Attrition: Turning the Lights Out in Ukraine


April 1, 2024: In late March Russia attempted to disable Ukraine’s electrical power network by firing missiles at hydroelectric, thermal, and nuclear power stations. This was the largest and most extensive Russian attack on these targets ever attempted, and its goal was to cause nation-wide failure of the electricity distribution system. The ZNPP, or Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in Europe, was a primary target of at least eight missile attacks and was in danger of shutting down. Some cities, like Kharkiv, came close to losing all power and utilities like water supply which need electricity to operate the many pumps needed to keep all neighborhoods supplied with fresh drinkable water. The heaviest hit areas were in eight northeastern provinces, where Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, suffered from 15 Russian missiles targeting power production and distribution facilities. This caused the power to disappear for a while from most of the city. Power company workers were quick to begin restoring power to neighborhoods and key utilities. These attacks cost $11.5 billion in damage to the Ukrainian energy production and distribution system.

This was the first time the Russians concentrated their missile attacks on power systems. Until now Russia had concentrated on military targets. The troops were prepared for such attacks and the Russians had little to show for such attacks. Going after civilian targets, like electricity production and distribution, had a more obvious impact. The lights went out in most of Kharkiv city for a while. The power generation and distribution company employees were quick to restore power, one neighborhood at a time.

Hydroelectric facilities were attacked but there was not much damage to the massive dams. Buildings and roads leading to the dams were not damaged sufficiently to shut down power production. Power transmission lines were sometimes shut down and quickly repaired. The transmission lines are difficult targets to damage using missiles. These targets are easier to damage using commandos able to place explosive charges in the right places.

Many major cities operate trains and trolleys that use electrical lines along their routes. With electrical power cut or intermittent, people using these systems to get around, especially to and from work, were stranded. There were not enough buses and other road vehicles to replace the electric powered trains and trams. The power companies have many employees who specialize in maintenance and repair of power distribution systems. Because of the Russian attacks, retired and former employees were brought in to keep the lights on and electrified transportation moving. The power was also needed to keep utilities, like water supply and sanitation systems working.

The dozens of missiles used in these attacks caused some civilian casualties including a few dead. Some attacks were carried out by Russian troops that were operating close to transmission lines. Using UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to locate targets for mortars and artillery to attack transmission lines was difficult because these targets are difficult to hit. The Russians tried and largely failed. Nearby Ukrainian forces fired back at the Russians, which reduced the attacks on power transmission systems in the area.




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