A Dark Winter for Ukraine: (Un)avoidable?

November 2, 2023
Russia remains determined to plunge Ukraine into darkness. But is Ukraine ready to take on the challenge?

Energy infrastructure objects continue to be a major target of Russian attacks, particularly as winter approaches.

According to Ukraine's and Britain's military intelligence, Russia is expected to resume its combined extensive drone and missile attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure this winter.

We are aware that Russia is actively amassing weapons in preparation for such attacks and since the end of September, Russian ‘spot strikes’ have already been observed.

However, unlike last year when these types of attacks caught Ukraine off guard, this year extensive work has been made to protect critical infrastructure and prevent total blackout.

Volodymyr Omelchenko, the Director of energy and infrastructure programs of the Razumkov Center, told UkraineWorld about the readiness of Ukraine's energy infrastructure for the winter period and its defense against enemy attacks.

The risks to Ukraine's energy infrastructure and its state of readiness

During the autumn-winter period, Ukraine's critical infrastructure faces significant challenges. They are primarily linked to Russian missile attacks. However, the generation capacity factor is equally important.

Given the number of energy infrastructure objects destroyed or captured, Ukraine enters this period with a generation capacity deficit. First of all, it concerns the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine's most powerful NPP.

Ukraine has been actively preparing for the winter period. Despite the challenging conditions in which Ukrainian power engineers found themselves, the key energy companies are more than 90% ready for the season.

Restoration works were carried out despite a lack of both funds and equipment.

In terms of energy reserves, Ukraine has managed to stockpile enough natural gas. Gas in the amount of 16 billion cubic meters was pumped into underground storage facilities.

Of this volume, 2.3 billion cubic meters are natural gas of non-residents who keep it in storage facilities in the regime of short-haul or customs warehouses.

With regard to coal reserves, the situation is slightly worse. As of today, there are approximately 1 million 150 thousand tons of coal in storage.

Even though Ukraine's electric power infrastructure remains the primary target of Russian attacks, the gas transportation system, which is part of Ukraine's critical infrastructure, is also under threat.

The linear part of the gas pipelines is underground, so it is difficult to attack it. However, some infrastructure, such as compressor stations, requires special protection. And measures are being taken in this regard.

The destruction of Ukraine's electric power infrastructure is a Russian priority due to the magnitude of its impact on the population. These objects are also easier to hit than the gas transportation system.

Additionally, Russia would be unable to concentrate its large-scale attacks on both types of infrastructure. Thus, the main targets remain high-voltage transmission lines, autotransformers, and generating capacities, particularly thermal power plants.

How is Ukraine protecting its energy infrastructure?

Unfortunately, Ukraine's critical infrastructure is not completely secure. It's impossible under the current circumstances and in such a short time frame. However, all the possible protection measures have been taken.

A special algorithm to prevent a collapse of the energy sphere was developed last winter under the critical conditions of Russian attacks.

It allowed us to avoid a complete blackout last year, and it may well be used again this year. It’s an elaborate effective mechanism, but the details are classified.

Besides, Ukraine has also strengthened its active and passive protection. Air defense is the active protection. Ukraine’s partners made vital supplies of air defense systems to protect the critical infrastructure better.

The passive protection is the physical protection of the infrastructure objects. It includes reinforced concrete structures over the key objects or covering certain infrastructure objects, such as transformers, with sandbags.

They cannot withstand direct hits, but they can be protected from damage inflicted by debris. Anti-drone nets are also being installed.

The large-scale project to protect Ukraine’s critical infrastructure consists of relocating part of the infrastructure facilities of the “Ukrenergo” company underground.

The procedure has already begun. But it is extremely complicated, long and expensive. Therefore, more time and resources are needed for its full implementation.

The importance of the Ukrainian experience

Ukraine has gained a unique experience of overcoming critical problems in the energy sector and protecting the energy infrastructure from massive attacks.

After the war, Ukrainian power engineers are eager to share their experience with our partners, which is highly valued in the current volatile security environment.

However, Ukraine needs more technical support in order to implement more effectively its experience and skills to protect its infrastructure.

Even though Ukraine has been receiving considerable aid from its partners, its size and the scale of Russian attacks create the need for further strengthening of Ukraine’s air defense.

Also, there is a request for supplies of additional equipment. As a result of last year's attacks, Ukraine has not yet overcome the shortage of a wide range of equipment.

Anastasiia Herasymchuk, Deputy Editor-in-Chief at UkraineWorld

Volodymyr Omelchenko, the Director of energy and infrastructure programs of the Razumkov Center