As temperatures begin to fall, Russia steps up attacks on Ukraine's vulnerable power grid

·5 min read

KYIV — Large parts of the Ukrainian capital have been experiencing rolling blackouts in recent weeks, after increased Russian attacks over the past month that have destroyed an estimated 30% of Ukraine’s power and heating generation capacity.

Kyiv has accused Russia, which continues to suffer a string of embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield, of pursuing a determined strategy of targeting such facilities in order both to increase Ukrainian refugee flows into Europe and to freeze the population at home into submission.

Ukraine’s power stations and electricity distribution network have also been heavily bombed in the past few weeks. On Oct. 22, a thermal power station in Lutsk, in Ukraine’s northwest, was hit by three Russian cruise missiles, according to the city’s mayor, Ihor Polishchuk, leading to critical damage.

“In fact, it is destroyed,” Polishchuk told Yahoo News. “Currently, it is impossible to restore it."

Rolling blackouts have been part of the Ukrainian government’s response to reduce power consumption. President Volodymyr Zelensky has also been appealing to citizens to lower their daily electricity usage as part of their patriotic duty toward the war effort.

A woman holding a lighted candle, with a shawl over her head, appears illuminated in a window.
Catherine, 70, at the window with a candle, inside her house in Borodyanka, in the Kyiv region, during a power outage on Oct. 20. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

“Please do not turn on unnecessary electrical appliances,” Zelensky urged in an address to the nation on Oct. 19. “Please limit your electricity consumption and use [of] those appliances that consume a lot of energy.”

According to Alan Riley, a British energy security expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center, Russia is targeting substations, which transmit and distribute power rather than generate it. The Ukrainians have largely fortified their major power stations with homemade and Western-supplied air defense systems.

“Nuclear power plants and so on are fairly well protected,” Riley said, “and there’s not much point in hitting the power networks themselves, as these can be easily repaired. So what the Russians have done is take out the substations, which are all Soviet-era and not manufactured anymore. As a result, they’re a lot harder to fix.”

After Russia’s most recent large-scale attacks on civilian infrastructure, which began on Oct. 10, Germany rushed the delivery of its IRIS-T air defense platform to Ukraine, which has already proved effective at defending the skies over Kyiv. Ukraine’s other Western partners have promised to speed up the deliveries of their own systems. At a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on Oct. 12, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin promised that American systems would be “provided as fast as we can get them there.”

The problem is that there are hundreds of substations throughout Ukraine to protect. “The Russians may run out of precision-guided munitions, but as we’ve seen with these cheap but deadly Iranian drones, they just swarm a target,” Riley said. “They don’t have to be precise; they just have to be constant.”

A man in a helmet watches a blaze as a colleague trains a hose on it.
Emergency services respond to a fire after a Russian attack targeted energy infrastructure in Kyiv on Oct. 18. (Ukrainian State Emergency Service/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Other Ukrainian government figures have been pessimistic about Ukraine’s ability to keep the lights on this winter. “Regrettably, the grid is not going to hold up,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, adding that Ukrainians temporarily displaced by the war should not return to home until the spring. “Don’t come back. If you have the means to spend this winter abroad, do it.”

Despite the increased Russian attacks on critical civilian infrastructure in Ukraine over the past month, Ukrainian civilian resolve has remained firm. “If Putin cuts off the power in Ukraine, in nine months' time, there will be a lot more Ukrainians!” has been one mordant joke circulating on social media. At the same time, people are preparing for a dark, cold winter, due to the almost certain disruption to power and water supplies. Ukrainians have been loading up on blankets and candles. Small, gas-powered camping stoves are currently out of stock at most retailers in Kyiv.

Anna, a Kyiv native who declined to provide her last name, told Yahoo News, “If Putin thinks forcing me to wear an extra sweater for a few months is going to make me give up on my country, then he really is as stupid as he is evil.”

Rolling blackouts are now common in the capital and other major Ukrainian cities, albeit running to a predictable schedule that allows homes and businesses to plan ahead. When Yahoo News visited Podil, a trendy neighborhood on the floodplain terrace of the Dnipro River in Kyiv, a blackout was underway. Many local bars and restaurants were doing business by candlelight, and others were able to rely on backup diesel-powered generators to supply their premises. Young Ukrainians were drinking and dancing to music from buskers in the near darkness or waving their phones back and forth as if they were lighters at a rock concert.

A few points of light show up in the city centre, with a huge chimney in the dim distance.
Kyiv's city center as it appeared without electricity on Monday, after its critical civil infrastructure was hit by Russian missile attacks. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

In elevators, which can lose power at unpredictable intervals, volunteers have left boxes with blankets, drinking water and other essentials, in case unfortunate residents find themselves trapped between floors during an outage. A sense of community has developed as neighbors, many of whom had previously not spoken more than a couple of words to each other, have suddenly found themselves beginning to make plans to weather the worst of the winter, in some cases quite literally huddled together.

“The British survived the Blitz and did it without rave music,” Ilya, another Kyiv resident, told Yahoo News. “Also, my apartment is on the same grid as the U.S. Embassy, so thank you very much, America.”