Russia’s cynical decision to target Ukraine’s network of hydroelectric power stations on Monday represents a further, dispiriting, escalation in its efforts to destroy the country’s power supply.
The electricity network is reeling from three weeks of attacks focused on coal- and gas-fired power stations and, above all, the electricity substations that link up different parts of the grid. Power cuts are the new normal as winter looms.
It may not be clear how damaging Monday’s attacks involving the two hydro plants on the Dnieper River and a third on the western Dniester are, but their targeting suggests Russia intends to push further in its attempts bomb Ukraine into darkness: before the war, hydro contributed about 14% of the country’s energy capacity.
At the same time, Ukraine has warned that Russia has mined the Nova Kakhovka dam in the occupied south of the country and that its retreating forces may yet destroy it to cover a retreat from Kherson. Moscow has warned that Ukraine may blow up the 30-metre dam across the Dnieper River, although some pro-Russian bloggers published animated maps to show how serious the disruption could be downriver.
It is almost certain that Monday’s attacks will be followed up, and for all Ukraine’s claimed success in knocking out 44 out of 50 incoming missiles, the reality remains that a minority continue to get through to damage strategically vital targets.
Cutting electricity supplies may have some impact on Ukraine’s military, which has a battlefield momentum that the Kremlin is desperate to halt, but it is obvious that the most serious consequences will be faced by civilians at risk of being without electricity and other utilities in a country where winter temperatures can plunge to -20C.
John Lough, a Russia expert at the Chatham House thinktank, warns that “this has the potential to be very painful for the civilian population” but that it is likely “to encourage Ukrainians to dig in more and accept that Russia has chosen to victimise them and inflict the maximum pain possible”.
Bombing, however terrifying, is a military tactic that has a poor record of changing hearts and minds. It was used heavily in the Vietnam war, for instance, but failed to stem the overall resolve of the North Vietnamese, and if the Russians are any students of history, they will know its limitations.
But Russia probably does not care. Its strategy is also aimed at the west: a shameless attempt to prompt a fresh flow of several million migrants across the border. Ukraine has been trying to ask refugees already abroad not to return this winter to help protect the energy supply. “The networks will not cope,” said the deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, last week.
At the same time, Russia hopes to increase the costs of supporting Ukraine, which imported energy from Europe on a test basis for the first time last week. Historically, Ukraine has enjoyed an energy surplus. Now it may need to buy supplies at a time when its treasury is short due to the demands of fighting Russia.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently estimated that Ukraine needs to borrow between $3bn and $4bn (£2.6bn and £3.5bn) a month to get through next year, but warned that Kyiv’s need for financial support could rise further if “social and infrastructure requirements” increase – in other words if the war damage worsens in a war that is likely to last into next year at least.
Ukraine and its allies have to be braced for the longer haul, and be ready to focus on further humanitarian support, mindful of the fact that the Kremlin has embraced nihilism as its primary method of warfare. Or as Lough puts it: “If Putin can’t take Ukraine, he’ll wreck it.”