Power play: How Russia missed its window to stealthily crush Ukraine’s power grid

Oleksandr Kharchenko does not believe in coincidences.

The veteran energy adviser to several Ukrainian ministries, agencies and parliamentarians told CBC News he saw a moment last winter when his country’s power grid was at its most vulnerable.

At the time, Ukraine was in the throes of a nearly decade-long process of disconnecting from the Russian and Belarusian energy grid and connecting to the European grid.

To do this, Ukraine had to overcome a number of technical challenges, including carrying out a so-called “isolation mode” test which required it to operate autonomously without importing energy for several days.

The critical date when the Ukrainian network entered this fragile state was… February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded.

Kharchenko said it was not surprising to him that Moscow chose this date to launch major hostilities.

“If you recall, all the intelligence reports say it will be [an] the February 16 attack, and [then] February 22, but nothing happened,” Kharchenko told CBC News.

“So I really believe it might be related.”

Over the past few weeks, the Russian military has attempted to do with “kamikaze” missiles and drones what it failed to do stealthily last winter: destroy Ukraine’s power grid and plunge the country into darkness and cold.

CBC News spent several months testing Kharchenko’s assessment with current and former Allied military commanders and hybrid warfare experts.

A blackout with a “light touch”

They agree with Kharchenko and say Moscow’s goal appears to have been to turn off lights and heating without damaging infrastructure – hoping to occupy the country without having to go through costly reconstruction .

“They clearly wanted a light touch,” said a former Western military commander who quietly advised the Ukrainians; they spoke in the background due to the sensitivity of their position.

Other former senior NATO commanders say they suspect Russian forces want to take advantage of the predicted chaos – no lights, no phone service – to rush forces into Kyiv to quickly overthrow the Ukrainian government. This assumption could very well have been “integrated” into the campaign plan, they said.

A Ukrainian soldier inspects a Russian tank damaged in recent fighting near the recently recaptured village of Kamianka, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, October 30, 2022. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

Kharchenko said that Russia would have known the date of the desynchronization test months in advance, as early as November 2021, because Ukraine was required to notify that it was carrying out the test and cut itself off from the established Soviet-era network. for a long time.

UkrEnergo, Ukraine’s national electricity company, and its subsidiary United Energy System of Ukraine (UES) announced in early February that they had stockpiled 700,000 tonnes of coal to ensure continued operations at the power plants.

UkrEnergo did not respond to email requests for comment on this story.

The system resisted

All technical preparations, Kharchenko said, were completed by 1 a.m. Eastern European Time (EET) on February 24. The Russian invasion began four hours later.

“I think a lot of people in Russia could be sure that if they attack while we are in isolation mode, we will lose management of the system,” said Kharchenko, director general of the Ukrainian EIRCenter, an independent organization. energy research.

“If they attack that day, it means a blackout in many parts of Ukraine. You can imagine, yes? We have a rocket, shells, the Russian army and no electricity. “

Early in the invasion, some energy infrastructure was bombed, but there were no major power outages and the system did not crash as the Russians had expected, Kharchenko said.

The initial proposal was to disconnect from the Russian grid, perform the test and then reconnect so that Ukraine could go through the final stages of connecting to the European electricity system – a process that was expected to take about a year.

But Kharchenko said once the invasion was underway, that plan was scrapped and the merger with the European grid kicked into high gear.

The final connection with Europe was established on March 16.

“They miscalculated”

Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an expert in international security and energy policy, said the decoupling with Russia was executed well and Ukraine “managed to do it with disruptions. barely perceptible”.

Cohen said he also believed the Russian military intended to be able to subdue Ukraine when its energy network was vulnerable – another example of Moscow believing its own propaganda.

“They underestimated the Ukrainians. They miscalculated that Ukraine is much more resilient than they thought,” Cohen said, adding that this miscalculation can be added to “the long list of Russian failures.” and analytical as we approach this war.”

Military analysts who dissected the early part of the campaign say the Russians did not expect the Ukrainians to fight so skillfully and entered this war with an uncoordinated and poorly supplied army. These failures eventually led to the withdrawal of Russian forces from Kyiv in the spring and from Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, in the summer.

Residents receive food and basic necessities from Ukrainian volunteers in Izium, Ukraine on October 12, 2022. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

The merger with the European power grid was a feat made more impressive by the fact that Ukraine relied on electricity imports from Russia and Belarus after restarting purchases in 2019, which had been suspended since the annexation of Crimea five years earlier.

In terms of overall capacity, Ukraine didn’t import much energy from Russia or Belarus, Cohen said, but Ukraine’s push for energy independence meant a lot to Ukrainians.

“Symbolically, it meant a lot, because it was another step taken by Ukraine to disconnect from mother Russia and reconnect to Europe,” Cohen said. “Cutting the umbilical cord of the Soviet electrical system that was built and had been there for decades, and [was] designed to keep Ukraine in the fold of Mother Russia.”

Ukrainians have understood the symbolism all too well, Kharchenko said. And Russia views decoupling as a national security threat, he said, because it would deprive Moscow of a large energy market and make its own network more vulnerable by depriving it of a supplier.