Russia steps up attacks on energy facilities with Ukraine ‘vulnerable’ without stronger air defences


Sky News analysis shows Russia has increased its attacks on Ukrainian energy systems in recent months, as experts warn the country remains “vulnerable” without stronger air defences to protect its critical infrastructure and the frontline.

Using news reports, energy data, geolocated video and satellite images, Sky News looks at the extent of the attacks and what they tell us about the state of the war in Ukraine.

But Russia’s strategy is not limited to energy, it has also targeted communications infrastructure, while maintaining pressure in eastern Ukraine on the frontline.

Energy attacks reach western Ukraine

Analysis of data from Ukraine’s grid operator Ukrenergo shows that throughout March 2024, an average of 889,000 Ukrainians were without power on any given day – the highest number since the war began in February 2022.

The attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure are widespread across the country. In its latest assault on Wednesday, Russia used more than 50 missiles and some 20 drones to strike, according to officials.

Sky News analysed videos posted online and satellite images that show damage to Ukrainian power plants from early March to early May.

Data from ISW

Strikes have hit targets as far west as Dobrotvir, less than 40km (24 miles) from the country’s border with Poland, to Mykolaivka in eastern Ukraine. The images show collapsed sections of roofs and apparent scorching to energy facilities.

This image shows damage to the Zmiivka plant in Kharkiv Oblast after an attack.

While the damage across sites appears to have varied, a number of large facilities including Trypillya near Kyiv and Kharkiv’s TEC-5 plant have been taken completely offline.

Tim Green, professor of electrical engineering at Imperial College London, said: “It’s not just its power stations that are being attacked or destroyed, it’s electricity substations where you use transformers to take power off the very high voltage, down to the sorts of voltages used to distribute around a town or city, and then into houses and factories.”

He added that Ukraine can import energy from western Europe, but distribution may be impacted due to the loss of substations.

The largest recent attack came on 22 March, when 63 drones and 88 missiles were launched at energy sites, according to the Ukrainian Air Force.

That same night, Ukraine experienced the most widespread blackouts of the war so far. In one night, 913,940 households lost electrical power.

There has been a general increase in blackouts in recent months, concentrated in the eastern regions of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kherson, but also in the southern regions of Mykolaiv and Odesa.

This increase in the number of blackouts isn’t just because Ukraine’s energy systems are going offline more often. They are also taking longer than ever to fix.

Data from Ukrenergo shows that blackouts ending in April lasted, on average, about five days. That is up from an average length of just two days in March.

Power plant workers are seen in the video below surveying destruction to a facility in Ukraine.

Some experts say that while Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure are not exactly new, its motive for destroying such facilities may have shifted.

Ann Marie Dailey, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said: “Earlier in the war, you saw Russia attacking Ukrainian energy infrastructure as a way to perhaps make it more difficult for civilians to get heat and other resources in the wintertime.

“These Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure seem to be focused on undermining Ukraine’s economy and Ukraine’s ability to produce defence materials domestically.”

The attacks come at a time when Ukraine is warning its allies of its scarce air defences and the impact this is having on its capabilities across the frontline.

View from the frontline

Between May 2022 and May 2024, Russia has made gains in the south and east of Ukraine.

Moscow’s current efforts are largely focused on the eastern town of Chasiv Yar in the Donetsk region, about 12km (7 miles) west of Bakhmut.

Since taking Bakhmut, Russian forces have advanced further west of the city and towards Chasiv Yar.

Data from ISW

Sky News has analysed 13 videos taken in and around the town, which show that urban areas controlled by Ukrainian forces have been heavily targeted by artillery and air strikes.

The videos, posted on social media between 4 April and 7 May, show various attacks from both Russia and Ukraine.

The drone footage below captured in mid-April shows the intensity of Russian bombardment, with co-ordinated blasts occurring across the town’s eastern edge.

But the destruction of Chasiv Yar can also be seen from above in recent drone footage of the town captured by Ukraine drone police following months of bombardment.

Taking the town is strategically important for Russia as it would extend its grip on the Donbas and put it closer to cities still under Ukrainian control, such as Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

One expert suggests that if Ukraine pulls out of the area, it may be a deliberate move.

Philip Ingram, former British Army intelligence and security officer, said: “Across the whole of the frontline, what the Ukrainians are doing in military terms, is trading space for time.

“But when it looks as if Ukraine is going to be in a hopeless position and lose too many people or too much equipment, they will withdraw a little bit.”

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‘Grateful’ Zelenskyy reacts to US aid

Other experts such as Phil Wasielewski, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, say that the battle for Chasiv Yar is a “deeper part of Russia’s strategy” to “grind away at the Ukrainian army so it can fight no more”.

While Ukraine awaits the delivery of the latest US aid package, Kyiv’s supply of artillery shells and air defence remains critically low.

Ms Dailey said despite deliveries of Patriot interceptors, Ukraine remains “vulnerable to Russian attacks”.

She said it has two options to mitigate this threat – improving its point and air defences, and striking the Russian airfields and points used to launch these attacks.

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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