (4 power units, total capacity of 2835 MW), Pivdennoukrainsk NPP (3 power units, 3000 MW), and Khmelnytsky NPP (2 power units, 2000 MW) currently form the backbone of the Ukrainian power system. Each of them is connected to the networks by several substations that have already been subjected to air and missile strikes. But their work was restored one way or another.


Against the background of the destruction of thermal and hydraulic power plants, the share of renewable energy sources - solar, wind, and biogas power plants, as well as solar systems in households, has increased. As of 2024, taking into account the destruction of wind and solar power plants in the occupied territories, the total capacity of renewable sources is approximately 2500 MW. This is quite a lot compared to other sources that have survived. This has led to the state operator of the national energy system - the company "Ukrenergo," being forced to restrict the supply from solar power plants to the power grid during certain hours of the day.


Indeed, the import of electricity through the western border of the country has become a truly lifesaving source for Ukrainian power grids. The throughput capacity of connection nodes is currently approximately 1700 MW, but in conditions of deficit during peak hours, this is not enough. In fact, this is why power cuts occurred in May, as mentioned at the beginning of the article.


Certainly, if the throughput capacity of connection nodes at the border is expanded, this deficit can be significantly reduced. But then the average cost of electricity for Ukrainian consumers will become exorbitant because the cost of imported energy during peak hours is too high.



Photo: CEO of Ukrenergo (state operator of energy networks) Volodymyr Kudrytskyi invites Ukrainian businesses to generate electricity themselves. Source: Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, FB page.

Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, Chairman of the Management Board of PJSC "National Power Company Ukrenergo":


The Gaze: Ukraine is trying to compensate for the damage to the energy system caused by Russian missile strikes by expanding the ability to export/import electricity to/from EU countries. Will you manage to expand this bottleneck by the beginning of the winter season 2024/25?


If we're talking about quick solutions, then we can't expect any radical further increase in import capacity. It happened just during 2023-2024. From 500 MW to 1700 MW. This is the ceiling now. And then it will all depend on how quickly our European colleagues - operators of neighboring countries' energy systems - can implement projects to expand the capacity of their networks. To eliminate the "bottlenecks" that prevent a significant increase in imports, time and money are needed, primarily from our European colleagues. To strengthen some of their substations, install additional autotransformers, or build new power transmission lines.


Last year, we put into operation a very powerful interconnector with Poland, which had not been operational since 2013. This is probably a unique experience for Europe. Now we are negotiating with the Slovaks and Romanians about building new or expanding existing interconnectors as well. But these projects take years. This is not something that will help us next winter. And what is important to understand is that these are projects that are being implemented by two sides. Ukrainian and Slovak, or Ukrainian and Romanian.


We believe that 3.5-4 GW of capacity on interstate interconnectors is what we can have in 5 years.


The Gaze: What is the situation with the implementation of industrial projects for own electricity generation?


Many Ukrainian companies, including those that were not previously involved in the energy sector, are now considering the implementation of energy projects. This is very important. And I feel that we may be on the verge of a new stage of fairly rapid development of new dispersed, decentralized energy capacities scattered throughout the country. To accelerate this process, we need money from private investors. It is necessary to create appropriate conditions for them in the Ukrainian electricity market so that the investments they make in Ukrainian energy are profitable. And investors understand the rules of the game.


We're talking about the need for long-term contracts for ancillary services (payment for providing reserves to the energy system) and appropriate regulations on how such contracts are concluded based on the results of auctions. Right now, together with the national regulator NCREPU, we are finishing work on this. I am confident that it will be adopted in the next few weeks. Even before the Berlin Conference on the Reconstruction of Ukraine on June 11-12.


Also, liberalization of prices in the wholesale electricity market is needed so that investors can invest in new generation and receive a fair income for their electricity. And we must also get used to the idea that in the wholesale electricity market of Ukraine, the price, at least during deficit periods, must be at or higher than in Europe. Our neighbors do not have the kind of massive destruction of power plants that Ukraine faces. Therefore, they do not have a deficit, and we need imports from these countries.


The Gaze: To what extent can Ukraine rely on international partners for the supply of compact generation sources and industrial electricity storage instead of large power plants destroyed by Russian missiles?


They are very helpful. Speaking of Ukrenergo, 95% of our budget for restoration is provided by donors. Mostly these are grants from the governments of EU and US countries, as well as loans from international financial organizations on very favorable terms: 10 years deferred payment, low interest rates, and so on. During the full-scale war, Ukrenergo attracted $1.2 billion in international support. And we expect that in the near future, this figure will increase slightly. But the question is the scale of the problem. The amount of lost generation in Ukraine is measured in thousands of megawatts. It is clear that compensating for the lost 8,000 MW of Ukrainian power plant production with humanitarian aid alone is impossible. Therefore, assistance from partners focuses on urgent needs. So that power plants or high-voltage substations that are damaged can be quickly restored. To timely purchase the necessary equipment so as not to look for money elsewhere.


International organizations cover only the necessary, and everything else should be done by private capital. They are very helpful. Without this assistance, it's hard to say how we would have coped last winter and now after numerous mass Russian attacks. But we cannot rely solely on donors and partners. Only the private sector is capable of meeting all of Ukraine's needs in the new generation.


What Will Ukraine Do Next?


There's a lot of work ahead, but local experts consider anti-aircraft defence the most crucial factor in stabilising the Ukrainian energy system. Repairing destroyed stations can be done swiftly, but if the enemy can destroy hundreds or thousands of megawatts overnight, investment in recovery will be futile.


The second factor is seen as the creation of a decentralised generation. This involves acquiring, installing, and connecting a large number of relatively low-power generators, such as gas turbine units. Each such unit is quite compact and not too attractive a target for Russian airstrikes.


Another positive outcome of decentralised generation is the reduction of load on main power lines and large transformer stations, which are also targets of Russian missile strikes and drone attacks.


Partially, Ukraine is moving in this direction, relying on technical assistance from foreign partners.


However, one factor that cannot be overlooked is the continued operation of existing nuclear power plants. Currently, it seems that there are certain undisclosed agreements between Moscow and developed countries that are Ukraine's partners. It seems that certain red lines are drawn before Moscow that it must not cross. But it's entirely unclear how long these red lines can hold back the Kremlin from striking at nuclear power units in Ukraine.

Photo: Offices, pharmacies, beauty salons are taking out previously purchased generators from warehouses right now. And are launching them. Source: The Gaze.




Cold Prospects


Apart from the electricity deficit, Ukraine faces the absence of heating in major cities next winter. Traditionally, Ukraine, like other former Soviet countries, relies on centralised heating systems. In each large city, there are several so-called CHP plants, or power stations whose main function is to provide not so much electricity as heat. They are connected by large-diameter pipes to residential areas and industrial zones, supplying steam or hot water for heating.


These systems, besides being uneconomical to operate, are also highly vulnerable to attacks. For example, in Kharkiv, located just 21 kilometres from the Russian border, even after the evacuation of a third of the population, more than a million residents remain. The short distance to the front line allowed the Russians to destroy all the major CHP plants in the city. How the heating problem in a million-strong city will be solved is not entirely clear at the moment. Even with air defence systems and funding for new equipment, it is physically impossible to complete the restoration before the start of the heating season. The reason is simple: powerful equipment for large CHP plants takes at least 9-14 months to manufacture, even under urgent orders.


What will happen in Kharkiv and smaller cities, which have suffered no less? Most likely, they will resort to decentralised heating systems, such as compact cogeneration units, which can simultaneously produce both electricity and heat. The supply of such equipment is already underway. But emergency programmes of external financing are needed for this, as no country is able to restore war-damaged energy infrastructure on its own.


Photo: Another two co-generation units, purchased with USAID funds, are generating heat and electricity, helping the local heat supply company in Volyn region to provide consumers with heat and hot water even during emergency power outages. Source: USAID.

In reality, time is short; there are only four and a half months left until the start of the heating season, which in Ukraine, with its quite cold winter, usually begins in mid-October and ends in early April.




Photo: Ukrainian hunters are looking drones. Source: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Fb page


During mass air strikes, Russian forces deployed 367 missiles of various types and 282 kamikaze drones of the 'Shahed' type over 11 nights. While Ukrainian air defense mainly neutralised Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles and drones, the situation with supersonic missiles was much worse due to a shortage of modern anti-aircraft systems and a complete absence of modern Western-made aircraft.


On the night of March 21, 2024, Russia launched two ballistic/aeroballistic missiles Iskander-M (KN-23)/Kh-47M2 'Kinzhal', along with 29 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from 11 Tu-95MS strategic bombers. The main target of the attack was Kyiv, including energy facilities.


The following night, on March 22, Russia carried out a combined missile-air strike on critical infrastructure objects in Ukraine. A total of 151 air attack means were used:


  • 63 Shahed-136/131 drones;
  • 12 Iskander-M ballistic missiles;
  • 40 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from thirteen Tu-95MS strategic bombers;
  • 5 Kh-22 cruise missiles from five Tu-22M3 bombers;
  • 7 Kh-47M2 'Kinzhal' aeroballistic missiles from ten MiG-31K;
  • 2 Kh-59 guided aviation missiles from two Su-30 and Su-34 aircraft;
  • 22 S-300/S-400 guided anti-aircraft missiles as surface-to-surface missiles in the Kharkiv and Sumy regions.

Ukrainian air defenses partially destroyed these drones and missiles; for example, on the night of March 22, they eliminated 92 aerial targets out of 151 participating in the attacks.


On the night of March 24, 2024, Russian occupiers attacked Ukraine with 29 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from 14 Tu-95MS strategic aircraft and 28 Shahed drones. 18 missiles and 25 drones were successfully destroyed that night.


On the night of March 29, 2024, the Russians again launched a massive missile-air strike on the fuel and energy sector objects in Ukraine, using various types of missiles and Shahed drones, using a total of 99 air attack means:


  • 60 Shahed-136/131 drones;
  • 3 Kh-47M2 'Kinjal' aeroballistic missiles;
  • 2 Iskander-M ballistic missiles;
  • 9 Kh-59 guided aviation missiles;
  • 4 Iskander-K cruise missiles;
  • 21 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from eleven Tu-95MS strategic bombers.

This time, 84 aerial targets out of 99 were successfully destroyed.


On the night of March 31, 2024, another combined air attack occurred: 14 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from Tu-95MS strategic aircrafts, 11 Shahed drones, an Iskander-M ballistic missile, and a Kh-59 guided aviation missile. Air defenses managed to destroy 9 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles and 9 Shahed drones.


On April 5, the Russians attacked with two S-300/S-400 guided anti-aircraft missiles targeting ground targets, three Iskander-M ballistic missiles, and thirteen Shahed-131/136 attack drones. All drones were shot down.


On April 6, Russian forces attacked with 32 Shahed-131/136 attack drones, three S-300 guided anti-aircraft missiles as surface-to-surface systems, two Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles, and a Kalibr cruise missile. Air defenses managed to destroy 31 out of 38 targets involved in the attack.


On April 11, 2024, Russian forces launched a combined air strike, using 82 air attack means:


  • 20 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles;
  • 6 Kh-47M2 'Kinzhal' aeroballistic missiles;
  • 12 S-300 guided anti-aircraft missiles as surface-to-surface missiles;
  • 40 Shahed-131/136 attack drones;
  • 4 Kh-59 guided aviation missiles.

As a result of the air battle, 57 aerial targets out of 82 were destroyed.


On the night of April 19, 2024, a new massive combined attack took place, using 36 means:


  • 2 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles;
  • 14 Shahed-131/136 attack drones;
  • 12 Kh-59/69 guided aviation missiles;
  • 2 Iskander-K cruise missiles;
  • 6 Kh-22 cruise missiles.

Ukrainian air defense forces destroyed 29 aerial targets out of 36.


On the night of April 27, 2024, another air attack occurred, with Russian forces using 34 air, ground, and sea-based missiles:


  • 9 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles;
  • 9 Kh-59/69 guided aviation missiles;
  • 2 S-300 guided anti-aircraft missiles as surface-to-surface missiles;
  • 2 Iskander-K cruise missiles;
  • 4 Kh-47M2 'Kinzhal' aeroballistic missiles;
  • 8 Kalibr cruise missiles.

In total, Ukrainian forces destroyed 21 aerial targets out of 34.


So far, in May, there has been only one major combined attack yet - on May 8, 2024, using 76 air attack means:


  • 1 Kh-47M2 'Kinzhal' aeroballistic missile;
  • 2 Iskander-M ballistic missiles;
  • 4 Kalibr cruise missiles;
  • 45 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles;
  • 1 Iskander-K cruise missile;
  • 2 Kh-59/69 guided aviation missiles;
  • 21 Shahed-131/136 attack drones.

Ukrainian air defense forces managed to destroy 59 aerial targets out of 76.

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