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Russia is trying to engineer a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine

Having failed on the battlefield, Moscow is hitting energy infrastructure before the winter.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – In the wake of Russian attacks in September that left parts of north-eastern Ukraine without power, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had a stark message for Russia.

“Without gas or without you? Without you. Without light or without you? Without you. Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst – for us these are less frightening and less deadly than your friendship and brotherhood.”

Zelensky’s response looks grimly prescient in the wake of seemingly deliberate targeting of energy infrastructure by the Russian army. A third of the country’s power plants have been rendered inoperable, according to Zelensky’s office, after more than a week of strikes by Russian forces. Ukrainians have been told to prepare for blackouts and water cuts. “There will be tough times in the near future,” said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the presidential administration. “Everyone must prepare for a difficult winter.”

Ukrainian winters are cold, with average temperatures in January below freezing and dropping to -20°C on some nights.

Russia appears to be making heavy use of weaponry bought from Iran in its attacks on infrastructure, particularly the Shahed-136 kamikaze drone. These are believed to cost only about $20,000 per unit – far, far less than cruise missiles. Though relatively slow and carrying a small payload, when fired in sufficient numbers they have been able to overwhelm Ukrainian air defences, with some hitting their targets. A Russian strategy relying heavily on their use has been able to disable multiple power plants in eight days of attacks.

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Moscow’s intention may be to break Ukrainians’ morale. If life in the centre and west of the country had returned to something like a pre-war normal over the summer as fighting shifted to the east, these strikes have brought home the reality of the conflict to Ukrainians in all regions. Many will now be thinking about how cold and dark the winter may be if Russia continues its attacks. Kyiv has said that getting energy supplies to its troops will be a priority, however, indicating that damage to infrastructure may not directly affect the military balance.

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The attacks on Ukraine’s grid echo Russia’s – largely unsuccessful – attempts to break Western unity by manipulating energy exports to Europe, particularly of gas. That strategy failed, and this one probably will too. Ukrainians will not be broken by Russian attempts, having failed on the battlefield, to cause a humanitarian crisis this winter.

An intensification of the war was also demonstrated by Russia declaring martial law on 19 October in the four partially occupied regions of Ukraine which Moscow “annexed” after staging sham referendums. The new order in the parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk could allow Russia to conscript residents who remain, as well as curb movement in and out of the provinces.

More Ukrainians may be pushed to leave the country if conditions continue to worsen as winter approaches, adding to the about 7.7 million who have already fled. The EU, already facing an energy shortfall, will be unable to rely on imports of electricity from Ukraine, in normal times an exporter thanks in large part to its large nuclear power sector. Russia’s crippling of Ukrainian energy infrastructure will add to the costs of the war for Kyiv and its backers.

[See also: Iran tests out its deadly weapons on Ukraine]