COLLINGWOOD: Ukraine’s power blackout means a dark future

COLLINGWOOD: Ukraine’s power blackout means a dark future
Ukraine continues its heroic struggle against Russian aggression with fresh weapons supplies from the US and a new mobilisation law to recruit more soldiers. Russia has destroyed some of Ukraine’s biggest power plants causing catastrophic damage. That is a big problem. / bne IntelliNews
By Andrew Collingwood in Tyneside April 22, 2024

In the last week, two pieces of legislation have been passed, one in Kyiv and one in Washington, that appear to go some way to addressing the most pressing problems Ukraine faces in its war with Russia. They do not. Reality has moved on to the point where they are probably irrelevant to the long-term prospects of Ukraine – a fact that cheering, flag-waving lawmakers seem to have missed.

On April 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed into law legislation designed to alleviate the chronic and increasingly acute manpower issues of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The new law, which was amended over 4,000 times during its passage through the Ukrainian legislature, is seen both in Kyiv and the West as an important step toward stemming the tide of Russian territorial gains, which have gathered pace since the fall of Avdiivka in February this year.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, another piece of legislation important to Ukraine’s war effort has passed, as the US Congress has finally voted to hand Ukraine more than $60bn of economic and military aid. In addition to manpower issues, Ukraine has been outgunned since last year’s failed counteroffensive, with some reports now claiming that the country’s armed forces have a 10:1 disadvantage in large calibre artillery rounds fired. Ukraine is also obviously in desperate need of air defence. It is expected in Kyiv, Washington and European capitals that the new aid package will help address some of these shortages.

Both pieces of legislation are irrelevant. The moneys provided by the US, and earlier by the EU, will indeed provide short-term succour in the form of a fresh influx of weaponry (although the extent of available supplies is open to question, and thus the scale of Western materiel crossing into Ukraine may disappoint some of the country's more ardent supporters). It is further true that, as the new mobilisation law takes effect, and conscripts are pushed through the training system, Ukraine will be able to more effectively replenish its manpower on the front lines by the summer. 

Yet neither issue addresses the main danger to Ukraine. As politicians in Kyiv were playing pass the ticking parcel on mobilisation laws, and the US establishment sought to browbeat Speaker Mike Johnson into bringing Ukraine aid legislation to the House floor for a vote, Russia was smashing Ukraine’s energy infrastructure – and this is a far more serious problem than manpower or munitions shortages.

After disabling power stations around Kharkiv and hydroelectric facilities on the River Dnipro, in April Russia destroyed the Trypilska power plant, a 1.8TW facility that had provided most of the electricity for the Kyiv and Zhytomyr regions. Russia also apparently destroyed one of Europe’s largest natural gas storage facilities, in the west of Ukraine, south of Lviv.

The Kyiv Independent has reported that a schedule of blackouts has already been adopted in the Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk regions. Ukraine will likely shift from being a net exporter of energy to Europe, to being a net importer from it.

If Russia continues these systematic attacks, it is possible that Ukraine’s nuclear power plants will not have enough balancing electricity from the coal and gas power stations and will therefore have to be shut down. And even if that does not happen, it would not take the loss of much more generations or transmission infrastructure for the whole system to break down. Neither Ukraine nor the west have the ability to fully fix the damage to the country’s energy infrastructure on a relevant timescale before winter returns.

The broad consequences of total electricity blackout in Ukraine would be catastrophic. Absent portable generators, fridges and freezers at supermarkets and in homes would stop working, increasing food insecurity. Rail transport would massively decrease – crucial for moving troops and materiel. Military production and maintenance would become more difficult and might be impossible at scale. Communications systems would deteriorate. The economy would suffer another big decline and might even collapse. Social order could break down. And this is before the onset of the Eastern European winter.

Sending more air defence would only delay the onslaught, not stop it. The Patriot system, the mainstay of the western alliance’s area air defence, is hugely expensive and made in small numbers. While in theory there might be scores of Patriot batteries around the world, nations have, or have just about, sent what they can without leaving themselves vulnerable to air attack.

Furthermore, the MIM-104 missiles the Patriot system fires are produced at a rate of only 550 a year. In Ukraine’s battle environment, years of production can be launched in weeks. Meanwhile, the Patriot systems themselves are not invulnerable to air attack, and it must be assumed that they will, over time, be destroyed or damaged.

Israel is also a draw on available resources, and for now apparently a higher priority in Washington.

Ukraine has already lost some 30% of its pre-war GDP. The latest European Parliament report suggested it would only recover to its pre-war level in 2030. Millions of Ukrainians have left for Europe, millions more for Russia, and yet more millions are internally displaced. Untold numbers of soldiers have been killed and maimed. The fertility rate has plunged from the already disastrous pre-war level to all-time lows.

To survive as a country, Ukraine must rebuild its smashed economy and industry. It must bring home its people to stave off the demographic oblivion it was heading toward even before February 2022. It must find a way to restructure or repay its unsustainable sovereign debt without growth-crushing austerity – and that means producing stuff for export. None of this will be possible with a smashed electricity system. Instead, these already calamitous problems would be made massively worse and probably irreparable.

What good is a fresh aid package or more efficient mobilisation when the country faces a pre-industrial immediate future at mediaeval population levels? When the longer-term future is being permanently locked into a lower level of development and growth? The ability to form another brigade or two, the capture or loss of territory, and the availability of munitions are thus almost entirely meaningless if the country loses its electricity.

Yet on the current trajectory, that's where Ukraine is heading.

There is only one certain way to avoid this: peace. Any attainable deal with Russia would probably come on worse terms than those rejected at the Spring 2022 Istanbul negotiations. This would be painful for the Ukrainian government and a large number of its people. It would also be humiliating for western politicians – and politically damaging in election years in the US and UK. Many people might see such a deal as an affront to their sense of right and wrong.

The benchmark by which we should measure any such deal, however, is neither an imaginary ideal world nor the abstract sensibilities of those enjoying the comforts of London, Washington and Warsaw. Nor is it the tenderness with which it treats the overblown egos of the western political class. The hard truth is that, morally, any deal must be judged only on whether it would be better than the realistic alternatives.

At present, the realistic alternatives look grim indeed.

Must we see a grotesque fulfilment of Professor John Mearsheimer’s 2015 prophecy that if the west did not change its policy, Russia would “smash Ukraine”? As we are very rapidly heading in that direction it is time to say “enough,” and to say it now. The terms will be no better after the US election in November – but the damage to Ukraine will be much worse. Perhaps permanent.

Andrew Collingwood is the co-host of the Multipolarity Podcast and a political commentator on geopolitics. He tweets at @multipolarity and has a podcast here.