Ukraine’s power infrastructure in danger from Russian missile barrage

Ukraine’s power infrastructure in danger from Russian missile barrage
Ukraine's power infrastructure is in danger in the face of Russia's most intense barrage since the start of the war over two years ago. / Photo: David Costello, http://www.davidcostellop
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 23, 2024

Ukraine has suffered a second day of intense bombing of its power stations, plunging half a dozen regions into darkness, as the Kremlin tries to take advantage of Kyiv’s dwindling supply of air defence ammo.

At the same time, the US asked Zelenskiy’s administration to curb its long-distance drone strikes on Russia’s oil refineries, as production has dropped by 10% since the start of the year, threatening an oil product price strike ahead of US elections slated for this November.

Missile barrage

On the night of March 21-22, Russian forces launched a combined missile and drone strike against Ukraine's critical infrastructure using a total of 151 aerial weapons that cost well over $300mn, according to reports.

Ukrainian air defence units managed to destroy 92 Russian aerial targets, but an increasing number of Russian missiles are getting through to hit their targets as Ukraine starts to run low on air defence ammo. Blackouts not seen for about a year were back as important power plants were struck and suffered major damage.

Emergency power outages are taking place in a number of Ukrainian regions after reports of damage to power generating facilities, the Ukrainian energy holding DTEK and regional authorities reported.

Blackouts have been reported in eight regions, including the Dnipro Region and in the Kyiv-controlled areas of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as well as  "stabilisation outages" in the Odesa Region.

According to the regional authorities, over 110,000 residents of the Poltava Region will be disconnected "to balance the power grid”, while in the Sumy Region emergency cut-off plans will be implemented in several districts.

It appears that the Kremlin is trying to take advantage of Kyiv’s increasingly dire financial state after the US ran out of money for Ukraine in January and halted supplies of badly needed weapons and ammo. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to Western leaders last week to urgently send more munitions, but the Ministry of Finance (MinFin) admitted last week that Ukraine has only received 10% of the arms and cash promised last month at the 20th Ramstein meeting.

The barrage began on March 21, hitting cities across the country. A Russian missile strike on the city of Zaporizhzhia on March 22 claimed the lives of three people: a father and daughter aged 35 and 8, and a 62-year-old trolleybus driver who was driving along the dam of the Dnipro hydroelectric power plant (HPP), the Kyiv Independent reports.

The target was the Dnipro HPP, a major source of power, which was struck by eight missiles and suffered extensive damage.

Ukraine’s power stations targeted

Ukraine is currently suffering from the most intense missile and drone attack since the start of the war more than two years ago even more intense than the first barrage launched in January designed to run Ukrainian’s stock of defensive missiles down, a tactic that now seems to be paying dividends for Russia.

Russian forces are exploiting Ukraine's air defence shortages to plunge the country into darkness and destroy the country's energy grid in the largest strike since the start of the conflict, according to a report from Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

More than 130 energy infrastructure facilities have been targeted across the country over the last two days. The Dnipro HPP is the largest facility in Ukraine and was a key target, but dozens of other power stations have also been hit and damaged, according to reports.

The Dnipro HPP is now reported to be in a critical condition after its turbine room and electrical equipment were seriously damaged, director Igor Sirota reportedly said.

"We are losing the station. The HPP-2 is in danger. We don’t know at what capacity it will be able to operate. The HPP-2 is in critical condition. The HPP-1 has also stopped operations, so we are doing everything we can to raise the gates and process the water," Ukraine’s Strana media outlet quoted him as saying.

"We will have to fully rebuild the turbine room and repair electrical equipment," he added, noting that there was no threat of a dam break.

The current onslaught has sent residents of cities around Ukraine scuttling back into air raid shelters that haven’t been much used since the last assault on Ukraine’s power infrastructure in the winter of 2022.

The air defences provided by the US and European allies have proved so effective that bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Kyiv reported the locals had become increasingly blasé about air raid siren alerts, often choosing to ignore them and continue going about their business. But that has changed dramatically in the few last days as the combination of falling levels of ammo and the sheer intensity of the attack have driven people underground again.

The skies are open again to a Russian assault that threatens to repeat the destruction of half the country's energy infrastructure, as occurred in the winter 2022 campaign. The Washington Post recently reported that the shortage of air defence ammo has become so acute that Kyiv may soon be limited to being able to shoot down only one in five inbound missiles.

"Russian strikes on energy infrastructure in early spring 2024 likely aim to collapse the energy grid in part to stall Ukrainian efforts to rapidly expand its (defence-industrial base)," the ISW said.

With international supplies of weapons falling off, Ukraine’s strategy is to become a military production hub and make more of the arms and ammo it needs at home. Depriving Ukraine of power will make that task a lot harder.

US calls on Ukraine to halt oil refinery attacks

Ukraine launched a counter-punch in February that is also designed to run down Russia’s ability to supply its forces and earn money to run its war machine by targeting Russia’s oil refineries with long-range missiles.

However, the Financial Times reported last week that the US has urged Ukraine to halt attacks on Russia’s energy infrastructure, warning senior SBU and GUR officials that drone strikes risk driving up global oil prices and provoking retaliation.

Russia crude oil refining production has dropped to a ten-month low and is down at 5mn barrels per day (bpd) from March 14-20, or a 10% fall year on year. after Ukraine began a drone war in February using new long-range domestically produced drones to attack Russia’s refining capacity deep inside Russian territory.

Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak denied that Washington had called on Kyiv to halt the drone strikes on Russian assets.

"This is fictitious information. After two years of full-scale war, no one will dictate to Ukraine the conditions for waging this war. Within the framework of international law, Ukraine can ‘degrease’ Russian instruments of warfare. Fuel is the basic tool of warfare. Ukraine will destroy its fuel infrastructure,” Podolyak said as cited by Ukrayinska Pravda.

Podolyak argued that Russia is in the midst of a major attack against Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure with genocidal intentions, while Ukraine has responded with its own attacks against the Russian infrastructure of war.

Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, followed up saying that Russia’s oil refineries are “legitimate targets of Ukraine from a military point of view.” According to her, Ukraine is acting in accordance with Nato standards in this case, in statements that defy the US concerns.

“We understand the requests of American partners. But we wage war with the capabilities, resources and practices that are available to us,” she said during the second Ukrainian Security Forum.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on his Nato allies to “close the skies” from the very first week of the war, but Nato has never responded, leaving Ukraine vulnerable to missile attacks. The supply of sophisticated anti-missile systems, and the US-made Patriot system in particular – have alleviated the problem somewhat, but the Patriot missiles are expensive and in short supply, whereas Russia has ramped up the production of cheap weaponised drones that it is firing at Ukraine in their droves.

Commenting on the hostile attack by the Russians on March 22, Stefanishyna welcomed the words of support from Ukraine’s Western allies, but words alone are insufficient, given the scale and intensity of the current attack.

"I want to draw attention to the fact that the situation is already very bad... Over the past two months we have received 10% of the planned financial resources necessary for the survival of the state, and also have not received military assistance, which was planned for almost a year within the Ramstein format by more than 50 countries around the world," Stefanishyna said. "Reaction is one thing, but we expect weapons first of all."

Photo by David Costello