Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24 of this year.
Since then, an estimated 40,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed along with 13,000 Ukrainian troops. Russian military dead are estimated at 25,000, although some claim much higher figures.
Along with a brutal war, the invasion has included Russian targeting of Ukraine’s infrastructure and electrical grid.
This has resulted in a number of blackouts in various areas of Ukraine including the capital of Kiev, worsening in recent weeks as Russian air strikes have intensified.
How bad are the blackouts?
Ukraine’s power grid is barely staying running at all. The country is in serious danger of losing the ability to run basic services and operate a functioning energy system for millions of citizens.
The blackouts in Ukraine have significantly interrupted the country’s daily life and made the nation much harder to defend and its people harder to protect.
At this point, Russia has degraded and damaged around half of Ukraine’s power grid.
Strikes on Kherson in southern Ukraine a week ago left four people dead and hit civilian areas, blacking out large areas of the city. Russian forces entrenched several kilometers away on the far bank of the Dnieper river are launching frequent attacks on the now-Ukrainian held city.
Many areas of Ukraine including the capital of Kiev have warm shelters set up with areas to get food, charge phones and survive increasingly cold temperatures.
Russian forces are sending missiles and drones to hit power stations and infrastructure with the specific goal of forcing the country to the negotiating table.
Ukraine says the Kremlin is trying to freeze it to death and targeting civilians in order to try to recoup heavy Russian losses in the war and turn the tide.
Freezing, thirsty and in the dark
Ukraine’s power blackouts have included scheduled blackouts that the government does to prioritize power usage for military needs. But it has also included many blackouts directly resulting from Russian strikes on energy infrastructure.
Every time Russia hits the power grid it weakens further. A total blackout of the country is not forecast, but the current rolling blackouts are significantly harming national security and civilians.
If Russia chooses to continue striking the power grid, many millions of people will be without heat, minimal water supplies and lacking electricity.
Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko has urged city residents to stockpile everything they need and be prepared for worsening blackouts, saying the alternative is “we all die.”
Klitschko’s warning hasn’t gone unheeded. Ukrainians are buying supplies like batteries, generators, water and canned food wherever they can. A large electronics department store in downtown Kiev reported a 900% increase in the sale of power banks in the last two weeks of November alone.
As Matthew Luxmoore notes in a November 29 dispatch for the Wall Street Journal:
“Russian officials have made clear the volleys of missiles will continue in an effort to bend Ukrainians to Moscow’s will. The recent barrages were among the biggest since Moscow launched its invasion in February.”
The Primacy of Air Power
Modern war has seen a rapid growth in the primacy of air power. This includes recent innovations in drone technology, which have been used to devastating effect in Ukraine and in past conflicts such as the Armenia-Azerbaijan war last year in Nagorno-Karabakh, the ongoing strife in Yemen and the Syrian civil war.
Bombing civilian services and using overwhelming air power to degrade a nation’s daily life has been a particularized and specific military strategy since World War One.
At the time, Italian General Giulio Douhet pitched it as a way to break the enemy’s willingness and desire to fight. He said that the people of an enemy nation would turn against their own leaders and demand they make concessions or surrender due to the death from above.
Despite rhetoric to the contrary, most major nations engage in war crimes such as this during times of military conflict, including the United Kingdom during World War Two, for example, hitting services like transport, infrastructure, power grids and civilian communication hubs.
This was believed by Winston Churchill to be necessary to break Germany’s will, but was also revenge for Germany’s bombing murder of more than 40,000 Britons in London during the Blitz.
America’s airstrikes on Japan in World War Two killed more than 387,000 Japanese civilians.
The USSR extensively bombed Afghanistan during its invasion, turning rural areas into bombed-out ghost towns and killing an estimated one million Afghan civilians.
The war in Ukraine has not reached this level yet, by any means. Yet the strategy of hitting the energy grid remains consistent with the past century of warfare and its attempt to deprive nations and their citizens of the means to satisfy their material and economic needs.
Can Russia win this war by blacking out Ukraine repeatedly?
Russia’s superior manpower and vast masses of materiel have failed to conquer and “denazify” Ukraine as Vladimir Putin promised in February.
Instead, the Kremlin has suffered staggering losses and significant setbacks, including the recent surrender of Kherson to Ukrainian troops.
The blackouts occurring in Ukraine have widely angered the population and some on-the-ground reports indicate the crisis is actually leading to more resolve rather than a desire among Ukrainian civilians to negotiate a ceasefire.
In the past several months Russia has bombarded its neighbor with powerful cruise missiles and rockets to hit Ukrainian power stations. Over 300 substations and power grid locations have been hit inside Ukraine just since October.
So far over 4.5 million Ukrainians have experienced blackouts.
The situation is simple: Putin wants results fast and his military leadership is doing its best to hand him victories or at least concessions from Ukraine.
Barraging Ukraine with blackouts is the current strategy and has been for months now. The outcome of this war remains uncertain and an end does not look to be in sight.
One thing that is clear is that this kind of infrastructure attack campaign has not succeeded in the past to turn civilians against their own governments. Whether it will succeed this time around remains to be seen.