Russia’s shifting tactics put unprecedented pressure on Ukraine’s already hobbled power system

By Clare Sebastian and Olga Voitovych, CNN

Kyiv CNN  — 

Kateryna Serzhan says the only way to survive Ukraine’s almost daily blackout schedule is to “always have a plan B.”

The 35-year-old has had to adapt to life in her high-rise Kyiv apartment block with her active 3-year-old daughter, Varia.

Going out to play involves hiking back up 15 flights of stairs carrying her now 17 kg (37 lb) child. They tend to take a ball instead of a bicycle for those days, she jokes.

Without power, there’s no water, so she has to schedule her child’s baths around the blackouts. But sometimes they occur outside of the scheduled times.

Keen to provide hot meals each day to a toddler who doesn’t always eat them, she now has a gas camping stove in her kitchen, and a small battery to power the microwave.

Serzhan’s resilience masks a deepening crisis in Ukraine. These are not the first rolling blackouts since Russia’s full-scale invasion, but they are the first to happen in the spring and early summer – traditionally the months with lowest electricity demand before air-conditioning season kicks in – underscoring the scale of the supply problem.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, Ukraine endured the seventh massive Russian attack on its energy facilities since March 22 this year. Ukrenergo, the state-owned grid operator, reported damage in four regions. Seven energy workers were injured, and previously scheduled power outages extended.

Ukraine’s energy grid has been firmly in the crosshairs of Russian missiles since the war began but this year Moscow began specifically targeting power generation facilities – thermal power plants, hydroelectric power stations, even energy storage facilities – a marked shift in tactics from the previous winter, when the attacks were less precise, and the damage easier to repair. Experts say Russia has been using better weaponry and taking advantage of thin Ukrainian air defenses.

At Ukraine’s reconstruction conference in Berlin in mid-June, President Volodymyr Zelensky laid out the scale of the destruction from the first six attacks. “Russian missile and drone strikes have already destroyed 9 GW of capacity, while the peak energy consumption in Ukraine last winter was 18 GW. So, half of it does not exist anymore,” he said.

Officials and energy executives are now acknowledging there is no way to avoid blackouts this winter. The mission now is simply to minimize them.

“If we don’t restore the existing the damaged plants, if we don’t improve the interconnector capacity for input, if we don’t build these distributed generators, at least in some places… then people will have power for less than four hours per day,” says Dmytro Sakharuk, executive director of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company.

“We have 120 days left before the start of the heating season,” he warns. “It cannot be business as usual.”

People stand at a fast-food stall in Kyiv during a partial blackout.
Outages have been part of Ukrainian life following Russia's full-scale invasion but they are now happening in spring and early summer.

Ukraine is trying to tackle the problem in a variety of ways. As well as rebuilding what they can, in some cases using parts from decommissioned power plants in Europe, officials and energy companies are trying to secure as many generators and gas turbines as possible to support critical infrastructure through the winter, and are working with European partners to increase imports of electricity.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine was a net exporter of electricity, and had even been able to resume some exports during wartime. That stopped in March.

“We are doing our best,” Deputy Energy Minister Svitlana Grynchuk told CNN. “We understand that without energy it will be very difficult to survive.”

When supply-side efforts fall short, all that’s left is to reduce demand. And that means asking for even more sacrifice from the already blackout-weary Ukrainian people. “We asked our people… to be ready to understand the situation, to support Ukraine, to support our energy workers,” says Grynchuk. “We call it the second front line, energy.”

At the end of April, a few weeks after a Russian attack destroyed the Kyiv region’s biggest power plant, Andrii Buzovskyi, a 52-year-old Kyiv police officer, spent about $1,400 on two solar panels for his balcony.

“I installed them so that my family would not feel uncomfortable when there is no electricity,” he told CNN. “What will happen next is unknown.”

The government would like to see more of this. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal just announced new grants to help housing cooperatives invest in solar panels and heat pumps. Ukraine’s central bank is also working to make loans for households and businesses to buy energy-related equipment more affordable.

In her Kyiv high-rise, Serzhan is pursuing a different kind of energy independence. She is so worried about braving freezing temperatures in her apartment this winter, she’s looking to rent a small house outside Kyiv with a wood-burning stove.

“It’s like the 19th century,” she admits.

Companies are doing their part. Ukrainian Railways has revised the schedule for 74 suburban trains (about 7 percent of the total), temporarily suspending some services. The company told CNN it’s also halted the use of air conditioning in administrative buildings, and turned off outdoor lighting.

The government is incentivizing solar energy in response to the Russian barrage.
A thermal power plant badly damaged in a Russian strike.

The chief executive of supermarket chain Auchan Ukraine, Marta Trush, told CNN that while all its stores are already equipped with generators, it has modernized its refrigerators to save energy and reduced its range of products with short sell-by dates. Some of that has the added incentive of mitigating soaring costs.

“The operation of the entire network on diesel generators is about three times more expensive than from the central power grid,” said Trush. “So, to save electricity in the sales areas, we reduce lighting and temporarily restrict access to refrigerators, but we see how customers are understanding of the forced measures.”

Power outages have a clear inflationary effect, said Igor Piddubnyi, a researcher at the Kyiv School of Economics. “Companies have to have to somehow get back-up power supply and they are… buying the diesel generators, solar panels, etcetera…and it increases the cost of production,” he told CNN. Ukraine’s inability to export electricity also upsets its balance of trade, he says, which feeds into inflation.

The National Bank of Ukraine estimated in May that economic growth will slow to 3 percent this year, from 5.3 percent in 2023, mostly because of the damage to the energy sector. Inflation is expected to rise slightly to 8.2 percent.

And while Russia is experiencing a wartime uplift for its labor force, with unemployment at record lows, Piddubnyi said evidence shows power outages are forcing Ukrainian companies to lay off workers. The central bank still expects unemployment to fall this year, but only to 14 percent from the current level of 15 percent.

It is painful situation, said Piddubnyi. “Ukraine really loses a lot, but also the problem is that Russia is still gathering huge profits from exporting oil and gas.”

The Kyiv School of Economics estimated last month that rebuilding Ukraine’s damaged energy infrastructure would cost $50.5 billion, factoring in new measures to improve its resilience against further attacks. That’s the equivalent of the entire hard-won loan backed by the profits of frozen Russia assets Ukraine was recently promised, but it may not see that money for months.  The G7, having already spent $3bn to date to support Ukraine’s energy sector, just announced another $1bn in funding in early June.

And Piddubnyi points out that calculating the true cost of rebuilding, while attacks continue, is impossible. “There is a clear uncertainty of how many more power plants will be destroyed by Russians,” he said.

Ukraine’s energy ministry says it has been building concrete shelters to protect some energy equipment from attacks. But more advanced air defense systems are the only way to protect entire power plants and prevent the reconstruction bill from spiraling higher.

In the wake of Thursday’s attack, Kyiv’s intensive lobbying efforts finally looked to be paying off. Romania agreed, after months of deliberation, to send a Patriot air defense system to Ukraine. And a senior White House official told CNN that Ukraine was being given top priority for US shipments of advanced air defense capabilities, ahead of some other countries. Those deliveries should start this summer.

Sakharuk, who spoke to CNN before the seventh wave of strikes on energy facilities on June 20, said he would like to see deliveries of air defense munitions specifically to protect energy facilities.

He admits keeping up morale among employees is a major challenge. “They see that they are in a type of cycle where they repair an energy facility and Russia finds out that it’s being repaired, and (it is) again destroyed.”

“In some cases, the workers did this three to four times already.”

CNN’s Clare Sebastian wrote and reported from London, and Olga Voitovych reported from Kyiv. Svitlana Vlasova and Daria Tarasova-Markina contributed to this report.

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