We are seven weeks into the war and the level of destruction in Ukraine is mounting. Every single day we learn more about Russia’s scorched earth tactics and about the atrocities its forces have committed in the areas they once occupied.
But with another Russian surge in Ukraine’s east looming, one trend is not sufficiently understood in the West. Over the past weeks, Russian air and missile strikes have deliberately targeted and destroyed key components of Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure, especially in the energy sector, in a bid to make the country collapse.
In late March the Pentagon estimated that Russia had fired over 1,200 precision guided missiles into Ukraine. The cost of direct damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure in the month since Russia invaded the country has reached $63 billion, according to the Kyiv School of Economics. Ninety-two factories (including food warehouses), 378 educational institutions, 138 healthcare institutions and 12 airports have been damaged, destroyed or seized.
But it may well be the energy sector where Russian missiles will do the most long-term harm. Modern cities and villages cannot survive without a proper supply of electricity, gas and fuel that is needed not only for households and businesses, but also for water supply, sewage systems and heating. Since 24 February the Russians have damaged and destroyed numerous assets of the Ukrainian energy sector. They are systematically targeting and destroying Ukrainian critical infrastructure in order to make villages, towns, cities and eventually entire regions uninhabitable for Ukrainians, forcing people to leave their homes.
Since the beginning of the invasion, seven power plants and parts of the electricity grid have been damaged, and one destroyed. Russia has also targeted gas pipelines. Parts of the Soyuz transmission line carrying westbound gas to Europe were seized in the Kharkiv region by Russian forces in March. Forty-four gas distribution stations are now not operating in Ukraine due to the damage to middle and low-pressure gas pipelines at a regional, city and village level, leaving around 300,000 households across the country without gas.
Key targets have included heat and power plants in the cities of Chernihiv, Sumy and Okhtyrka (in the Sumy region). Russians also targeted and damaged over 50 components of electricity grids in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Mykolaiv and Kherson regions and damaged the grids of the Rivne Nuclear Power Plant and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), Europe’s largest NPP, which provides 25 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity. In a press briefing this month, the CEO of Ukraine’s largest private energy company DTEK Group said that despite his company’s efforts, approximately 1.5 million households remain cut off from electricity.
On 3 April, Russian missiles hit and completely destroyed Ukraine’s largest oil refinery in Kremenchuk, in the Poltava region. On the same day, missiles also destroyed a critical oil processing plant in the harbour of Odesa. With the Ukrainian Black Sea blockaded and critical oil storage and processing infrastructure destroyed, the only way to import oil and fuel into Ukraine is now via train and trucks from the EU.
Russia is well aware of that and experts worry that it will soon target the Ukrainian railway system to disrupt fuel supplies. As of now, fuel is already rationed and as evacuations from the eastern regions are underway, civilians and possibly the army will face fuel shortages in the near future.
Even before the beginning of the renewed Russian aggression, the situation was especially acute in the country’s eastern regions of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk – especially in the besieged city of Mariupol.
In Luhansk 132,000 users across more than 35 settlements have been cut off from gas. And as of 5 April, almost 96,000 people in 30 settlements across the Luhansk region are without electricity. Last week the governor of Luhansk wrote on Telegram that every hospital in the Luhansk region was either damaged or destroyed.
In April, fighting in the Kharkiv region damaged energy infrastructure, leaving more than 60,000 residents cut off from their water supply and another 40,000 residents without electricity. Around 20,000 people are still trapped and completely cut off from electricity, gas and water in the besieged city of Izium, in the Kharkiv region.
We have to understand that despite Russia trying to militarily capture large parts of Ukraine’s eastern region, it is highly likely to continue striking energy infrastructure across the country. The sad reality is that Ukraine lacks the ability to protect its critical infrastructure against air and missile attacks. Without more advanced medium and long-range anti-air systems, Russian rockets will continue to damage and destroy peaceful cities and infrastructure. Only some of this infrastructure can be quickly restored once the fighting stops.
Whether Ukraine can effectively deploy defence systems like the S-300 from Slovakia, which recently arrived in Ukraine, will decide whether Putin can realise his goal of punishing and destroying large parts of the country. If the Russians continue to disrupt Ukraine’s energy infrastructure unabated, the number of displaced people (which currently stands at over seven million) will quickly grow. People do want to stay in the country but the Russian plan to make large areas of Ukraine unliveable will force them out. The EU believes that up to eight million refugees will seek shelter in the European Union. Given the Russian ability and desire to wreak havoc on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, millions more may be forced to leave very soon as well.
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