What Russia cannot win on the battlefield, it is seeking to win by casting Ukrainian cities into the dark and cold as a long winter sets in.
The result is a grinding battle of attrition: Barrages of Russian missiles fly across Ukraine, and Ukrainian power engineers work for days in freezing temperatures to restore power.
Monday saw the largest wave of missile attacks since November 23. Ukraine’s state power generator, Ukrenergo, says that about 40% of normal electrical supply was offline at one point in October.
It’s become known as the electricity deficit, and it swings one way and another depending on missile impacts.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told CNN that “what the Ukrainian energy system has been experiencing since October, no energy system in the world has ever experienced.”
The CEO of state power generator Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, says the issue is not in generating power but in getting it to the people.
“The enemy is hitting the most important facilities and key elements of substations that ensure the output… and transmission of electricity.” Kudrytskyi told CNN.
The Russians go after the most vulnerable parts of the system. “By the nature of the attacks we see that Russian missiles are directed by Russian power engineers,” says Tymoshenko.
That’s in part because until this year Ukraine was in the same energy network as Russia and Belarus. Russian engineers knew the Ukrainian network inside out.
The main targets are high-voltage power lines, substations and distribution grids.
Joseph Majkut, director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that “Russia’s attacks have focused on key elements of Ukraine’s transmission network, preventing generated electricity from moving through the grid and to consumers… and forcing blackouts to balance the grid.
“Attacks on high-voltage substations have been particularly damaging as they are critical for grid operation and difficult to repair.”
Ukraine is now scouring the world to find compatible parts and carry out repairs – as the morale of ordinary people is tested by power cuts that often last more than 12 hours a day. Prolonged blackouts threaten to send another wave of Ukrainian civilians fleeing westwards to Poland and other neighboring countries.
There is a glimpse of hope: Ukraine’s air defenses are getting better at taking out Russian cruise missiles, often with newly arrived Western equipment. Ukraine said it had taken out about 60 of 70 missiles fired on Monday; video emerged of one being intercepted by a German-made Gepard anti-air missile.
But as few as a dozen Russian missiles hitting critical targets wreak havoc. 15 gigawatts of Ukraine’s power capacity have been taken out, compared to the pre-war capacity of 56 gigawatts (GW) of power, according to Ukrenergo.
Gradually power engineers are patching up the system – by this week the electricity deficit had been cut to 19 per cent. But the recovery is tenuous.
Sergey Kovalenko, CEO of power supplier YASNO, says that “Ukrainians will most likely have to live with blackouts until at least the end of March.”
Some people in Kyiv have told CNN they are ready to retreat to rural dachas, where at least wood-burning stoves provide warmth.