Perhaps in frustration at its failures on the battlefield, Russia is aiming attacks at Ukraine’s electrical facilities in an apparent attempt to drive the country into freezing blackouts during the winter. Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch explains:
Kyiv hasn’t been its usual self for weeks. For half of the day, the Ukrainian capital, known for its cafes, bustling nightlife, and crowded cocktail dens even through a pandemic and more than eight months of a full-scale Russian invasion, is plunged into darkness, mostly disappearing from view except for millions of little flickers of candlelight.
Russia, which has been repeatedly beaten on the battlefield, has resorted to knocking out Ukrainian power and heat ahead of the winter. Russian missile strikes and drone attacks have shuttered close to 40 percent of the country’s power plants.
The first shock has been economic. Ukraine’s government fears the economy could shrink by one-third. “Some businesses in Kyiv are panicking like crazy,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to the Zelensky administration. “People who have been in Kyiv, who have stayed in Kyiv, who have thousands of employees, are worried that one more attack will be a week without electricity.”
The Kyiv School of Economics—where Mylovanov, a former Ukrainian economy minister, is president—has set up makeshift shelters that officials are calling “warming centers,” small rooms outfitted for emergency heating. But the makeshift effort isn’t enough to get the city of 3 million people through the winter. “We’re talking about, you know, 20 people, 50 people, a hundred people,” he said. “We’re not talking about thousands of people.” And the blackouts don’t just mean Ukrainians are reading by candlelight. They have left millions of people without water, sewage, and hot food, including children and the elderly.
Temperatures are already hovering at or below freezing during Kyiv nights in November. Russia’s missile strikes against the Ukrainian power grid have knocked out power to major cities—not including the massive Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant that has been offline for months. The increasingly dire situation has set off a mad dash in Western capitals to stave off a further humanitarian crisis in the freezing cold.
Ukraine still has the ability to generate enough electricity to meet people’s needs, because demand has dropped dramatically since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. But Russia’s campaign of strikes has decimated Ukraine’s ability to transfer high-voltage power that runs through power lines to lower voltages that can be used by consumers. That has also limited the ability to import energy from other regions to deal with the problem.
On Capitol Hill, current and former Ukrainian officials are telling anyone who will listen that they are in desperate need of transformers, massive electromagnetic devices that transfer power between circuits in power stations and on railways. “It’s high-voltage transformers that are mostly needed,” said Victoria Voytsitska, a former Ukrainian parliamentarian who has been leading the lobbying effort. “And in Ukraine, unfortunately, we only have one manufacturer who is capable of producing a maximum of three transformers every six months. We need tons of them already at this stage after two waves of major attacks on our critical infrastructure.”
But there’s no quick fix on the way for the transformers, leaving U.S. and Ukrainian officials to work overtime to stave off a mass exodus, like the lines of cars out of Kyiv that preceded Russia’s full-scale invasion. “The blackouts will be there for quite a long time until we have new transformers,” Voytsitska added. On the request list are mobile and secondary substations and power switches as well.
Ukraine is also in need of spare parts, boilers, and stoves, and Ukrainian officials are trying to find space heaters that can heat destroyed rooms, homes, and school gymnasiums, where internally displaced people have been forced to hide from Russian bombings, to set up more makeshift warming centers. The effort is extending to major Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Zhytomyr. In Washington, Ukrainian allies are trying to push the message to the Swiss and British governments, too.
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