Rused to be america The bombing of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure had been underway for a month when the head of Ukraine’s power grid, Volodymyr Kudrytsky, saw a fleet of kamikaze drones flying towards his office. The attack on Ukrenergo’s Kiev headquarters on 17 October caused many of his colleagues to flee for shelter. Soldiers stayed on the ground trying to shoot down the drone. Mr Kudrytsky drove to help a colleague. “Some of us had five, 10, 20 attacks this winter, and at one point you weren’t afraid anymore,” he recalls.
In the most recent raid, in the early hours of March 9, Russia targeted critical infrastructure with missiles worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For the 15th time this winter tests the resilience of energy planners. But with much of the country rapidly returning to normal, the fundamentals haven’t changed; Ukraine is still winning a battle that few expected it to win. Engineers are now repairing the system faster than it can be destroyed. Before the latest attack, Kiev had been without power for four weeks. Russia’s use of its hard-to-replace Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile at the end of winter appears to indicate Moscow’s growing desperation.
Things are definitely on the verge of breaking out. The initial Russian operation was clinical, targeting hundreds of high-voltage transformers that are the home-sized workhorses of the national grid. No electricity means no gas, no water, no sewage, no heating. Some predict a humanitarian crisis of frozen cities and millions of refugees. The reason this didn’t happen was thanks to preparation, luck, quick thinking, and new air defenses that started appearing in time. More than 100 energy workers were killed in the fighting.
The darkest days are in late November. When the capital’s infrastructure was hit by 67 missiles on the 23rd, systems began shutting down automatically to protect themselves. For several hours, there was no electricity in Kiev, Serhiy Kovalenko said, CEO Yasno, a company that supplies energy to the capital. It’s unclear when the system will start up again, or whether the damaged grid will actually be able to support the necessary flow. Rumor has it that the city will have to pump water from the heating system for fear the pipes will freeze and crack. “It was a really scary moment,” Mr Kovalenko recalled. “We didn’t know it was a matter of hours, days or even weeks. We were very happy when the grid slowly started running again later that same day.”
As the Russian campaign deepened, Ukraine became increasingly adept at responding to threats in the air and repairing damage on the ground. Yuriy Ihnat, a colonel in the Ukrainian air force command, said the process now resembled “a chess game with death”. “The enemy wants to outsmart, and we want to outwit.” The Russians want to use all the tools at their disposal to locate and destroy Ukraine’s air defenses: A-50 airborne early warning aircraft that can detect any Ukrainian missile launches; drones; satellites; and a spy network. Ukraine has responded with its own technology: deception in the form of fake launch sites and keeping air defense assets as mobile as possible.
win in the air
At the beginning of winter, Ukraine can only rely on Soviet-era systems, such as small-300s and Buks. When conditions are bad, its interception rate is only 20-30%.More recently, in the new maneuver force and Western air defense systems such as nasa, a figure that, Ukraine claims, is often higher than 75%. Ukraine’s new Patriot air defense system is not yet online, so Ukraine cannot intercept high-speed missiles such as the Kh-22 anti-ship missile and the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic ballistic missile. The use of such expensive and scarce missiles in the March 9 attack explains the low intercept rate of less than 50%.
Clever engineering helped Ukraine. Mr. Kudrytsky of Ukrenergo said his company deliberately kept spare stocks of high-voltage equipment when it refurbished substations in the pre-war years. Beyond that, there are what he calls exciting engineering solutions. One piece of hardware that was particularly difficult to replace caught fire after a drone strike on a facility last November. There are no obvious replacements in the pantry. Therefore, the technical team decided to attempt an otherwise impossible restoration. “In the electrical world, if something catches fire at a voltage level of 330,000V or higher, and you say goodbye to it,” he said. “But somehow, they did. ”
Russia’s winter attacks on infrastructure rendered as much as half of Ukraine’s power grid temporarily unusable. But the only indisputable lasting result is that the aggressors have exhausted most of their stockpile of equipment: nearly 1,000 missiles and a similar number of drones. Western officials believe that Russia is now largely limited to using whatever comes off the production line.
Ukraine, for its part, is determined to eliminate as many remaining weak links as possible in the months and years ahead. The government has announced new plans to protect some of the most vulnerable parts of the underground grid and increase air defenses above it. Mr. Kudrytsky was coy about the details, but said, “We’ve shown that the seemingly impossible can somehow be possible… We’ve made the impossible mundane.” ■