‘Blackouts in Kyiv’: Russia batters Ukraine’s power grid amid air defense shortage

Ukrainian authorities have begun to impose rolling blackouts throughout the country under the weight of Russia‘s bombardment of Ukraine’s power grid.

“We have blackouts in Kyiv, so I’m sitting in the darkness right now,” Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Merezhko, who chairs the foreign affairs committee, told the Washington Examiner. “Winter hasn’t started here, but we’re already having these blackouts. And it doesn’t bode well for the coming winter.”

Russia has targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure since 2022, when the initial failure of the invading Russian columns forced Russian strategists to seek new ways to enervate the Ukrainian defense. An influx of Western air defense systems enabled Ukrainian forces to mitigate that threat, but delivery delays in the United States and Europe left Ukraine’s power grid vulnerable to several severe shocks.

“Russia, they have this plan — they have a plan to destroy us, economically, and they specifically target, now, our infrastructure, especially power grid,” Merezhko said. “They want to create humanitarian catastrophe during the winter, or even before the winter. And so they bet on trying to bomb us into the caves, as they say.”

That effort has found some success in recent months, as Ukrainian energy authorities acknowledged while announcing the latest blackout schedule.

“The reason for the restrictions is the increase in electricity consumption during cold weather,” Ukraine’s state-owned energy company announced, according to an unofficial translation. “The capacity of Ukrainian power plants is not enough due to the consequences of five rocket-drone attacks carried out by Russia on the Ukrainian energy system since March 22.”

President Joe Biden received the authority to provide additional military assistance to Ukraine in April when House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) advanced a supplemental funding package over the objections of a hard-right faction of the Republican conference. That maneuver ended a protracted lapse in major shipments of U.S. aid long after Ukrainian forces began to feel the effects of a shortage of artillery and air defense interceptors.

“It’s [because of] all of us,” a senior European official said. “The Patriots are the most capable ones, which are able to take ballistic missiles down. So, if [Ukraine] is running out of them, they can take down cruise missiles, but ballistics and Kinzhals will hit the target and do the damage.”

The shortages are being felt most acutely in the area around Kharkiv, a major Ukrainian city near the country’s northeastern border. The scene of a major battle in the first months of the full-scale conflict, Russian forces have pressed into the area in an effort that private U.S. analysts suggest is intended to create a buffer zone on the border. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday that the defending forces have “partially stabilized” the lines in the area, but NATO’s top general demurred when asked about the status of the Russian offensive.

“Whether an offensive is stopped or not, you know, takes a little bit of time to figure out … In war, you never count things out until you’re sure,” four-star U.S. Army Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the NATO supreme allied commander, said Thursday at a press conference in Brussels. 

“[Ukrainian forces are] being shipped vast amounts of ammunition, vast amounts of short-range air defense systems, and significant amounts of armored vehicles right now,” Cavoli said.

Zelensky suggested this week that “Russia will not be able to occupy Kharkiv” if Ukrainian forces are given “two Patriot systems,” but those missile batteries are in short supply in U.S. arsenals, and the other countries that own them tend to hesitate to hand over the prized system.

“There is a lot of discussion ongoing on…creative solutions, in terms that nations trying now to work together to find a complete system,” Dutch Adm. Rob Bauer, the chairman of the NATO military committee, told reporters on Thursday. “So if one [country] has the sensor, and another one has the shooter, and the third one has the ammunition, that together they make something they come up with a solution for Ukraine.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in April that he would send German-owned Patriot battery to Ukraine. That battery, the third of its kind sent from German arsenals, “is extremely important for the defense of Ukraine,” Bauer said before adding an arch remark about the lag between announcement and delivery.

“It is important, though … that nations not only promise to deliver certain things, but that they also announce for Ukraine … within how much time they actually are going to be able to deliver it,” he said. “So it’s not just the promise, but, it is also in the end, of course, the ammunition and the systems that the Ukrainians need. So, I think that is something that has to improve.”

Those improvements could come too late for at least some aspects of Ukraine’s power grid. DTEK, a private operator of thermal power plants, announced in March that the company had “temporarily lost around half its available generation capacity.” In recent weeks, a representative of DTEK’s parent company told an American audience that “probably 80[%] to 85% of their capacity was offline,” a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine told the Washington Examiner

“This is gonna be big, and he said they’re really preparing, trying to get through to the winter,” retired Ambassador Bill Taylor, who led the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on two different diplomatic tours, said. “And the parts are harder to come by because they’re long lead-time items. A lot of the equipment is old Soviet [stuff]. The Russians know all the details of their grid. Yeah, I think energy is gonna be a problem.”

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To mitigate the damage, DTEK is “investing heavily in distributed power systems such as wind turbines,” the company announced in March amid a wider government effort to make the Ukrainian power grid more resilient.

“They’re trying to find creative ways to have more protected [power sources] — maybe underground, maybe dispersed,” Merezhko said. “And this is [part of] the kind of competition or rivalry, in terms of creativity, and we managed to outsmart Russians. So far, at least, it’s been the case.”

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