Another Ukrainian wartime winter brings long-range Russian missile and drone strikes
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Meanwhile, winter's approach in Ukraine has brought icy temperatures, snow and, as expected...
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CHANG: Long-range Russian missile and drone strikes like these, which were heard in Kyiv, temporarily cut power to some residents over the weekend. Ukraine has been racing to prepare for another winter of Russian attacks on the country's electrical infrastructure. And as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, that infrastructure is about to be put to the test.
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NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: To get just a small sense of the monumental task required to ready Ukraine's electrical grid for another winter of Russian attacks, consider this one power line...
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ROTT: ...Damaged by shrapnel and running above snarled trees alongside a rutted dirt road in a formerly Russian occupied part of northeast Ukraine. Sergey Morozov, the manager of this repair crew, asks us, through our translator, not to give its specific location for his crew's safety.
SERGEY MOROZOV: (Through interpreter) As the front line is close, there still can be shelling even here.
ROTT: Morozov and all of these repairmen work for DTEK, the largest private energy company in Ukraine. In flak jackets and helmets, they hack and saw at brush beneath the lines, careful to stay between two rows of candy-striped ribbons, demarcating where sappers...
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ROTT: ...Working some hundred yards ahead have already swept for mines. A truck with a crane bucket brings up the rear with workers like Valerie Moscat restringing wire from pockmarked power pole to pockmarked power pole.
That's a lot of work, man.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).
VALERIE MOSCAT: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A lot of work, yeah.
ROTT: And it's dangerous work. A military vehicle passes, and Morozov gestures to his work crews.
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MOSCAT: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, but you have to do it because this means stability.
ROTT: Stability - the ability to heat your home, to charge your phone, to stay connected. Ukrainians say this is what Russia's targeted attacks on the country's electrical infrastructure are trying to disrupt - a tactic that was on full display last winter.
VOLODYMYR KUDRYTSKYI: They explicitly wanted to send us to the Stone Age. This is what they said.
ROTT: Volodymyr Kudrytskyi is the CEO of Ukrenergo National Energy, which operates Ukraine's electrical grid.
KUDRYTSKYI: We are responsible for keeping lights on in the homes of Ukrainians.
ROTT: And you guys were pretty much the main target last year for a lot of Russia's attacks.
KUDRYTSKYI: Yeah, that's - at least that's how it felt last year. Around 1,200 missiles and a few hundred drones were launched at our objects, specifically.
ROTT: Three alone here at their headquarters in Kyiv. The nationwide attacks damaged or destroyed more than 40% of Ukraine's power grid by the end of last winter, Kudrytskyi says. Villages, cities, entire regions suffered temporary blackouts.
KUDRYTSKYI: If you look at the dates and you compare these dates to the temperature outside, you would see the very clear pattern that they were trying to target the energy system during the coldest days.
ROTT: When the country's broader electrical system was most vulnerable. Since the end of last winter, Kudrytskyi says repair crews have managed to get Ukraine's power grid back to 90 to 95% of its pre-war state. They've put in place new defenses and stockpiled equipment for quick repairs. But with temperatures dipping, Kudrytskyi and other Ukrainian officials warn those preparations are soon going to be put to test.
KUDRYTSKYI: We understand that the adversary is trying to accumulate as many missiles and drones as possible.
ROTT: Stockpiling of their own, Ukrainian officials warn, for when temperatures dip. Oleksandr Kharchenko is the director of the Energy Industry Research Center, a Ukrainian think tank. He says he expects Russia to target Ukraine's ability to move energy again - to target substations, transformers.
OLEKSANDR KHARCHENKO: But in my mind and my perception, they will focus the attack to our coal generation.
ROTT: Coal generation - the country's ability to make energy. Ukraine's coal-fired power plants are all more than 50 years old, Kharchenko says. They're difficult to repair, easier to damage than a hydropower plant, less volatile than a nuclear one.
KHARCHENKO: We already lost near 70% of coal generation. And that's the main problem in our energy system right now.
ROTT: A report by the United Nations published earlier this summer estimates that Ukraine has lost half of its pre-war ability to generate electricity.
KHARCHENKO: We have to say the forecast is negative, that we will have a deficit. It's not Armageddon. It's not something that everyone will be killed.
ROTT: But he expects some regions to experience temporary blackouts or power-rationing brownouts again in the coming months. Ukraine's power generation deficit is expected to be offset somewhat this winter by imports from the European Union. The country synchronized its energy grid with the EU shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022. But it's not enough to offset Ukraine's losses in production, Kharchenko says, much less more losses in the future.
KHARCHENKO: Even not in this winter, but next winter and next next winter, we have even more threats connected to the deficit of generation capacity.
ROTT: Which is why Ukrainian power companies like DTEK are still trying to bring new power generation online, like this wind turbine in southern Ukraine.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One hundred twenty-two meters.
ROTT: This was the first wind turbine built in Ukraine after Russia's full-scale invasion, says Maksym Bogadytsya, the plant's chief power engineer. It was part of a planned pre-war expansion of this power plant in these windy plains just north of the Black Sea.
MAKSYM BOGADYTSYA: (Through interpreter) One turbine produces six megawatts.
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ROTT: There are 19 turbines at this station now, 13 of which have been built during the war. Combined, Bogadytsya says, they provide enough power for 200,000 Ukrainian homes. Outside, under the rotating blades of the turbine, Bogadytsya says a strategic advantage of wind power is that it's harder to hit. You need 19 missiles or drones to hit 19 distanced turbines. But more importantly, he says, it's another source of power.
BOGADYTSYA: (Non-English language spoken).
ROTT: "Every megawatt is important," he says, "especially with a long winter ahead."
Nathan Rott, NPR News, Northeast Ukraine.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXIS FFRENCH'S "BLUEBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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