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Ukraine appeals to the world for help keeping the lights on

So far Ukraine has managed to keep its power grid operating despite Russian attacks, but it desperately needs electrical equipment from the U.S. and other countries.
Workers repair high-voltage power lines damaged by recent missile strikes near Odessa, Ukraine, on Dec. 29, 2022.
Workers repair high-voltage power lines damaged by recent missile strikes near Odesa, Ukraine, on Dec. 29. Oleksandr Gimanov / AFP - Getty Images

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met President Joe Biden at the White House last month, he asked for more weapons and ammunition. But he also had another urgent request — emergency aid to keep the country’s power grid operating.

Waging an often desperate battle to keep the country’s electricity network working in the face of relentless Russian missile and drone attacks, Ukraine is issuing emergency appeals to the U.S. and other countries to secure transformers, switches, large-scale generators and other gear needed to prevent a total collapse of its power grid, according to Ukrainian and U.S. officials.

In meetings between Ukraine’s top officials and Western governments in recent months, aid for Ukraine’s electricity network is a top priority, a close second to Kyiv’s request for more weapons, the officials said.

The systematic Russian attacks on the power grid that began in October have left 17 million Ukrainians without a regular supply of electricity for extended periods, and some rural areas have been completely offline for days or weeks. About 40% of the electrical network has been damaged.

Electricity outages also halt or hamper water supplies and heating. Without power, water pumps can’t move water to homes, and many central heating systems in cities need electricity to heat water. Natural gas grids, also needed for heating and for stoves, have come under attack, as well.

Mobile phone service, which relies heavily on a regular supply of electricity, has also been hit hard, with 50% of the country’s network out of operation.

Smoke billows from power infrastructure following a Russian drone attack in Ukraine's Kyiv region on Dec. 19, 2022.
Smoke billows from power infrastructure after a Russian drone attack in Ukraine's Kyiv region on Dec. 19. Felipe Dana / AP

Zelenskyy has called the Russian attacks on infrastructure “energy terrorism” and vowed the assault won’t change the course of the war.

“The very fact that Russia is resorting to energy terrorism shows the weakness of our enemy,” he said. “They cannot beat Ukraine on the battlefield, so they try to break our people this way.”

The fate of Ukraine’s power grid has become a top priority at the White House, with officials at the State Department, the Defense Department and the Energy Department rushing to find equipment in the U.S. or overseas to send to Ukraine, a senior administration official said. 

“This is something that’s raised in conversations from the president on down. It’s a top priority,” the official said, adding, “It’s not sort of a sideshow here.” 

Heat and light

Despite 12 major attacks on the country’s electricity network since Oct. 10 involving more than 1,300 missiles and drone salvos, Russia hasn’t succeeded in depriving Ukraine of heat and light.

Utility companies have appealed to Ukrainians to curtail electricity use as much as possible. Authorities schedule daily rolling power cuts in cities across the country that can last up to 10 hours in a day or for consecutive days in areas freshly attacked or near front lines.

People sit in a dark cafe during a blackout following Russian strikes Dec. 29, 2022, in Lviv, Ukraine.
People sit in a dark cafe during a blackout after Russian strikes Dec. 29 in Lviv, Ukraine. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

 “Everything depends on where the shell lands,” said Stankin Dmytro, 38, who lives in Kyiv with his wife and 6-year-old son. “The last two times they landed nearby and hit a local substation. We had about 12 hours with no electricity, water and heating.”

And every night, Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities are plunged into darkness, with streetlights switched off to save energy. The hum of generators, a lifeline for many Ukrainians and businesses, echoes across the streets.

As the attacks continue, Ukrainian repair teams with more than 1,000 technicians are in a race to fix blown-up substations and power lines before yet another wave of Russian strikes, according to the state-owned company that oversees the power grid, Ukrenergo.

Company officials believe Russian engineers who know the vulnerable points in Ukraine’s electricity system most likely advised the Russian military on its targeting.

“In my opinion, they consulted with Russian electrical engineers,” said Volodymyr Kudrystski, the chairman of the board at Ukrenergo. “Who else would understand how the Ukrainian power network functions and would have knowledge about the factors that might distort the operation of the power system?”

Ukraine’s security service said a Russian “agent” has been detained for allegedly passing coordinates of critical infrastructure sites to Moscow, including power generation plants in the Kyiv region.

The Russian missile campaign against the electricity grid “is not only a contest between Ukrainian air defense systems and Russian missiles, but also between Russian engineers and Ukrainian engineers,” Kudrystski said.

Image: A student uses light from a phone to study in a school's shelter, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 21
A student uses light from a phone to study in a school's shelter in Kyiv on Dec. 21, 2022. Laura Boushnak / The New York Times / Redux

Russian shelling has killed five Ukrenergo engineers as they were trying to repair the network, and nine have been wounded, he said.

The energy company has reached out to governments around the world and hundreds of private companies in Europe, North American and Asia to secure crucial equipment, Kudrystski said.

For Ukraine’s grid, the coin of the realm is the auto-transformer, a 200-ton piece of equipment that converts high-voltage electricity from a power plant to lower voltage for the end user. The transformers aren’t easy to come by, and foreign utility companies don’t have a large surplus at hand, Kudrystski said.

“We need to find this equipment abroad. And unfortunately, we do not have time to wait until it will be manufactured,” he said. “The Russians are shelling specific items of equipment that take time to be manufactured and delivered to Ukraine.”

It can take 10 months from the time it is ordered for a new transformer to come online, he said.

Ukraine’s request for auto-transformers at the moment focuses mainly on Soviet-era equipment in Eastern European countries, which is more compatible with Ukraine’s high-voltage network. But Ukraine is also trying to plan for the medium term, and it has ordered new transformers from companies in the U.S. and Asia, according to Ukrenergo.

“We know how to ensure that the grid will be running in the future and how to prevent humanitarian catastrophe for tens of millions of people during winter,” Kudrystski said. “But in order to do that, we need some help.”

U.S. assistance

Kudrystski was among a group of senior Ukrainian officials who met in Kyiv this week with a high-level Biden administration delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it would work with Congress to provide an additional $125 million in funding “to support Ukraine’s energy and electricity grid against Russia’s continued attacks on utilities and other civilian infrastructure.”

In November, the Biden administration said Washington would deliver $53 million to help secure critical power grid equipment for Ukraine, and the first batch of supplies arrived last month, according to the State Department. 

But the logistics of transporting massive auto-transformers has proved daunting, the senior U.S. administration official said, and it has presented government agencies with an unfamiliar challenge. 

“This equipment is not lying around. It’s not stockpiled in many places. It’s made to order,” the official said.

The larger transformers are too big to be ferried by air and have to disassembled and placed on ships, the official said.

Water and cellphones

The attack on the country’s electricity grid has had a knock-on effect for other infrastructure, including water supplies and mobile phone service.

Aid groups worried that the orchestrated offensive against Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure would trigger a total shutdown of the grid with catastrophic consequences in winter. But Ukraine’s utility companies have improvised solutions, and an unusually mild winter in Europe so far has helped ease the pressure on the power supply, aid workers said.

Rolling power cuts have yet to disrupt the flow of humanitarian cash assistance from aid groups, with money wired into bank accounts or post office accounts, said Michael Young, the country director in Ukraine for the international humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps.

“If the grid goes down in any substantive way, what happens to that electronic banking system? So far, it’s been resilient — but we also need to prepare for the contingency that it may not work, at least partially, should there be a major impact on the grid,” Young said.

People walk in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, during a power outage on Dec. 24, 2022.
People walk in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine during a power outage on Dec. 24. Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP - Getty Images

Like other charities, the aid group is using generators and Starlink satellite gear to operate through power cuts, and it has set up “warm hubs” where local staff members can sleep in a warm place with access to water and power, Young said.

Roberto Vila-Sexto, the country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid group, said the power outages have made humanitarian work “all the more difficult.” The effects of the electricity cuts have been much more severe in rural areas, he said, and searching for firewood poses fatal risks in heavily mined areas.

Oleksandr Komarov, the CEO of Kyivstar, Ukraine’s largest cellphone operator, said that although some phone towers and equipment have been damaged or destroyed, the biggest disruption to the country’s cellphone network is “no electricity.”

“What we need is probably around a few hundred generators and thousands of [lithium] batteries,” he said, adding that he was expecting another shipment of generators from donor governments soon.

His company is also using Starlink satellite equipment as a temporary, emergency backup, especially in newly recaptured areas where the telecoms infrastructure has been severely damaged, Komarov said.

Although the assault on Ukraine’s infrastructure hasn’t damaged Ukraine’s position on the battlefield or broken the country’s will to fight, it has inflicted “huge damage” on the economy, he said.

The longer Ukraine has limited internet and phone service, the more damage it suffers, he said.

“Ukraine as an independent economy is unsustainable right now. Every new attack is making the situation worse,” Komarov said.

In Kyiv, Dmytro Yatsenko, 38, has managed to keep his business of four nail salons open despite the power cuts and the Russian missile attacks. Revenue has dropped by half, and the flow of customers has declined, he said. 

But he keeps the business running with the help of generators and a staff of 30 people. “Task number one is to keep the business, keep the staff and people who work with us. We go through it all together,” Yatsenko said.

He said he thinks of his compatriots in the military fighting on the front line. “How can I give up if they do not give up?”