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Betting on zero. Ukraine braces for Putin's new attempt to plunge it into darkness, but this time it's prepared

During the previous winter, Putin's forces nearly depleted the entire stock of guided missiles, aiming to cripple Ukraine's energy system and coerce the remaining peaceful residents, deprived of electricity and warmth, to push official Kyiv into negotiations. The campaign achieved limited success: there were significant electricity shortages, but the avoidance of a humanitarian catastrophe and the unbroken moral spirit of Ukrainians marked its limitations. Russian forces have since amassed new missiles, indicating their readiness for a fresh attempt. However, Ukraine is well-prepared this time: its air defense is significantly fortified, and Europe is on standby to provide support in case of the need for electricity imports. Additionally, Ukrainian intelligence issues a warning: if Russia proceeds with a blackout, Ukraine is prepared to respond symmetrically.

RU

Content
  • The 2022-2023 campaign

  • Preparing for the Winter of 2023-2024

  • What to expect?

The 2022-2023 campaign

From September 2022 to early March 2023, Russian forces consistently launched massive attacks on Ukraine using both cruise and ballistic missiles, along with Iranian kamikaze drones. The primary targets included power stations, particularly thermal power plants that not only generated electricity but also provided heat for central heating systems. Transformer substations, responsible for redistributing electricity across the power grid, were also among the targets. Consequently, numerous populated areas in Ukraine experienced prolonged periods without electricity and heating, prompting the implementation of nationwide schedules for rolling blackouts. Additionally, civilian casualties occurred due to the intense shelling.

Russian propaganda talk shows explicitly outlined the objectives of these strikes: to demoralize the population of Ukraine, coercing the Zelensky government into making concessions to Russia, and to incite a fresh wave of refugees into Europe.

A comparable strategy was previously employed by Sergey Surovikin, the former commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Air and Missile Defense Forces, in Syria. In that context, Russian airstrikes deliberately targeted hospitals, schools, humanitarian aid distribution centers, and markets in areas controlled by the opposition. Surovikin is recognized as the mastermind behind not only Russia's defensive strategies but also the campaign of missile terror.

GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

Aftermath of a fire following a missile strike on a power station in Kyiv, October 18, 2022
Aftermath of a fire following a missile strike on a power station in Kyiv, October 18, 2022
State Emergency Service of Ukraine

However, despite the immense scale of the attacks (according to Ukrenergo, Russians carried out 1200 strikes, with 250 hitting their targets), they were unable to completely disable Ukraine's energy system. Among the reasons cited for this were a powerful and well-organized air defense system, hastily reinforced with Western complexes; the selfless efforts of repair workers who, often at the cost of their lives, restored damaged facilities after each raid; and the continuous flow of supplies of electric generators, transformers, and repair equipment. Nevertheless, the Russians came dangerously close to achieving their goal—according to sources from The Times, in December 2022, Kyiv was on the brink of a full-scale evacuation.

Preparing for the Winter of 2023-2024

Ukrainian authorities have been asserting recently that Russia is amassing missiles, suggesting a potential recurrence of the campaign targeting energy facilities. This is indicated, at the very least, by the absence of strategic aviation strikes using Kh-55 and Kh-101 missiles and the absence of launches of sea-based Kalibr missiles for several months. According to data from the GUR , Russia had 870 long-range missiles in its arsenal as of the beginning of November.

Considering that last year's campaign began as early as September, it can be speculated that the Russian command is waiting for colder weather to maximize the impact of their strikes. Currently, Ukraine is under attack from Shahed drones, whose production is now based in Russia and continues to expand. Some of these missiles are already hitting energy facilities.

In response, Ukraine and its Western partners are working to strengthen the Ukrainian air defense system. The challenge is compounded by the fact that, according to leaked Pentagon documents in the spring, Ukrainian stocks of missiles for Soviet systems were running low. Efforts are being made to address this issue through the delivery of new air defense systems, including Patriot, IRIS-T, and NASAMS. The U.S. and Ukraine are collaborating on the FrankenSAM project, converting Soviet Buk complexes to accommodate Western missiles. According to Yuriy Ignat, a representative of the Ukrainian Air Force, despite the shorter range of the missiles, the resulting hybrid is suitable for defending strategic assets.

GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

Ukrainian stocks of missiles for Soviet systems are running low

Additionally, the United States has procured from Jordan 60 self-propelled Gepard anti-aircraft installations for the Armed Forces of Ukraine (VSU), which have proven effective in countering drones. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the preparation of mobile air defense groups armed with machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery continues. Simultaneously, according to Ukrainian officials, efforts are underway to reinforce energy facilities and establish backup power systems. In November, Ukrainian military expert Sergei “Flash” Beskrestnov wrote that these efforts are indeed ongoing, despite having been delayed almost until the last moment. The defense of the energy system and the purchase of energy equipment are being carried out, in part, with funds from the United States.

What to expect?

Ukrenergo is confident that the system has been restored to the extent that it can operate without disruptions, with the caveat “if there are no new shelling incidents.” In the worst-case scenario, plans are in place to import electricity from Europe, as was done last winter. The government is developing contingency plans for prolonged blackouts and preparing a coordination headquarters.

Sources within the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), in turn, promise a “strong response” in the event of renewed shelling. According to their statements, a similar blackout was “showcased” in the Kursk region in September. Ukraine seems to have certain capabilities for this, as they produce “dozens” of drones per month, representing a Ukrainian counterpart to the Shahed. Western partners do not permit the Armed Forces of Ukraine (VSU) to use supplied long-range missiles on internationally recognized Russian territory. However, Ukrainians have adapted their domestically developed Neptune anti-ship missile for strikes against ground targets.

GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

IRIS-T anti-aircraft missile system on combat duty in Ukraine
IRIS-T anti-aircraft missile system on combat duty in Ukraine
General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine / Facebook

The main unknown in the equation is the “margin of safety” of the Ukrainian air defense system and its ability to withstand massed Russian attacks. In recent months, according to reports from the Air Force command, the Armed Forces of Ukraine have managed to destroy a significant portion of aerial targets during Russian airstrikes. In May, strikes on Kyiv occurred almost daily, but there were virtually no successful hits within the city limits. Around the Ukrainian capital, a robust layered air defense system has been established through the successful integration of Western and Soviet complexes of various ranges.

GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

The main unknown in the equation is the “margin of safety” of the Ukrainian air defense system

On the other hand, Russian arsenals possess missiles invulnerable to most of Ukraine's available air defense systems — namely, Oniks, Kinzhal, and Kh-22. While U.S. Patriot systems have proven effective against the Kinzhal, their quantity within the Armed Forces of Ukraine is limited, making it physically impossible to use them for covering the entire territory of Ukraine. Additionally, this year, Russians managed to destroy several launchers and radars of Ukrainian S-300 systems, potentially creating “gaps” in the air defense umbrella over Ukraine that Russian “remote killers” are likely to exploit while plotting missile trajectories, as reported last year by The Insider.

Leonid Dmitriev, a Ukrainian military expert, reflects on the past winter:

Last winter, Russia aimed to disrupt the overall functioning of Ukraine's energy system, and they achieved some degree of success. However, why didn't they achieve a complete blackout? It's a complex, multifaceted question with no unequivocal answer. Factors contributing to this include the effectiveness of air defense systems, a reduction in background consumption due to many industrial enterprises being in temporarily occupied territories or combat zones and not operational, thereby altering the balance of generating capacities. Other contributing factors involve the connection to the European energy grid and the liberalization of the energy market, enabling significant consumers to purchase electricity directly from European suppliers.
The energy system of any country is an enormous, intricate, and, most importantly, linear infrastructure element that can't be fully protected but also can't be completely disabled. Specific critical elements can be damaged, leading to certain consequences. Theoretically, it's possible to entirely disconnect consumers and induce a complete blackout, but no one has succeeded in doing so in practice. Until last year, no country had attempted it.
The Russian side is actively in the process of amassing munitions. We maintain records on the utilization of all modes of attack, spanning operational, tactical, and strategic levels. Our observations indicate that Russia is accumulating missiles, conserving engine operational lifespan, strategic aviation assets, and stockpiling Shaheds, among other things.
GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

Russia is accumulating missiles, conserving operational engine lifespan and strategic aviation assets
This is the tactic of a terrorist state that has set a goal to inflict terror on the entire population. Currently, the weather is Ukraine's ally. I believe that the Russian side is not taking any action at the moment because the damage to the energy infrastructure would not be as critical and painful as it would be in severe frost conditions. This is an expected scenario, and the President of Ukraine has mentioned that he anticipates this.
Based on the recent statements of the country's top officials, the leadership of Ukrenergo, and other people responsible for the energy infrastructure, it appears that Ukraine has comprehensive military solutions for providing security to various energy facilities. This includes electronic warfare means, various formats and types of air defense, which are critically lacking.
Nevertheless, certain measures of engineering and technical protection have already been taken, involving the development of specific algorithms and options for reconnection, adjustment, and debugging of energy equipment. There is also the procurement of distribution equipment, which is stored outside Ukraine to swiftly restore distribution capacities wherever they may be damaged.
GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

The autotransformers purchased by Ukraine with the support of allies
The autotransformers purchased by Ukraine with the support of allies
Ukrenergo/TG
The main problem is that these measures should have been taken approximately a year earlier than they started. The energy system of a country like Ukraine is a colossal linear object. It consists of dozens, if not hundreds, of critical elements scattered across a vast territory. Securing them, whether through means like air defense, radar, or electronic warfare, requires enormous resources and time.
According to statements from official figures of some foreign countries, including the government of the United Kingdom, a certain number of engineering and technical personnel, responsible for critical energy infrastructure, has been trained to conduct certain engineering and technical coverings for such facilities.
The primary stress test, under conditions of massive long-range missile attacks, including strategic missiles, was conducted in a highly realistic setting. The system withstood the test. This is a unique experience that no other country in the world possesses. Based on this experience, there is an understanding of how retaliatory measures can be taken, as mentioned by the President of Ukraine in one of his addresses—that in the event of massive missile attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure, there will be a response.
How to make the energy system, built on identical methods across the entire post-Soviet space, even more vulnerable? Perhaps the Ukrainian side now understands this better than those who organized last year's energy terror.
For a year now, Ukraine has been bringing in possible and impossible alternative means of generation: from gasoline and diesel generators to portable solar stations. Ukrainian public, for the most part, is also prepared. It's hard for me to imagine a Ukrainian family without, for example, a generator, inverter, or some other temporary solution to ensure individual energy resilience. Western partners have significantly helped and continue to assist both in surviving the conditions of energy terror and in preparing for winter. Is this enough? Probably not.
The transformer for energy substations is not sold at a local store. It is a custom-made product and it requires a high-tech process that takes a lot of time. It's a fairly lengthy period measured in months. It's a massive structure produced elsewhere, weighing several tens or even hundreds of tons, which needs to be manufactured and transported from point A to point B, discreetly and safely, to wait for its time.

Alexander Kovalenko, Ukrainian military expert:

After last winter's strikes on Ukraine's energy infrastructure, valuable lessons were learned. While the country's energy system was not initially designed to withstand such extreme forms of terrorism, it was well-prepared for scenarios involving nuclear strikes, a consideration dating back to the Soviet era.
The key adaptation involved reconfiguring and optimizing the energy infrastructure to handle not only one-time events like nuclear strikes but also recurrent, targeted missile attacks. This restructuring included scattering nodes, ensuring that the supply for specific locations is managed through distinct nodal points, reducing dependency on single energy facilities. Save for where it's unavoidable, there is no attachment of a large territory and a large number of consumers to a single energy facility. This strategic dispersal has made it more difficult for the enemy to disrupt the energy supply for an extended period, enhancing the overall resilience of Ukraine's energy infrastructure.
GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

The energy system is well-prepared for scenarios involving nuclear strikes, a consideration dating back to the Soviet era
I am more than certain that we should expect the same this winter. It's evident that Russia has also learned lessons from the previous energy terror campaign. I believe the strikes will occur when the temperature stabilizes below zero. There is a deliberate and routine accumulation of ammunition, and when the temperature drops, it will be utilized. I don't rule out the possibility that they may lack the patience to wait for colder weather and start striking energy targets earlier than expected. Currently, it's clear that the accumulation process is restrained, indicating preparation for more intense strikes during freezing periods.
Regarding Ukraine's preparation for this period, the reduced dependence of consumers and nodal stations on energy centers is a primary focus. Russia now requires significant aviation and missile expenses to inflict damage and create a collapsing situation. The adaptation involves dispersing energy facilities throughout the grid.
Furthermore, some of them, which do not require specific conditions, have been moved underground, making them immune to conventional missiles like Kh-101, Kh-55, and Kalibr. Another noteworthy aspect is the enhancement of air defense capabilities, crucial for countering kamikaze drones like Shahed, used in previous energy strikes. Reinforcing these components significantly elevates the country's energy security and minimizes the impact of attacks.
GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

Debris from a downed Russian kamikaze drone, October 6, 2022
Debris from a downed Russian kamikaze drone, October 6, 2022
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters
Not all regions in Ukraine have sufficiently well-organized air defense systems, especially those with an extensive reach. When discussing vulnerabilities and air defense issues, we observe how Russian occupying forces regularly launch missile strikes on the Odessa region and the city of Odessa using intercept-proof missiles like Kh-22, P-800 Oniks, and Iskander-M. The existing air defense systems in place lack the capability to counteract these missiles. To address this, Patriot air defense systems need to be deployed there, similar to those in Kyiv and the Kyiv region. This is a significant drawback.
Additionally, another crucial aspect is that not all projects to relocate energy infrastructure underground have been successfully implemented. Some of them remain above ground, and their destruction will have consequences for a specific group of consumers. Projects to move such facilities underground are highly energy-intensive, making their rapid implementation impossible.
Why didn't Russia succeed in completely destroying Ukraine's energy structure last time? Seizing a country with such territory, population, and a regularly functioning professional army, with the quantity of forces and resources available to the Russian army, was a catastrophic overestimation of Russia's capabilities and an underestimation of the capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces. Plus, there was a political underestimation of Ukraine's international support and the consequences for Russia itself.
Suvorikin proposed this idea. He was the ideologue behind targeting energy infrastructure. However, bombing an already partially destroyed Syria is one thing, and launching strikes on a country with active air defense, professionally designed energy infrastructure, and specialists who can always find solutions and adapt to the most critically challenging situations is quite another.
GUR

Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence led by Major General Kirill Budanov.

Shahed

«Shahed» is the name of a lineup of Iranian kamikaze drones, including Shahed-131 and Shahed-136. The Russian localized versions are named Geran-1 and Geran-2. The flight range of the Geran-2 drone is up to 2,500 km, the warhead weighs 50 kg.

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