Power play: How Russia missed its window to crash Ukraine’s electrical grid by stealth


Oleksandr Kharchenko does not consider in coincidences.

The seasoned vitality adviser to a number of Ukrainian authorities departments, companies and parliamentary members informed CBC News he noticed a degree final winter when his nation’s electrical grid was at its most weak.

At the time, Ukraine was within the closing throes of an nearly decade-long technique of disconnecting from the Russian and Belarusian vitality community and connecting to the European grid.

To accomplish that, Ukraine had to overcome a variety of technical challenges, together with conducting a check often known as “isolation mode” which required it to function independently with out importing any vitality over a number of days.

The vital date when Ukraine’s grid entered this fragile state was … Feb. 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded.

Kharchenko mentioned it got here as no shock to him that Moscow selected that date to launch main hostilities.

“If you keep in mind, all intelligence reviews say that it is going to be [an] assault on 16 February, and [then] 22 February, however nothing occurred,” Kharchenko informed CBC News.

“So I actually consider that it might be related.”

Over the previous few weeks, the Russian navy has tried to do with missiles and “kamikaze” drones what it failed to do by stealth final winter — take down Ukraine’s energy grid and plunge the nation into darkness and chilly.

CBC News has spent a number of months testing Kharchenko’s evaluation with each present and former high allied navy commanders, and hybrid warfare consultants.

A blackout with a ‘mild contact’

They concur with Kharchenko and say Moscow’s goal seems to have been to change off the lights and warmth with out damaging the infrastructure — within the hopes of occupying the nation with out being compelled to undergo a pricey rebuild.

“They clearly needed a light-weight contact,” mentioned one former western navy commander who has been quietly advising the Ukrainians; they spoke on background due to the sensitivity of their place.

Other high former NATO commanders say they believe Russian forces needed to make the most of the anticipated chaos — no lights, no cellphone service — so as to rush forces to Kyiv to shortly overthrow the Ukrainian authorities. That assumption may very properly have been “baked” into the marketing campaign plan, they mentioned.

A Ukrainian soldier inspects a Russian tank broken in latest preventing close to the not too long ago retaken village of Kamianka, Kharkiv area, Ukraine on Oct. 30, 2022. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

Kharchenko mentioned Russia would have identified the de-synchronization check date months prematurely, way back to November 2021, as a result of Ukraine was required to give discover that it was conducting the check and chopping itself off from the long-established Soviet-era grid.

UkrEnergo, Ukraine’s state-owned nationwide electrical energy firm, and its subsidiary United Energy System of Ukraine (UES) signaled in early February that they’d stockpiled 700,000 tonnes of coal to guarantee continued operations on the crops.

UkrEnergo didn’t reply to e mail requests for touch upon this story.

The system held up

All of the technical preparations, mentioned Kharchenko, had been accomplished at 1 a.m. Eastern European Time (EET) on Feb. 24. The Russian invasion started 4 hours later.

“I consider that many individuals in Russia may make sure that if they may assault after we are in isolation mode, we’ll lose administration of the system,” mentioned Kharchenko, the managing director of Ukraine’s EIRCenter, an unbiased vitality analysis group.

“If they assault on that day, it means blackout in lots of elements of Ukraine. You may think about, sure? We have a rocket, shells, Russian navy and no electrical energy.”

In the early days of the invasion, some vitality infrastructure was bombed however there have been no main blackouts and the system didn’t crash the way in which the Russians anticipated, Kharchenko mentioned.

The unique proposal had been to disconnect from the Russian grid, conduct the check after which reconnect in order that Ukraine may undergo the ultimate phases of linking up with the European energy system — a course of which was anticipated to take a few 12 months.

But Kharchenko mentioned that after the invasion was underway, that plan was scrapped and the merger with the European grid was put into excessive gear.

The closing reference to Europe was established on March 16.

‘They miscalculated’

Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow on the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an knowledgeable on worldwide safety and vitality coverage, mentioned the decoupling from Russia was properly executed and Ukraine “managed to pull it off with barely noticeable disruptions.”

Cohen mentioned he additionally believes the Russian navy was relying on having the ability to subdue Ukraine whereas its vitality grid was weak — one other instance of Moscow believing its personal propaganda.

“They underestimated the Ukrainians. They miscalculated that Ukraine is way more resilient than they thought it was,” Cohen mentioned, including that this miscalculation will be added to the “lengthy listing of Russian and analytical failures within the run-up to this struggle.”

Military analysts who’ve dissected the early a part of the marketing campaign say the Russians weren’t anticipating the Ukrainians to battle so skillfully and went into this struggle with a poorly coordinated and badly equipped military. Those failures finally led to Russian forces’ retreat from Kyiv within the spring and from Kharkiv, the nation’s second largest metropolis, in the summertime.

Locals obtain meals and on a regular basis requirements from Ukrainian volunteers in Izium, Ukraine on Oct. 12, 2022. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

The merger with Europe’s energy grid was a feat made extra spectacular by the truth that Ukraine had been counting on electrical energy imports from Russia and Belarus after restarting purchases in 2019, which had been suspended because the annexation of Crimea 5 years earlier than.

In phrases of general capability, Ukraine wasn’t importing lots of vitality from both Russia or Belarus, Cohen mentioned — however Ukraine’s drive for vitality independence meant an awesome deal to Ukrainians.

“Symbolically, it meant rather a lot, as a result of that was one more step that Ukraine took to disconnect from Mother Russia and reconnect with Europe,” Cohen mentioned. “Cutting the umbilical wire of the Soviet electrical energy system that was constructed and had been there for many years, and [was] designed to preserve Ukraine within the bosom of Mother Russia.”

Ukrainians understood the symbolism all too properly, mentioned Kharchenko. And Russia seen decoupling as a risk to nationwide safety, he mentioned, as a result of it could each deprive Moscow of a massive vitality market and make its personal community extra weak by depriving it of a provider.


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