July 15. 2024. 6:22

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Russia’s strategy: Bombing Ukraine into full blackout

The consequences of Ukraine becoming uninhabitable in the coming winter is underestimated by Europe and the world, writes Victoria Voytsitska and Olena Halushka.

Russia launched its sixth massive attack, on 1 June, on Ukrainian critical energy infrastructure since the start of 2024.

It sent 53 missiles and 47, imported Iranian Shahed drones, to attack Ukraine.

The Ukrainians managed to shoot down 35 missiles and nearly all drones, but those that hit their targets caused significant damage.

This attack is part of a concerted campaign to destroy energy facilities across Ukraine.

Since the start of the war, Russia has focused on attacking critical infrastructure to make Ukraine unlivable, aiming to depopulate the country and destroy its economy and supply chains.

Though Russia has yet to achieve this goal, it is adjusting its tactics to make attacks more destructive.

Before the invasion, Ukraine’s electricity capacity was 36 GW. In June 2024, due to intense missile attacks and the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the country only produces 9 GW.

The lack of air defences, exacerbated by the delayed of US aid, and Europe’s inability to substitute it. Has allowed Russia to intensify attacks on power plants, including thermal (TPP), hydroelectric (HPP), combined heat and power plants (CHP), solar power plants, and gas storage in western Ukraine.

Consequently, the country faces significant electrical shortages, with power available for only a few hours a day in major cities and suburban areas. During these shortages, water supply and sewage systems, often do not operate neither, and mobile coverage is limited or nonexistent.

Blackouts are occurring now, well before the summer heat and winter frost. Companies are moving to night shifts to reduce energy consumption.

Russia has also begun attacking heating infrastructure, such as the Kharkiv CHP, and gas storages, preparing the way for a severe humanitarian catastrophe.

Compared to the winter of 2022- 2023, when power outages were nationwide and electricity was limited to five to eight hours per day, the current impact is even more harsh.

Russia now uses a strategy of initial drone strikes to overload air defenses, followed by precision-guided missiles to damage core facilities. The focus has shifted from substations to power generation, the core of the energy system.

Although Ukraine can import electricity from Europe, this capability is limited to 1.7 GW, potentially increasing to 2.3 GW. Renewables won’t provide an immediate sufficient solution either. Rebuilding or repairing facilities like TPPs, HPPs, or CHPs requires years and billions of dollars of investments, assuming protection of air defences.

The consequences of Ukraine becoming uninhabitable in the coming winter are underestimated by Europe and the world.

The Ukrainian government has repeatedly called for at least seven Patriot batteries; only Germany has committed to delivering an extra one.

Air defence key

It is much cheaper for Europe to allocate sufficient air defences to Ukraine now,. than face millions of new refugees this winter. The Kiel Institute estimates that European governments have spent over €43 billion on sheltering Ukrainians since the big war began.

The influx of new refugees represents a shared vulnerability in all European countries. Research by ICUV, Opora, and Vodafone shows a direct link between large attacks on energy infrastructure and spikes in migration.

In the 2022-2023 winter, most refugees were initially displaced internally before deciding to go abroad, often staying in less affected regions since Ukraine managed to avoid a full blackout.

However, if Russia is allowed to completely destroy Ukraine’s energy system, the internal displacement could turn into mass migration abroad this coming winter. A full blackout would undermine Ukraine’s economy and increase its reliance on external aid, further burdening Western taxpayers.

The worst scenario can still be averted if partners recognise the seriousness of the situation and commit to helping Ukraine through the winter. This includes urgent protection of operational energy facilities and the restoration or substitution of destroyed ones.

European partners should send spare air defence missiles like Patriots, SAMP/T, NASAMS, and anti-aircraft IRIS-T systems, to Ukraine as soon as possible. Other solutions, like shooting down Russian targets over Ukraine or its western part, should be considered too. Urgent enhancing of anti- unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities, including deploying radio-electric jammers, is crucial too.

Equipping major cities with industrial diesel generators to ensure critical infrastructure operations are also essential. Developing a decentralised energy system can reduce the vulnerability too. Saving Ukraine’s energy system should be a main topic at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Berlin, as well as G7, Peace Formula, and NATO summits.

The ICC called Russian attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure last winter a crime against humanity. It is time to stop this impunity.