How will Ukraine survive the winter in the face of infrastructure attacks?

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As Russia partially withdraws its troops from the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, experts in the north-east fear President Vladimir Putin could again attack communities and critical infrastructure, bringing the power grid to a breaking point.

Russia announced on November 9 that it would withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian city of Kherson and the west bank of the Dnipro River to protect civilian lives and “preserve what is most important – the lives of our soldiers and the overall combat capability of the Grouping of troops,” said the Supreme Military Commander, General Sergey Surovikin.

Two days later, the Russian military completed the withdrawal from the area it had occupied since the early days of the invasion, and Russia formally declared its territory in late September.

Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“It [the withdrawal] reflects the deteriorating ability of Russian forces to counter Ukrainian forces,” says Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University. “Today it is almost taken for granted that the Ukrainians are a far better fighting force than the Russian armed forces.”

That strategic setback, however, could see Russia ramping up its attacks on civilian infrastructure, he says, which it unleashed in October, using missiles and Iranian-made kamikaze drones to target power plants and substations, supplying electricity, heat and electricity Water in several Ukrainians shut off regions far from the front lines.

The line between a military and a civilian goal has always been blurred in large-scale warfare, says Flynn.

“But what’s certainly relatively new is the use of these drones, a relatively new technology in terms of warfare, to surgically attack civilian infrastructure,” he says. “In the US context, much of our infrastructure is certainly also vulnerable to these types of attacks.”

In the first part of the war, Russia didn’t target civilian-critical infrastructure because it expected a fairly quick victory, says Flynn.

“They didn’t want to have to rebuild what they would have gained,” he says.

When the war turned into a stalemate and even some setbacks in Russia’s military achievements, Russia decided to weaken the resolve of the Ukrainian people, especially in view of the approaching winter.

“When history is a judge, it doesn’t work really well,” says Flynn. “The idea here is that somehow the population will not support the war if they are pressured. The result is almost always the opposite – the population gets even more involved.”

Mai’a Cross, a professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy and director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures, sees attacks on communities and infrastructure as a sign of desperation because Russia is not doing well in the war, she says.

Mai'a Cross headshot
Mai’a Cross, Northeastern Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion; Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science & International Affairs poses for a portrait. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“In order to gain some sense of victory, Putin is essentially directing the military to attack civilians and, in particular, to try to cause large-scale damage to infrastructure,” she says.

According to Ukrainian authorities, Russian attacks destroyed 40% of the country’s power system and affected 4.5 million people.

“Things could get pretty bad,” says Flynn. “In the winter you’ll probably have to evacuate the cities.”

Destroying the power grid doesn’t just mean the lights go out or the fridges run idle, Flynn says. It overlays and influences all other critical foundations that make up modern life.

The power outage results in a loss of water supply and sanitation problems that can affect a city’s health. It also affects telecommunications, most transit systems or electromechanical systems.

The damage jeopardizes the operation of gas lines because compressor stations that push fuel through the line require electricity. Infrastructure distraction can further cause shortages of food and other supplies, Cross says. It has already affected Ukraine’s revenues from electricity exports to neighboring countries along the country’s western border.

Currently, the Ukrainian government has introduced continuous power outages and is working on creating heat stations and places where people can stay safe and warm.

“They’re going to have limitations with that,” says Flynn. “The open question is when will Russia push energy infrastructure to the breaking point? It’s obviously very close now.”

The International Monetary Fund, European politicians and G-7 diplomats pledged to help Ukraine protect and repair its infrastructure to avoid disaster. Flynn says it’s not entirely sure how much European countries can help given the short time until winter. In addition, European equipment must match Ukrainian equipment, which is sometimes older.

If Russia continues to attack the substations and the other key points of the power grid, the West is unlikely to keep up with the destruction, Flynn says.

As Russia halts natural gas and other supply disruptions to Europe, there will be far fewer energy products available for sale, Flynn says, which will lead to higher energy prices. Europe could also face rolling blackouts this winter.

“As we see in our House in the US context, an increase in gas prices has some political implications,” Flynn says.

So far, most of the countries closest to Ukraine could imagine themselves in Ukraine’s position, he says. They are willing to make some sacrifices to avoid the worst-case scenario of further Russian expansion should Ukraine fail.

“The further you get from the front line, the more problematic it becomes,” says Flynn.

A change in the composition of the US Congress in 2023 could also affect the level of US support, which could have a domino effect on this commitment from European countries, he says.

Cross is more optimistic.

“I firmly believe that the Western powers, the United States, Europe and other countries beyond will continue to stand by Ukraine and will do everything in their power to prevent Ukraine from losing,” she says. “I don’t think that support is going to go away.”

Ukraine’s failure in this war is fundamentally not an option for the West, she says. Although the West had no motivation to engage in any conflict with Russia, the point here is to respond to Russian aggression in the region to prevent Putin from attacking another country next.

“Ukraine is a key Western ally that will do so from now on [and] indefinitely into the future, look to the West as the home of its future development,” she says, noting that this war is symbolic of a larger clash between authoritarian powers attempting to override democratic forces and the importance of liberals destroy international order.

Getting through the winter will be a challenge, but it can be done, Cross says.

“Sending out civilian experts to help repair infrastructure is actually something the EU has quite a bit of experience with,” Cross says.

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