What Russia cannot win on the battlefield, it seeks to win by casting Ukrainian cities in darkness and cold as a long winter sets in.
The result is an uphill battle of attrition: barrages of Russian missiles roll across Ukraine and Ukrainian engineers work for days in freezing temperatures to restore power.
Monday saw the biggest wave of missile attacks since November 23. Ukraine’s state electricity generator, Ukrenergo, said around 40% of normal electricity supply was offline at some point in October.
This is called the power deficit, and it swings back and forth with missile impacts.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told CNN that “what Ukraine’s energy system has been experiencing since October, no energy system in the world has ever experienced.”
The CEO of the public generator Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, says the problem is not generating electricity but getting it to people.
“The enemy strikes the most important installations and the key elements of the substations which ensure the production… and the transmission of electricity.” Kudrytskyi told CNN.
The Russians are attacking the most vulnerable parts of the system. “By the nature of the attacks, we see that the Russian missiles are directed by Russian engineers,” Tymoshenko explains.
This is partly because until this year Ukraine was in the same energy grid as Russia and Belarus. Russian engineers knew the Ukrainian network perfectly.
The main targets are high voltage power lines, substations and distribution networks.
Joseph Majkut, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that “Russia’s attacks have focused on key parts of Ukraine’s transportation network, preventing the generated electricity moving through the grid and down to consumers… and forcing power outages to balance the grid.
“Attacks on high-voltage substations have been particularly damaging because they are critical to network operation and difficult to repair.”
Ukraine is now scouring the world for compatible parts and carrying out repairs, as the morale of ordinary people is tested by power cuts that often last more than 12 hours a day. Prolonged power outages threaten to send another wave of Ukrainian civilians fleeing west to Poland and other neighboring countries.
There is a silver lining: Ukrainian air defenses are improving to take out Russian cruise missiles, often with newly arrived Western equipment. Ukraine said it had withdrawn about 60 of the 70 missiles fired on Monday; video emerged of one being intercepted by a German-made Gepard anti-aircraft missile.
But as few as a dozen Russian missiles hitting critical targets wreak havoc. According to Ukrenergo, 15 gigawatts of Ukraine’s electrical capacity has been cut, compared to a pre-war capacity of 56 gigawatts (GW).
Gradually, electrical engineers are correcting the system – this week the electricity deficit had been reduced to 19%. But the recovery is fragile.
Sergey Kovalenko, CEO of electricity supplier YASNO, said “Ukrainians will most likely have to live with power cuts until at least the end of March.”
Some people in Kyiv told CNN they are ready to retreat to rural dachas, where at least wood-burning stoves provide heat.
Aware of the impact on Ukrainian morale, Western governments have stepped up aid in the form of transformers, thousands of generators and other equipment.
The United States has mobilized G7 allies to focus on a multi-tiered approach to keeping lights, heat and water on. Washington has already provided more than $100 million for everything from circuit breakers to lightning arresters and generators now arriving in Ukraine.
The European Union is shipping emergency equipment, including welding electrodes and circuit breakers. Ukrainian Energy Support Fund sent 37 shipments from 20 countries; 47 other deliveries are planned.
Kudrytskyi, the CEO of Ukrenergo, lists countries that have sent equipment, including Poland, Germany, Italy, Finland and Lithuania.
But the Ukrainian network also requires specialized, made-to-order equipment, according to CSIS’s Joseph Majkut. An example is the high-voltage (750 kV) system that carries electricity from nuclear power plants to other parts of the grid.
“There is not enough equipment available to allow comprehensive and lasting repairs to the power grid. For example, high-voltage autotransformers are hard to find and have long lead times for companies like Hitachi or Siemens,” Majkut told CNN. They also weigh up to 250 tons.
Most of Europe operates at lower voltages, and many critical items would need to be manufactured specifically to meet Ukraine’s needs. Tymoshenko told CNN some would take six to nine months to manufacture, although he hoped South Korea could be a promising source of compatible equipment.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian engineers are carrying out patchwork repairs, according to Kudrytskyi, installing “used equipment that often does not meet the full technical specifications of the network but can be temporarily implemented by network engineers.”
But he warned the company was short on equipment.
“Although Ukrenergo had a large stock of other equipment for emergency restoration work, it is depleted due to the extent of the damage.”
There are short-term options. By early December, USAID had provided 2,200 generators to communities across the country. Hundreds more have been imported from Europe – and mobile boiler rooms could provide heat for 7 million civilians later this winter, according to the US State Department.
Generating sets contribute to the operation of essential services: hospitals, wastewater treatment plants, housing for vulnerable people. But Kudrytskyi says they are “a temporary alternative. They cannot replace electricity generation in any type of power plant.
They also need a lot of fuel, which was sometimes in short supply during the conflict.
In the longer term, Ukraine is considering its integration into the European network. Tymoshenko told CNN that Ukraine’s electricity system has been part of the continental grid since March after the systems were synchronized. This allows for easier trading of electricity.
“And that, of course, will encourage us to continue the technological development of the electrical system after the victory,” he says.
This synchronization is already bearing fruit. To stabilize the network in Ukraine, part of the electricity destined for kyiv or Odessa passes through Europe and returns to Ukraine.
The other half of the equation is better missile defenses. With their S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile systems and more recently the highly capable German IRIS-T and the American NASAMS, Ukrainian air defenses have intercepted an increasing proportion of Russian cruise missiles and attack drones Iranians.
By October, Ukrainian air defenses destroyed just over half of the cruise missiles fired, according to Ukrainian military figures. This proportion is now over two-thirds – and Ukrainians believe the Russians have run out of their more accurate systems.
Last month, the Pentagon also authorized the shipment of HAWK missiles (the launchers come from Spain) and four Avenger air defense systems. The Ukrainians want more – and almost daily ask Germany and the United States for Patriot missile batteries. US officials have been coy about the prospect, saying it is not currently under discussion.
As engineers work around the clock, Kudrytskyi said, “the percentage of electricity deficit is gradually decreasing. But then Russian missiles and drones fly to Ukrainian energy facilities again and destroy everything that has been restored.
Some Ukrenergo facilities have been targeted eight times, he said, and eight times they have been repaired.
Tymoshenko told CNN: “The enemy aims to plunge Ukraine into cold and darkness. And we are aware that it takes courage and endurance from each of us this winter. We know it will be the most difficult in the history of Ukraine.
But he said he was confident Ukraine would prevail and that the ultimate goal was to “build back better” – and faster.