U.S. unveils plan to rebuild Ukraine energy grid after Russian assault

AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File
People walk through the city center which lost electrical power after yesterday’s Russian rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Nov. 24, 2022.

BUCHAREST, Romania – The Biden administration will put $53 million toward rebuilding Ukraine’s battered electrical grid, as officials scramble to help Ukrainians withstand a sustained Russian assault that has plunged millions into darkness and cold.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the plan, intended to help Ukraine rapidly procure transformers, circuit breakers and other hardware following weeks of missile and drone attacks, during talks in Bucharest with counterparts from the Group of Seven bloc of industrialized nations.

The assistance plan, which officials pulled together in the weeks after Russia began regularly targeting energy sites in Kyiv and other areas on Oct. 10, is a sign of the international concern about the growing energy crisis in Ukraine, where millions have been deprived of heat, electricity and running water as winter sets in.

At least a quarter of Ukraine’s energy network is now damaged, U.S. officials say, compared with less than 5 percent before Russia embraced its apparent shift in tactics last month. On Tuesday, grid operator Ukrenergo reported a power deficit of one-third due to power station shutdowns and greater seasonal consumption. Across Ukraine, residents are being asked to conserve energy and prepare for scheduled blackouts as authorities attempt to mitigate the impact of ongoing strikes.

The U.S. announcement came on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial meeting in the Romanian capital, where other alliance officials condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s targeting of vital infrastructure, as they have his wider war, and pledged wide-ranging support.

Russia “is willing to use extreme brutality and leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the opening of the meeting. “So we must stay the course and help Ukraine prevail as a sovereign nation.”

Stoltenberg said NATO allies were stepping up the supply of nonlethal aid to Ukraine, including fuel and generators, but did not offer specifics on new announcements.

A statement from German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock suggested the G-7 conversation on critical infrastructure would continue at a donors meeting in Paris on Dec. 13 that will focus on “civilian resilience in Ukraine.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba emphasized his country’s need for additional military support but said that energy security had emerged as an issue equally important as traditional security concerns for Ukraine and NATO nations.

“When we have transformers and generators, we can restore our system, our energy grid, and provide people with decent living conditions, which President Putin is trying to deprive them of,” Kuleba said in remarks alongside Stoltenberg.

“When we have air defense systems, we will be able to protect this infrastructure from the next Russian missiles strikes, and they are definitely to come,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is the reality that we have to prepare for.”

The promises of immediate help getting Ukraine’s power system fully operational may run into difficulties given the short global supply of essential parts such as giant autotransformers. Some backers of Ukraine have power systems with elements that are incompatible with Ukraine’s, while other counties will be unlikely to part with their own spare parts.

In a statement, the State Department said the aid would be “rapidly delivered to Ukraine on an emergency basis to help Ukrainians persevere through the winter.” Officials declined to detail what would be initially provided but said they had identified more than $30 million in equipment, including from U.S. government stocks. The United States will purchase the parts and provide them to Ukraine, they said.

It was unclear as well how the new equipment, once installed, can be protected from Russian attacks. The recent strikes, involving rockets, missiles and swarms of Iranian-made drones, have damaged not only thermal and hydroelectric power stations and gas production centers but also – in what officials say is a particularly destructive turn – transmission facilities that direct power across the massive breadth of Ukraine.

While the United States and other nations are racing to provide Ukraine additional air-defense equipment, officials acknowledge the impossibility of shielding the entire country from Russian fire. Transmission stations, often large and open, are particularly vulnerable to air attacks.

The same facilities have been hit repeatedly by Russia, undoing the effect of workers’ frenetic repair efforts and, in at least one case, striking workers as they race to bring systems back online.

Ukrenergo head Volodymyr Kudrytskyi recently expressed frustration that renewed Russian strikes often leave “a pile of charred scrap in the place where they installed a new transformer.”

Anticipating a difficult winter for Ukraine even before the Kremlin began its barrage of energy-directed attacks, the United States previously committed some $55 billion to providing generators and other energy assistance. The United States has rejected Moscow’s depiction of the strikes as military in nature, saying they are aimed at undermining Ukrainians’ will to fight.

The power-grid attacks have occurred as Russia struggles to reverse a battlefield equation that has tipped in Ukraine’s favor in recent months. Since the early fall, Kyiv has overseen a counteroffensive that has clawed back some areas occupied by Russia after the Feb. 24 invasion.

“What Russia is trying to do is to systematically dismantle the national energy grid at a moment of peak vulnerability,” a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a plan that had not been made public, told reporters ahead of Blinken’s G-7 talks.

“Our desire is to ensure that the Ukrainians have the tools they need to respond as quickly as possible so Putin cannot achieve through these humanitarian targets what he’s failed to achieve on the battlefield,” the official said.

Ukrainian power authorities have said the equipment they urgently need includes circuit breakers, bushings and transformer oil, along with the “high-tech and high-cost” autotransformers, which can weigh more than 500 pounds.

The State Department official expressed hope that, despite supply challenges, needed equipment could soon be in Ukrainian hands. He said that the governments of Latvia and Lithuania were preparing to transfer large transformers to Ukraine, likely by truck.

The European Union meanwhile has established a mechanism to match energy-related requests from Ukraine with nations that can supply the needed items.

Ukrainian officials are pressing hard for additional support but stress that they will also need more-sophisticated air defenses to protect whatever they get.

Stoltenberg said Tuesday that while helping Ukrainians replace and repair transformers and other infrastructure is critical, ultimately what they need is help “to shoot down drones and missiles.”

“That is the best way to protect Ukrainians from these attacks,” he said.