Ukraine’s utilities threatened by Russia in war’s new phase

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – When a missile struck a power plant less than a mile from his apartment on the outskirts of Kyiv, Oleksander Maystrenko didn’t panic, ran into a bomb shelter or consider evacuation, although he was near what lives suddenly become the main objective of the Russian military in the war: everything related to the vital infrastructure of Ukraine.

His neighbors didn’t move either, despite the attack on Tuesday — marked by a loud explosion — killed three people, severely damaged two facilities at the plant’s premises and temporarily disabled about 50,000 homes, according to Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

“We’re not afraid because not only are we prepared logistically; we are morally prepared,” Maystrenko said in front of his apartment building, where he and two neighbors were sitting on a bench and smoking just hours after the attack.

This is the latest phase of Russia’s almost 8-month-old war in Ukraine looks like. Moscow has openly announced its intention to step up attacks on power plants, waterworks and other vital infrastructure. A Ukrainian energy official said on Wednesday that 40% of the country’s power system had been severely damaged, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that since October 10, Russian forces have destroyed 30% of Ukraine’s power plants.

But Maystrenko and his neighbors say they are prepared.

When the Russians turn off the power, there are stocks of flashlights and candles, he said. If there is no gas for stoves, then he plans to build a rudimentary stove in front of the entrance to the building and heat it with collected firewood. Water was bottled, and jars of pickled vegetables and preserves were kept safe.

Everyone knows they need plenty of blankets and warm clothes for the winter, he added.

“It was never a secret that this power plant is a target, but we have been preparing since the beginning of this war,” Maystrenko said. The preparations have created a sense of community and a united front among neighbors who once knew each other only slightly and face a common enemy, he said.

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The attacks come at a critical time, when winter approaches. Klitschko said Thursday marks the start of the heating season for Kyiv, which like most urban centers in Ukraine and even Russia uses a Soviet-era central system controlled by the city, providing heat for homes and businesses.

Thursday marked the start of a nationwide power-saving campaign announced by Zelenskyy’s office, urging the public to reduce electricity use between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. There could also be power outages.

A power plant and power plant in Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih was hit overnight, leaving the southern downtown area of ​​600,000 people without power until repairs could be made. Regional governor Valentin Reznichenko reported severe destruction and appealed to local people to save energy, noting that “any illuminated shop sign, billboard or washing machine can lead to serious emergency shutdowns”.

Presidential adviser Kyrylo Tymoshenko noted the conservation measures on his Telegram channel and urged all Ukrainians “please take it seriously”.

One area where power and water were cut off by shelling was Enerhodar, the southern town next to the Zaporizhia nuclear power plantone of the most worrying hot spots of the war.

Weaponizing energy reserves is not a new tactic for the Kremlin, especially when it comes to Ukraine.

“Energy has always been quite a sacred cow for Russians, and they claim that by controlling energy, they can control the country,” said Hanna Shelest, director of security programs at the Kyiv-based Foreign Policy Council Ukrainian Prism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, which imposed martial law in four illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, has used its ability to shut off gas flowing through the country’s sprawling Soviet-era pipeline as leverage. His tactics have been used not only against the government in Kyiv, but also against energy-dependent nations in Europe that have been building pipelines across the Baltic Sea for Russian gas.

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With its new strategy, the Russian military hopes to destroy enough of Ukraine’s infrastructure to make life so unbearable that residents will blame their own government, Shelest said.

Putin has called Ukraine a failed state and a historic part of Russia. In trying to make Ukrainians suffer, he hopes they will believe him, she said.

“What we’re seeing now is that it’s definitely not working that well,” Shelest said, adding that Ukrainians are increasingly directing their anger at Putin.

Zelenskyy’s admission that Russia has shut down nearly a third of Ukraine’s power plants is remarkable, said Mason Clark, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

“If the Russians can sustain this ongoing damage and the Ukrainians can’t repair it, it could actually have an impact,” he said.

Clark said he did not believe Russia could influence the overwhelming support of the Ukrainian people for their military in retaking territory captured from Moscow.

Recent attacks by what Kyiv describes as Iran-supplied drones and missiles aimed at civilian homes and other non-military targets “just appear to be terrorist attacks, essentially to try to intimidate the Ukrainian population,” he said.

Russia used such scare tactics throughout the war, “under the mistaken belief that they could force the Ukrainians to surrender and force negotiations,” Clark said.

From a military perspective, Russia’s use of Iran-supplied drones and Kalibr and Iskander cruise missiles against Ukrainian infrastructure is a “very poor use of munitions with limited precision,” Clark said.

The Russians are fighting with dwindling stocks of these high-end weapons, he said, adding that a more strategic move would be to save them for the battlefield as Ukraine’s air defenses managed to intercept and shoot down many of the drones.

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“It’s a waste of very expensive and limited systems by the Russians in an attempt to likely create a terror effect that will not affect the Ukrainian government or people,” Clark said.

Infrastructure repairs often fall to local governments. The port city of Odessa in southern Ukraine has named crews to help neighboring Mykolaiv, which has been under Russian shelling for weeks.

In the Kharkiv region, government official Roman Semenukha said on Sunday that while repairs to heating systems were underway in the recently liberated city of Kupyansk, it was a slow process that would require electricity, gas and water to be restored first.

“I would like to emphasize that private households are connected to the gas supply, but the situation with high-rise buildings is a bit more complicated for various reasons,” said Andrii Besedin, adviser to the head of the Kharkiv military administration.

Kharkiv regional authorities are also assessing the need for firewood, Besedin said, adding that warm shelters would be set up and the authorities would offer to evacuate those planning to leave for the winter.

“Those who so desire (will) move to safe areas where all means of communication exist. We will work every day to restore the critical infrastructure of these networks,” he said.

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Justin Spike contributed to this report from Kupiansk.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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This story has been corrected to show that the pipelines are in the Baltic Sea, not the North Sea; and the AP’s style of spelling the first name of the mayor of Kyiv is Vitali.

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