As Russian Strikes Mount, Ukraine Works to Keep the Lights On

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia is turning winter into a weapon, even as its soldiers flail on the battlefield.

In a relentless and intensifying barrage of missiles fired from ships at sea, batteries on land and planes in the sky, Moscow is destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, depriving millions of heat, light and clean water.

Keeping the lights on for the majority of themillions of people who live in cities and towns far from the front — and keeping those places functioning through the winter — is now one of the greatest challenges Ukraine faces.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Wednesday night, “If we survive this winter, and we will definitely survive it, we will definitely win this war.”

With at least 15 energy facilities hit on Tuesday — some for the fifth or sixth time — the waves of Russian assaults have left about 40 percent of Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure damaged or destroyed.

On Tuesday alone, close to 100 missiles rained down on Ukrainian territory, part of a pattern that many Western officials and legal experts say is a war crime.

The attacks are also damaging water-supply systems that are essential to energy production as well as daily survival.

The latest assault compromised the connection of two nuclear plants to Ukraine’s national grid, forcing nuclear operators to dramatically scale back the amount of energy they produce. The national energy utility has now imposed sweeping but controlled blackouts that include every region of the country, leaving millions without power for six to twelve hours a day.

A darkened residential neighborhood in Kyiv on Tuesday. Waves of Russian assaults have left about 40 percent of Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Yurii Levytskiy, the head of the repairs at a critical substation in central Ukraine, offered a glimpse at the magnitude of the challenges facing utility workers — and the nation — during a recent visit to the facility, which he described as the “zero front line for the energy sector.”

“You can see what one missile can do,” said Mr. Levytskiy, pointing to the burned out, hulking remains of the 200-ton transformer that converts high-voltage electricity to a lower wattage that is used in homes and businesses. Charred copper coils and electrical wires spilled out from the multimillion dollar transformer like the innards of a metal beast whose belly had been ripped open.

The State of the War

  • Explosion in Poland: A blast that killed two people in Poland near its border with Ukraine was most likely an accident caused by a Ukrainian defense missile, Poland’s president and NATO said. The explosion heightened anxieties on a day of broad Russian strikes in Ukraine.
  • Retaking Kherson: On Nov. 11, Ukrainian soldiers swept into the southern city of Kherson, seizing a major prize from the retreating Russian army and dealing a bitter blow to President Vladimir V. Putin. Days after the liberation, signs of torture are emerging.
  • Winter Looms: Many analysts and diplomats have suggested there could be a pause in major combat over the winter. But after pushing the Russians out of Kherson, Ukraine has no desire to stop.
  • Beta Testing New Weapons: Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems that Western officials predict could shape warfare for generations to come.

The missile exploded with such force that the blast shattered windows at a school a mile away, triggered a fire that burned for four days and knocked out power to more than half a million people.

“One missile,” Mr. Levytskiy repeated. Russia has fired more than 4,500 missiles across Ukraine over the course of the war, according to Ukrainian officials, and in the last six weeks, the vast majority have been aimed at civilian infrastructure.

“The situation is serious, the most serious in history,” said Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, the head of Ukrenergo, the national electric utility on Wednesday. “Since the beginning of October, this is already the sixth massive attack on the country’s energy infrastructure, this time the largest.”

In an interview before the latest wave of attacks, Mr. Kudrytskyi said the Russian military was being guided by electrical engineers familiar with the country’s energy grid, since much of it was built when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Mr. Levytskiy’s substation is a case in point, having been constructed in 1958.

Damage at the high-voltage electrical substation in central Ukraine that Yurii Levytskiy and his team aim to repair.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

To hit the transformer from hundreds of miles away, the Russians had to know exactly where to strike to do the most damage. Which is why even as Ukrainian air defenses improve — shooting down 75 of the 96 cruise-missiles fired at Ukraine on Tuesday — the Russian missiles that manage to get through continue to degrade the already battered grid.

The precision of the strikes on the infrastructure stands in contrast to the disarray that has characterized much of the Russian military effort. With each loss on the battlefield, Moscow has stepped up its campaign the subjugate Ukraine by targeting civilian infrastructure.

Through a combination of the dedicated efforts of utility workers, shared public sacrifice and sheer tenacity, Ukraine has managed to find a way so far to weather the relentless assaults.

There is no evidence of a mass exodus from the country, although Ukrainian officials have said one goal of the Kremlin is to send another flood of refugees to European countries.

Mr. Levytskiy said that the controlled blackouts — which have grown in scope after each successive attack — have allowed engineers to stabilize the grid. Crucially, despite temporary interruptions, Ukrainian utility workers have also managed to keep the water flowing.

In a country that is 70 percent urban, if the grid fails, the consequences can cascade quickly, especially if water infrastructure is compromised.

“People don’t really fully understand this, but water and energy are incredibly intertwined and interconnected,” said Dr. Peter Gleick, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research group that addresses global water challenges.

“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to run any modern water system,” he said. “It also takes a lot of water to run our energy systems.”

“As a result, anything that directly affects the energy system directly affects our ability to provide the water that is essential for human survival,” he said.

Ukrainians gather water from an inlet of the Dnipro River. Russian forces destroyed Kherson’s communications tower and electrical and water systems as they retreated from the city last week.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

While people can live in the dark, when the water stops flowing, the fabric of city life can unravel.

Without electricity, taps run dry, water purification becomes unreliable, and wastewater is either not collected or has to be disposed of untreated in rivers and lakes, which can lead to water-related disease outbreaks like cholera and ecological disaster.

Compounding the dangers for Ukraine, Russia is also attacking water infrastructure directly.

Dr. Gleick is currently working with colleagues in Ukraine and Europe on an investigative paper documenting the impact of over 60 explicit attacks on water-related infrastructure in Ukraine in just the first few months of the war.

Since then, Russia has targeted dams and many other critical water-related facilities, according to Ukrainian officials.

Dr. Gleick noted that such attacks are directly banned under the Geneva Convention protocols that prohibit attacks on civilian infrastructure, including “drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”

Dmytro Novytskyi, the president of the Water and Sewage Utilities Association of Ukraine, said that the attacks on energy infrastructure compounded the staggering challenges water utility workers are already confronting.

“It’s very difficult to get the spare parts now as all the logistic chains are broken,” he said, leading to difficulties at water purification and wastewater treatment facilities.

Collecting drinking water from public taps in Kyiv in late October, after missile strikes cut off water service to most of the city. Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

“Some of the plants stopped working because they are near the front line or in the occupied territories,” he said.

The chemical factory that produces the reagents needed to treat water drawn from the Dnipro and Dniester rivers — the main sources of freshwater in Ukraine — is in a southern city occupied by the Russians.

“Now it’s not working and we have to import those things at a double price,” he said.

The Ukrainian factory that produces chlorine, which is also essential in the process of ensuring clean water, is under constant threat of attack and had to be shut down.

“So we have to import chlorine as well,” he said.

Even as Russia steps up its direct assaults on critical infrastructure, Ukraine is still struggling to repair damage done over the course of nine months of war.

For instance, in Hostomel, where the first battle of the war took place, the Russian retreat came quickly but the damage was lasting.

“We were so happy to kick them out of here, but then we felt the horror of what we saw here,” Leonid Vintsevyeh, the deputy head of the Hostomel military administration. Hundreds of people were killed, thousands of apartments and houses were destroyed and the critical infrastructure was in ruins.

In a remarkable feat of engineering, water and other basic services were restored in a matter of weeks. But eight months later, crews are still working to repair the damage. That is also true in Bucha, Irpin, Sumy, Chernihiv and all the other places Russia suffered early defeats.

Municipal workers installed a backup water line from Kyiv to Hostomel earlier this month. The line is powered by gravity and will function without electricity.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

In parts of northeastern Ukraine where Russians were driven out in September, the work to restore basic services is just beginning.

In Kherson, which was retaken by Ukrainian forces in recent days, the authorities have to clear mines and make the city and surrounding region safe before they can even begin to properly assess the damage that has left people tens of thousands without heat, water and electricity.

At the power substation in central Ukraine, which cannot be identified because it is critical infrastructure, workers keep a bus ready to rush workers to an off-site bunker every time the air raid alarm wails, knowing they may be a target.

In the last missile attack, workers had 13 minutes to flee from the time the alarm sounded until the first missile hit. All escaped unharmed.

“We were mentally prepared, knowing it would happen sooner or later,” said Mr. Levytskiy, speaking as 330,000 volts of electricity coursed through the power lines above him, audibly buzzing.

He is braced for more attacks.

Putin is a monster, Mr. Levytskiy said, using more colorful language. But every time Russia strikes, he said, Ukraine will rebuild.

Anna Lukinova contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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