As Russian strikes mount, Ukraine works to keep the lights on
By Marc Santora
In a relentless and intensifying barrage of missiles fired from ships at sea, batteries on land and planes in the sky, Moscow is destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, depriving millions of heat, light and clean water.
Keeping the lights on for the majority of the millions of people who still live in cities and towns far from the front — and keeping those places functioning through the winter — is now one of the greatest challenges Ukraine faces.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Wednesday night, “If we survive this winter, and we will definitely survive it, we will definitely win this war.”
With at least 15 energy facilities hit on Tuesday — some for the fifth or sixth time — the waves of Russian assaults have left about 40% of Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure damaged or destroyed.
On Tuesday alone, close to 100 missiles rained down on Ukrainian territory, part of a pattern that many Western officials and legal experts say is a war crime.
The attacks are also damaging water-supply systems that are essential to energy production as well as daily survival.
The latest assault compromised the connection of two nuclear plants to Ukraine’s national grid, forcing nuclear operators to dramatically scale back the amount of energy they produce. The national energy utility has now imposed sweeping but controlled blackouts that include every region of the country, leaving millions without power for six to 12 hours a day.
Yurii Levytskiy, the head of the repairs at a critical substation in central Ukraine, offered a glimpse at the magnitude of the challenges facing utility workers — and the nation — during a recent visit to the facility, which he described as the “zero front line for the energy sector.”
“You can see what one missile can do,” said Levytskiy, pointing to the burned out, hulking remains of the 200-ton transformer that converts high-voltage electricity to a lower wattage that is used in homes and businesses. Charred copper coils and electrical wires spilled out from the multimillion-dollar transformer like the innards of a metal beast whose belly had been ripped open.
The missile exploded with such force that the blast shattered windows at a school a mile away, triggered a fire that burned for four days and knocked out power to more than half a million people.
“One missile,” Levytskiy repeated. Russia has fired more than 4,500 missiles across Ukraine over the course of the war, according to Ukrainian officials, and in the last six weeks, the vast majority have been aimed at civilian infrastructure.
“The situation is serious, the most serious in history,” said Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, the head of Ukrenergo, the national electric utility, on Wednesday. “Since the beginning of October, this is already the sixth massive attack on the country’s energy infrastructure, this time the largest.”
In an interview before the latest wave of attacks, Kudrytskyi said the Russian military was being guided by electrical engineers familiar with the country’s energy grid, since much of it was built when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Levytskiy’s substation is a case in point, having been constructed in 1958.
Levytskiy said that the controlled blackouts — which have grown in scope after each successive attack — have allowed engineers to stabilize the grid. Crucially, despite temporary interruptions, Ukrainian utility workers have also managed to keep the water flowing.
In a country that is 70% urban, if the grid fails, the consequences can cascade quickly, especially if water infrastructure is compromised.
“People don’t really fully understand this, but water and energy are incredibly intertwined and interconnected,” said Dr. Peter Gleick, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research group that addresses global water challenges.
“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to run any modern water system,” he said. “It also takes a lot of water to run our energy systems.”
“As a result, anything that directly affects the energy system directly affects our ability to provide the water that is essential for human survival,” he said.
While people can live in the dark, when the water stops flowing, the fabric of city life can unravel.
Without electricity, taps run dry, water purification becomes unreliable, and wastewater is either not collected or has to be disposed of untreated in rivers and lakes, which can lead to water-related disease outbreaks like cholera and ecological disaster.
Compounding the dangers for Ukraine, Russia is also attacking water infrastructure directly.
Gleick is currently working with colleagues in Ukraine and Europe on an investigative paper documenting the impact of over 60 explicit attacks on water-related infrastructure in Ukraine in just the first few months of the war.
Since then, Russia has targeted dams and many other critical water-related facilities, according to Ukrainian officials.
Gleick noted that such attacks are directly banned under the Geneva Convention protocols that prohibit attacks on civilian infrastructure, including “drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”
Dmytro Novytskyi, the president of the Water and Sewage Utilities Association of Ukraine, said that the attacks on energy infrastructure compounded the staggering challenges water utility workers are already confronting.
“It’s very difficult to get the spare parts now as all the logistic chains are broken,” he said, leading to difficulties at water purification and wastewater treatment facilities.
“Some of the plants stopped working because they are near the front line or in the occupied territories,” he said.
The chemical factory that produces the reagents needed to treat water drawn from the Dnieper and Dniester rivers — the main sources of fresh water in Ukraine — is in a southern city occupied by the Russians.
“Now it’s not working, and we have to import those things at a double price,” Novytskyi said.
The Ukrainian factory that produces chlorine, which is also essential in the process of ensuring clean water, is under constant threat of attack and had to be shut down.
“So we have to import chlorine as well,” he said.
Even as Russia steps up its direct assaults on critical infrastructure, Ukraine is still struggling to repair damage done over the course of nine months of war.
At the power substation in central Ukraine, which cannot be identified because it is critical infrastructure, workers keep a bus ready to rush workers to an off-site bunker every time the air raid alarm wails, knowing they may be a target.
In the last missile attack, workers had 13 minutes to flee from the time the alarm sounded until the first missile hit. All escaped unharmed.
“We were mentally prepared, knowing it would happen sooner or later,” said Levytskiy, speaking as 330,000 volts of electricity coursed through the power lines above him, audibly buzzing.
He is braced for more attacks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a monster, Levytskiy said, using more colorful language. But every time Russia strikes, he said, Ukraine will rebuild.