The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.
― Frank Herbert, Dune
As we’ll outline below, most commentators may have missed a key implication of Russia’s surgical destruction of Ukraine’s electrical grid. Russia appears to be the only country that could put it back together in anything less than many years. That means if Ukraine is to be anything other than an underpopulated wasteland, Russia will be a key, arguably the central player in its reconstruction.
It’s still not clear, however, that even this source of leverage will induce the West to get over itself and eventually come to some kind of terms.
Politicians, the press, analysts and commentators have tended to focus on two, or arguably three, elements of the conflict in Ukraine: the kinetic war, the economic war (which ironically has become primarily Western sanctions blowback, and the related informational war, as in how the first two are being presented to various constituencies.
At the danger of getting way out over my skis, it seems the bigger implications fo the intensified Russian attacks on Ukraine’s electrical grid are not well understood, laregly due to the poor quality of substantive coverage. Alexander Mercouris has cited John Helmer as doing the far and away the best job, and so I am relying heavily on his reporting.
As Helmer reported, Russia early on was either taking out very specific capabilities (like the electrical transformers necessary for operating its largely electrical trains, reducing Ukraine to using only its comparatively small number of diesel engines on those routes) including destroying some of its generating capacity.1 However, per Helmer, since the big surge of persistent attacks in the wake of the Kerch Bridge bombing, Russia appears to be vivisecting the grid. Russia appears to be leaving generating capacity in place and instead destroying transmission lines, line junctions, and transformers. On the latest round major attacks, in response to Ukraine’s attack on the Sevastopol naval base,2 Russia started cutting connections from major hydropower sources to the rest of Ukraine. We provided sighting from Rybar on October 31, starting with:
This morning, the RF Armed Forces launched massive strikes on substations that transmit electricity from hydroelectric power plants to the power grid. The intermediate goal is to deprive the enemy of the opportunity to compensate for the energy deficit.
One of the strikes was carried out on an open switchgear (ORU) of the Kaniv hydroelectric power station in the Cherkasy region .
The hydroelectric power station is located on the middle reaches of the Dnieper, helps to compensate for the energy shortage in the Kiev region , and at the same time has the ability to transfer the generated electricity to the east of the country through the switchgear of the Kremenchug hydroelectric power station .
And Helmer noted that day, the 31st, that Ukraine had already spelled out how Russia was targeting Ukraine’s power system:
In a press interview on October 14, the chief executive of the DTEK power utility, Maxim Timchenko, said: “These strikes are not aimed at generating facilities to prevent us from producing electricity but at connection systems tied to the Ukrainian energy system. They hit open switchgears, transformers, switches, so that a station that can produce electricity cannot be connected to the unified power system. That is, the key targets are Ukrenergo transformer high-voltage substations and power distribution equipment at thermal power plants.”
Those long distance lines and the transformers on them are used only in Russia, some of the former Soviet Union countries and it seems Nigeria. They run on 330 kV.
The most efficient way to restore the grid (and remember no rebuild will be terribly efficient) would be to get the needed equipment from Russia. Consider these remarks from an October 19 Helmer post:
MAP OF UKRAINIAN HIGH-VOLTAGE 33O kV TRANSMISSION LINES
Only the Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Russia operate 330kV transmission lines This is making it increasingly difficult to replace the damage.
By sustaining the attacks with low-cost drones, the North American source comments, “it is unlikely that the Ukrainian utility crews, certainly exhausted now and terrified from working around the clock to effect repairs, using what must be dwindling stocks of spares, will be able to keep up. Where will Ukrainian utilities like DTEK, find in-time spares for 330kV gear that is unique to Russia and the CIS countries? Furthermore, will 1000MVA, 750kV-330kV autotransformers, with all their required metering, control and protection relays, breakers, etc., fall out of the sky like the Russian, Iranian, or Turkish drones do? The answers to those questions are nowhere and no.”
It is over my pay grade to know whether and if so, how readily, the West can supply any components that are not unique to the old Soviet system. However, the long distance lines and the components that interface with them seem to be a non-trivial problem. The West is faced with either building that capability afresh, or alternatively construction some sort of customized step up or down transformers so that Soviet gear can connect to Western gear. I can’t imagine it would take less than three years to design that equipment, devise the machines to make it in scale, and then get it up and running at industrial production volumes.
The crude layperson accounts indicate that the effect of cutting connections across the Ukraine grid was initially to greatly complicate load-balancing, and in the more recent assaults, to balkanize the system. Those area that are near power sources and still have intact connections to them might not suffer too badly, but other parts of Ukraine could already be in a state of having little to no power.
My understanding is the only factories that could make the needed electrical gear in Ukraine are already war casualties; this is indirectly confirmed by official Ukraine bleating. From Media Center Ukraine on October 26:
Ukraine is looking in Europe for equipment required to restore operation of energy infrastructure facilities that were destroyed or damaged by russians. Oleksandr Kharchenko, Director at the Energy Industry Research Center, made this statement..,
“We are engaged in an active dialogue with European power engineers in all areas: both with manufacturers of relevant equipment, and with operator companies that may have certain provisions at times. Not all equipment has reserves, and many items are custom-built. This is a long process: it takes from six months to a year and a half to produce certain cutting-edge transformers,” Oleksandr Kharchenko said.
The official Western response to the Russian electrical grid attacks has been to promise more and better air defense systems. Unfortunately, here the US and NATO are short in supply and arguably in effectiveness. The old Soviet Buks are generally seen as at least on a par with anything the West could supply. US doctrine has long focused on regional wars with non-peer enemies, and has basically assumed the Western forces would quickly establish air supremacy. That isn’t remotely the case here. The weapon system that would be most effective against Russian cruise missiles is the Patriot, but those are so limited that the US had to take some from other Middle Eastern “partners” to meet a request for more from Saudi Arabia. In keeping, Andrei Martyanov explained yesterday why sending NASAMS “won’t make a difference.”
Now an offsetting consideration is that the widespread loss/erraticness of electricity may set off so much addition damage that rebuilding Ukraine becomes a monster task and the electrical part of it, even though important, may not be a key driver because the lower-level damage becomes extensive and severe. From an October 10 post, launched just before the punishing post-Kerch Bridge assaults:
The western military source again: “War is war, whether you want to use terms like hybrid war or proxy war. It means destroying the enemy’s capacity to make war. Shutting off the power in the rump Ukrainian state will do just that to the Ukrainians. If they then start to flee for refuge to Poland and Germany, this will be a disaster unparalleled in recent European history. Just the attendant collapse in telecommunications will make the place a madhouse. You can well imagine the rest. Already there are queues for water in Nikolaev, and who knows where else. How does queueing for water, if there is any, in temperatures of minus-20C to minus-40C sound? This won’t be like the blackouts from US sanctions and attacks in Cuba or Venezuela – there they didn’t have to worry about freezing to death, the pipes bursting, or irreparable damage being done to billions of dollars’ worth of pumping, electrical, and other equipment due to freezing.”
“How many people realize that a sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) circuit breaker, commonly used in electrical substations, requires an electric heating blanket to be functional in sub-zero weather? Most westerners don’t. They are common in high voltage substations which ultimately feed the grid lines with power. In the Ukrainian case, I suspect there is a mixture of those and older style oil circuit breakers (OCB), along with oil-filled large power transformers (LPT), which are essential to electrical distribution. And guess where most of the oil comes from to fill these devices?”
“I suspect that most of Zelensky’s officials and officials in the supporting EU governments have persuaded themselves with their own propaganda. They aren’t daring to think through these questions, any more than they care to understand that the housing of the pumps delivering their water and treating their sewage will freeze and split apart if they are not heated via electrical means. Even if the gas is on — and it won’t be — electricity is needed to ignite, then control, furnaces. How many of these officials understand the long lead times, compounded by manufacturing shutdowns due to high energy costs, which you must have to replace and restore everything?”
In his broadcast yesterday, Alexander Mercouris pointed out, as Helmer had early on, the likelihood of a massive humanitarian crisis and refugee flood. Non or minimally operating sewage systems, particularly in urban areas, run the risk of outbreaks of dysentery and cholera (and Covid, which we know is also transmitted by feces). Mercouris speculated conditions are on the way to reaching to the point that Ukrainian official would need to evacuate some cities. But where would those people go? Why would conditions be that much better anywhere else in Ukraine, even assuming they could be housed?
Jacob Dreizin has predicted that after the midterms, the Beltway political classes will turn to depicting Russia as engaged in genocide in Ukraine and will go for yet more escalation, say by declaring a no-fly zone in part of Ukraine. Personally, if the Republicans rout the Democrats, or merely score a very solid win, the pros will be busy digesting the realignment and then will be off on their holidays (although they might still pass the big Ukraine funding package that has been in the works).
Mercouris by contrast took the West to be under-reporting the severe damage done by the attacks on the electric system and saw that as significant. IMHO that is in part due to the lack of adequate (any!) military response. The US and NATO do not like having to admit they can’t even begin to defend Ukraine from these systematic attacks.
But Mercouris speculated that the West does not want to admit a humanitarian crisis is in progress. He didn’t fully tease this out, but it’s not hard to see that European governments do not want to tell their citizens until they really really have to….that they need to take in and support more Ukraine refugees. In a cold and hungry winter, having Ukraine citizens getting official support when natives are going hungry will be profoundly unpopular. So they look to be in “kick the can” mode.
Mercouris ventured that the comparative quietness about this escalating disaster meant that some were starting to realize the necessity of coming to terms with Russia. I wish that were the case. But the US is very much driving this bus and its distance insulates it from any immediate effect of human tragedy in Ukraine.3
1 Note the biggest loss of generating capacity was Russia capturing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which Russia was going to use to supply Russia-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine.
2 Confirmed by Putin in an interview at Sochi, see Alex Christaforu starting at 12:22.
3 Cynics might think having Ukraine made substantially uninhabitable, not due to the usual US puliverization of cities, but Russia achieving a similar result though its electrical tear-down, is an outcome the US would welcome. If the US can’t score a clean win, wouldn’t a perma insurgency in a failed state next door be almost as good?
While the Victoria Nuland crowd might believe in such an outcome, Ukraine is not Afghanistan. Afghanistan is poor, with many people living tribal/close to the land lifestyles. While joining an insurgency risks life and limb, it does not entail a huge drop in day-to-day living standards too. By contrast, even though Ukraine was poor by European standards, most people enjoy modern trappings like indoor plumbing, heat, getting food at grocery stores and restaurants and the Internet. Living in Ukraine with say only intermittent use of a diesel generator, maybe a big supply of US MREs, and enduring the nasty Ukraine winter sounds like a difficult recruitment project, when the alternative is (say) working at a hotel desk in London.