Bombing power grids never paid off, but Moscow insists

Since the day 10 of October, followed by missile showers – at least seven – destroyed approximately half of Ukraine’s power grid and left more than 10 millions of people in the dark – including this columnist. With the approach of winter, which begins in less than a month, the lack of energy can cause many deaths from the cold.

Last week, the Kremlin denied having deliberately bombed the electrical structure of the neighboring country . He claimed that the targets were military command and control structures.

But in practice, Moscow’s apparent objective is to sabotage the morale of the civilian population. In theory, the people would turn against the government and demand a peace deal with Russia – Moscow desperately needs a truce to reorganize its forces and try to keep at least part of the annexed territory of Ukraine.

But what I observe in my reports in the cities of the southern battlefront – Kherson, Mykolaiv – and also in the port region of Odesa is that the Kremlin has obtained the opposite result: the population is more resolute in resisting.

In the recently liberated Kherson, for example, I heard countless times from residents that freedom makes up for the lack of light, water and heating.

Estação ferroviária de Odesa sem luz: apesar das dificuldades e da proximidade do inverno, a população ucraniana resiste. Foto: Luis Kawaguti
Odesa railway station without power: despite the difficulties and the approach of winter, the Ukrainian population resists. Photo: Luis Kawaguti

Blackouts are already part of everyday life for Ukrainians, not just in cities close to the battlefront. In virtually all urban centers in Ukraine today it is common to have light, telephone and internet for just a few hours a day.

I experienced this more intensely last Tuesday (540), when Odesa, the city where I am based , suffered the worst blow against its power grid. The same happened in Lviv, Zhytomyr, in the capital Kyiv and in countless regions of Ukraine. The country’s four nuclear power plants were disconnected from the grid, something that had not happened in the past 90 years old.

540Com apagões, população correu aos mercados no meio da noite para comprar água e mantimentos. Foto: Luis Kawaguti
With blackouts, people ran to markets in the middle of the night to buy water and groceries. Photo: Luis Kawaguti

Before, the blackouts did not last more than one day and only some neighborhoods were without electricity simultaneously. This week, the blackout was complete and lasted three days. People ran to supermarkets to buy water and groceries, there was a lack of gasoline, communications were down and traffic was chaotic.

The reader must have a vague memory of what it is like to walk the streets at night having to use flashlights. Brazil went through the blackout crisis between 2001 and 2002. It is not a pleasant experience.

In Mykolaiv, I witnessed what it’s like to have no light and also no water. The supply networks that brought water from the Dnipro River to the city were bombed months ago. The water, when available, is brackish and unfit for consumption. People got into the habit of storing it in plastic bottles, practically just to sanitize the toilets.

In addition, medical facilities are also being deliberately bombed – there were more than Estação ferroviária de Odesa sem luz: apesar das dificuldades e da proximidade do inverno, a população ucraniana resiste. Foto: Luis Kawaguti attacks since the start of the invasion in 22 of February, according to the World Health Organization. I’ve been to some that are still operating and the shortage of doctors and nurses is evident.

I also interviewed Kherson citizens who said they saw dozens of people outside hospitals waiting to be seen – some of them were seriously injured. I witnessed crowds begging military ambulances for medicine.

So, without a doubt, life just got a lot harder. And it will get worse as temperatures drop.

But using air strikes to destroy a country’s civilian infrastructure is, unfortunately, nothing new in wars. The practice began in the First War, when Germany first sent zeppelins and balloons loaded with bombs to attack Great Britain and then biplanes.

In the Second War, the strategy was intensified. The idea prevailed that air power and the bombing of civilian targets were a practical and cheap way of trying to subdue the enemy and force his surrender.

In practice, it is possible to attack the civilian population of directly – bombing residential areas – or indirectly, through the destruction of electrical infrastructure, water supply networks and transport (Russia uses both ways in Ukraine).

All this makes life of the most suffering population, but it does not generate popular revolts or undermine the resistance of the countries attacked.

It was like this in the wars of Korea, Vietnam and the first invasion of Iraq: the United States bombed and destroyed more from 90% of your enemies’ power grids . But the governments did not surrender because of this. So much so that in the second war in Iraq, the electrical grid was left almost intact.

On the other hand, this type of attack helps to destroy the economy of the enemy country. I see the simplest example: in the city of Odesa, there are hundreds of stores closed because of the lack of electricity. Some operate on generators and others on candles. Sales are recorded by hand in notebooks, without the computer systems that are now so common even for small businesses.

But how does a country like Ukraine try to mitigate the effects of attacks on infrastructure? I see two forms in my everyday life: air defenses and repairs on a scale that would be unimaginable in peacetime.

Ukraine started the war with an air defense system based on S-300, of Soviet design. They are basically intended for defense against bombing planes, but they are not the ideal weapon against cruise missiles and small drones.

Because of this, the Ukrainians developed a second anti-aircraft system, intended mainly to shoot down the Russian missiles. It integrates American NASSAMS, German IRIS-T and Italian Asperge batteries. Drones are also contained with short-distance anti-aircraft armored vehicles and portable missiles such as the American Stinger.

I can attest to how important these batteries are for maintaining the population’s sanity. When the air attack alert starts to sound in the city, it is comforting to know that these defenses exist.

But that is why attacks are never made with one or two missiles. Moscow even launched 24 missiles at once time, to saturate the Ukrainian air defense capability. Invariably, some missiles pass through the shield.

Because of this, Ukraine has veritable armies of technicians working around the clock repairing electrical cables, railways and water pipes. Repairs that were done every five years, on average, have to be carried out every day.

But this is not enough. The basic electrical network, for example, would take around five weeks to be repaired if the attacks stopped now.

I make an observation here about contemporary warfare aimed at Brazilian strategists: if we went to war, our country would have practically no antiaircraft defenses. We only have short-distance defense batteries (which the military call medium-distance, a matter of nomenclature) to protect troops and specific infrastructure.

Air defense is practically based on Gripen fighters, which are being acquired gradually. And the fighter plane is not the best way to deal with cruise missiles. I have seen here the often fruitless efforts of Ukrainian pilots to try to shoot down these missiles.

About the ability of Brazilian companies to repair electrical networks, I prefer not to comment, as the reader has his own experience.

But back to Ukraine: as an emergency measure, the government is asking people who can to leave the country during the winter months. To support those who remain, 4,000 “invincibility” points were created, that is, public buildings where it is possible to find heating, water, supplies and shelters against bombings.

In other words, the combination of attacks on infrastructure with the arrival of winter will be painful, if not lethal for a good part of the population. But Ukraine will not surrender because of this.

So why does President Vladimir Putin continue to bet on a strategy that has proved unsuccessful in so many other wars of the past?

One explanation may be the attempt to create new waves of refugees to generate greater migratory pressure in Europe. In theory, this can overthrow governments – although in practice this trend is not verified: the governments of Italy and the United Kingdom were recently replaced and these countries have not stopped supporting Ukraine.

Another possible answer The question may be simple: revenge from an autocratic ruler who saw his expansionist plans frustrated.

In both cases, attacking the civilian population, directly or indirectly, has a name: war crime.

Recent Articles