Ukraine’s utilities threatened by Russia in war’s new phase

Author of the article:

Associated Press

Sabra Ayres

A man walks past a shop damaged by an explosion, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Mykolaiv, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. Photo by Valentyn Ogirenko /REUTERS KYIV, Ukraine — When a missile struck a power station less than a mile from his apartment on the outskirts of Kyiv, Oleksander Maystrenko didn’t panic, run to a bomb shelter or consider evacuating, even though he lives close to what suddenly has become the Russian military’s main target in the war: anything related to Ukraine’s vital infrastructure.

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His neighbours also haven’t budged, despite the fact that Tuesday’s attack — marked by a loud explosion — killed three people, severely damaged two facilities inside the plant’s compound and temporarily knocked out power to about 50,000 households, according to Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

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“We aren’t afraid because we aren’t just prepared logistically; we are morally prepared,” Maystrenko said outside his apartment building, where he and two neighbours sat on a bench and smoked only hours after the attack.

This is what the latest phase of Russia’s nearly 8-month-old war in Ukraine looks like. Moscow has openly declared its intention to increasingly strike power stations, waterworks and other key infrastructure. One Ukrainian energy official said Wednesday that 40% of the country’s electric power system had been severely damaged, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russian forces have destroyed 30% of Ukraine’s power stations since Oct. 10.

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But Maystrenko and his neighbours say they are prepared.

If the Russians knock out the power, there are stocks of flashlights and candles, he said. If there’s no gas for stoves, he has a plan to build a rudimentary stove in front of the building’s entrance and use firewood that has been collected to heat it. Water has been bottled and jars of pickled vegetables and canned goods have been safely stored.

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Everyone knows to have plenty of blankets and warm clothes for the winter, he added.

“It’s never been a secret that this power plant is a target, but we’ve been preparing since this war started,” Maystrenko said. The preparations have created a sense of community as well as a united front among neighbours, who once knew each other only in passing and are face a common enemy, he said.

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The attacks have come at a critical time, with winter approaching. Klitschko said that Thursday marks the start of the heating season for Kyiv, which like most urban centres in Ukraine and even Russia uses a Soviet-era central system controlled by the city that provides heat for apartment buildings and businesses.

Thursday marked the start of a nationwide electricity conservation campaign announced by Zelenskyy’s office, with the public being asked to reduce power usage from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. There could also be rolling blackouts.

An energy facility and plant in Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih were hit overnight, leaving the south-central city of 600,000 without electricity until repairs could be made. Regional Gov. Valentin Reznichenko reported serious destruction, appealing to the local population to conserve energy, noting that “every illuminated business sign, billboard or washing machine can lead to serious emergency shutdowns.”

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Noting the conservation steps on his Telegram channel, presidential adviser Kyrylo Tymoshenko urged all Ukrainians to “please take this seriously.”

One area where power and water were reported knocked out by shelling was Enerhodar, the southern city is next to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, one of the war’s most worrisome flashpoints.

Using energy supplies as a weapon isn’t a new tactic for the Kremlin, particularly when it comes to Ukraine.

“Energy was always quite a holy cow for the Russians, and they claim that by controlling energy they can control the country,” said Hanna Shelest, the director of security programs at Foreign Policy Council Ukrainian Prism, based in Kyiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who declared martial law in four illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, has used his ability to turn off the gas that passes through the country’s extensive, Soviet-era pipeline as leverage. His tactic has been used not just against the government in Kyiv, but also against energy-dependent nations in Europe, who built pipelines via the Baltic Sea for Russian gas.

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Under its new strategy, the Russian military hopes to destroy enough of Ukraine’s infrastructure to make life so intolerable that residents will blame their own government, Shelest said.

Putin has called Ukraine a failed state and a historical part of Russia. In trying to make Ukrainians suffer, he hopes they will believe him, she said.

“What we see now is that it is definitely not working so well,” Shelest said, adding that Ukrainians are increasingly directing their rage at Putin.

Zelenskyy’s admission that Russia had knocked out nearly a third of Ukraine’s power stations was noteworthy, said Mason Clark, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

“If the Russians can keep up that sustained damage, and the Ukrainians can’t repair it, that could actually start to have an effect,” he said.

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Clark said he didn’t believe Russia would be able to affect the Ukrainian population’s overwhelming support for their military in taking back the territory seized by Moscow.

Recent attacks by what Kyiv describes as Iranian-supplied drones and missiles against civilian housing and other nonmilitary targets “seem to be just terror attacks, essentially to try to intimidate the Ukrainian population,” he said.

Russia has used such scare tactics throughout the war out of “a misguided belief that they will be able to force the Ukrainians to surrender and force negotiations,” Clark said.

From a military sense, Russia’s use of the Iranian-supplied drones and Kalibr and Iskander cruise missiles against Ukrainian infrastructure is a “very poor use of limited-precision munitions,” Clark said.

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The Russians are struggling with dwindling supplies of these high-end weapons, he said, adding that a more strategic move would be to save them for the battlefield, because Ukraine’s air defences have succeeded in intercepting and shooting down many of the drones.

“It’s a waste by the Russians of very expensive and limited systems in an attempt to likely achieve a terror effect that isn’t going to sway the Ukrainian government or population,” Clark said.

Repairing infrastructure often falls to local administrations to handle. The port city of Odesa in southern Ukraine designated crews to help neighbouring Mykolaiv, which has been under Russian bombardment for weeks.

In the Kharkiv region, government official Roman Semenukha said Sunday that while repairs to heating systems were underway around the recently liberated city of Kupiansk, it’s a slow process that first must restore electricity, gas and water.

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“I want to emphasize that private households will be connected to the gas supply, but the situation with high-rise buildings is a bit more complicated, for various reasons,” said Andrii Besedin, an adviser to the head of the Kharkiv military administration.

Regional authorities in Kharkiv also are assessing the need for firewood, Besedin said, adding that warming shelters will be set up and authorities would offer to evacuate those who want to leave for the winter.

“Those who wish to do so (will move) to safe areas, where there are all communications. We will work every day to restore the critical infrastructure of these networks,” he said.

— Justin Spike contributed to this report from Kupiansk.

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