Why Putin’s attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure could backfire
Since October Russia has been waging a brutal campaign to destroy Ukraine’s electricity transmission infrastructure. What is the logic behind this strategy, and what are the chances that it will succeed?
The United States has a lot of experience in using air power to attack civilian infrastructure – with a poor track record. Russia’s strategy is unlikely to succeed – and may merely serve to strengthen the international support for Ukraine.
Putin’s campaign to make Ukrainian cities unlivable was a response to setbacks on the battlefield. After Russian troops were forced to retreat from around Kharkiv in early September, Putin responded by announcing a partial mobilization of reservists and by declaring the annexation of the four occupied provinces of eastern Ukraine.
However, the military misfortunes continued. On October 8 an explosion damaged the Kerch Straits bridge linking Russia with Crimea. The same day, Putin appointed Gen. Sergei Surovikin as overall commander of the “special military operation” (SMO). Surovikin was formerly head of the southern military district, which successfully occupied a large swathe of southern Ukraine in the early weeks of the war. He earned the nickname “General Armageddon” during the Syrian civil war, in which Russian air power reduced opposition-held cities to rubble.
Surovikin launched a systematic campaign to destroy Ukraine’s power grid. The strikes targeted the transmission system, since power stations are more difficult to damage, and 60 percent of Ukraine’s electricity comes from nuclear facilities — which have been off limits from Russian attacks. There have been from 20 to 80 attacks per day, month after month (not all of them at the electricity grid). In addition to its own cruise and ballistic missiles, since August Russia has been using crude Iranian Shahed suicide drones.
Ukrainian engineers have scrambled to restore power, while importing generators to enable hospitals, military facilities and other vital services to continue operating. Ukraine has scoured Europe and beyond for replacement equipment compatible with Ukraine’s Soviet-era facilities. At the peak of the attacks in November, up to half of Ukrainians were without electricity for hours on end. On December 25, some nine million Ukrainians were without electricity — about a quarter of the population. At any one time some 25 percent of cell phone base stations across the country are down.
Ukraine brought in additional anti-missile weapons to try to shoot down the incoming barrage. They are downing from 40 to 80 percent of Russian missiles, according to Ukrainian defense sources. Initially the defenders used Soviet era systems such as the Buk and S-300; Germany subsequently promised to send four Iris-T systems and 30 Gepard mobile anti-aircraft guns. The Gepards are highly effective against the slow-moving Shahed drones — but the Swiss manufacturer is reportedly refusing to supply replacement ammunition.
In November, the U.S. sent two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems to Ukraine, with four more on the way. There are concerns that it is more costly for Ukraine to shoot down the incoming projectiles than it is for Russia to launch them.
In January the attacks continued but on a reduced scale, with some speculating that Russia is running out of missiles. On January 10 Putin appointed the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov as commander of the SMO, replacing Surovikin, who continues to serve as head of the southern military district forces. It is hard to interpret exactly what this shuffling of commanders means, but at minimum it signals that Putin is dissatisfied with the way the war has been waged to date.
There is little sign that the campaign is breaking Ukraine’s will to resist. On the contrary, polling suggests that it has made Ukrainians even more determined to fight on.
Western opinion is divided over whether the Russian strategy makes sense. MIT Professor Barry Posen describes the bombing campaign as “well executed” and “cunningly effective,” serving to divert Ukraine’s resources away from preparing offensive operations. In contrast the British military authority Lawrence Freedman dismissed it as a “sociopath’s tantrum.”
Russia is not the first country to resort to air strikes against civilian targets as a short-cut to victory. Such thinking was central to the US and RAF air campaigns in World War II. In a 1999 book entitled Bombing to Win Robert Pape argued that such campaigns have been singularly ineffective, a conclusion that generally holds up in subsequent research.
In the Korean and Vietnam wars, the U.S. specifically targeted the enemy’s electric power grid, as it did in the 1991 Gulf war, and 2003 Iraq war. In 1999, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea boasted with regard to the bombing of Yugoslavia: “The fact that lights went out across 70 percent of the country shows that NATO has its finger on the light switch now.”
But a 1994 MA thesis by U.S. Air Force Major Thomas Griffith concluded that such attacks “are usually ineffective in achieving strategic objectives, despite accomplishing the intermediate goals of diminishing electrical generating capacity, hindering war production, and causing civilian discomfort.” They do not substantially impact the will or the military capacity of the country to resist.
Apart from being ineffective, the Russian campaign may also be a violation of international law. (There is no question that the war as a whole is illegal, as an unprovoked attack on a neighbor.) On the other hand, attacks on civilian populations are as old as warfare itself. Disruption of the water supply has been a tactic of war since at least 2500 BCE. The Bible says that if a city under siege refuses to surrender, the attacker should “kill every man” if the city falls. (Deuteronomy 20: 13) (But the fruit trees should not be chopped down.)
The 1949 Geneva Convention bars attacks on civilians unless the attacker can claim the attacks have a military purpose. Modern international humanitarian law insists on distinction, proportionality and precautions if attacks cause civilian casualties. Attacks on power stations are considered illegal by the International Red Cross, but they are acceptable in U.S. military doctrine. The only relevant court case seems to be that stemming from a 2000 attack by Ethiopian jets on the Hirgigo power station in Eritrea. In 2005 the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission ruled that it was a legitimate military target.
But if Putin’s main chance for victory is a weakening in international support for Ukraine, his despicable targeting of civilian infrastructure appears to be having the opposite effect, strengthening Western resolve to send new and more advanced weapons to the warfront.
Russia has not learned from the past mistakes of the U.S. in bombing electricity grids. On the contrary, it seems determined to repeat them.