No going back: an apartment block in Kyivskyi District destroyed by Russian shelling. Image: Jack Watling
Russia’s campaign to systematically degrade Ukraine’s energy infrastructure creates an urgent humanitarian challenge, but it must not distract from the importance of ensuring the sustainability of support to Ukraine’s armed forces.
Kharkiv’s Kyivskyi District, just over 30 km from the Russian border, was one of the first parts of Ukraine that Russian forces attempted to occupy on 24 February 2022. Today the Russians have been driven back to their own territory, leaving behind the destroyed homes of over 100,000 people, with debris from massive artillery strikes littering the children’s playgrounds between Soviet-era apartment blocks. Most of the buildings are unsafe to live in due to structural damage and cannot be repaired. The Russian military may not be able to destroy the temporary accommodation in Western Ukraine to which the population has been displaced, but that does not mean Russia has stopped targeting them through other means.
450 km to the west, on the morning of 17 October, gunfire echoed around the streets of Kyiv as overhead Iranian-designed Shaheed loitering munitions cruised towards their targets. Arcing downwards, the delta wing UAVs plunged into a residential building and subsequently the power station behind it. The periodic booms announced the latest wave in Russia’s campaign to deprive Ukraine of electricity as the temperature falls at the onset of winter.
For four weeks now, Ukraine has experienced a mixture of cruise missile and loitering munition strikes systematically targeting its energy infrastructure. In August, Ukraine’s cities saw large numbers of people socialising until just before curfew, with cafes and restaurants packed. Now, the streets – and the surrounding houses – are dark in a bid to conserve power. At present, the temperature does not make this a matter of survival, but for many Ukrainians it will be so in the months to come.
After taking ground throughout August and September, the momentum of Ukrainian offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv is slowing, and Russia is now seeking to capitalise on this window of opportunity to exert maximum political pressure on the Ukrainian government by targeting its population. For both sides, the war has now shifted to a primarily unconventional stage that will shape the military options available in the spring. For Ukraine, winter conditions will make the logistics for conventional operations to reclaim territory more difficult, while the lack of vegetation and other cover will make advances with limited armour risky. For Russia, with demoralised forces and poorly prepared positions, the winter is likely to see a further slump in morale and significant casualties from exposure injuries.
It is critical to exploit the period when Russia is least capable of conducting ground operations to lock in the advantages of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and train new units
Conversely, Russia is mobilising large new units in preparation for a renewed spring offensive. For Ukraine, too, there is a need to generate new formations to seize and retain the initiative next year. For Russia, the aim is to divert Ukrainian efforts towards protecting the home front. For Ukraine, the main effort is to ensure Russian forces do not recover their cohesion or morale, and to disrupt the stabilisation of Russian control in the occupied territories.
Another impact of targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is to make it more financially dependent on the West, which is likely to coincide with wider energy scarcity in Europe and economic trouble for Ukraine’s international partners. This will be accompanied by an information campaign by the Russians to try to convince Western publics to spend money at home rather than sending it abroad. In reality, both Ukraine and Europe are being targeted via the same pressure points, and in this sense, the Russian narrative positing a difference between home and abroad is a false dichotomy aimed at polarising opinion.
For Ukraine’s partners, there is an immediate humanitarian requirement to support its population and its refugees through the winter. But it is also critical to exploit the period when Russia is least capable of conducting ground operations – before new units are available – to lock in the advantages of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and train new units. Now is when Ukraine’s partners must lay the groundwork for a military victory in 2023. If the humanitarian crisis is the urgent priority, continuing the rationalisation and ensuring the sustainability of support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces is the most important task.
This is not a trivial undertaking. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are currently operating 14 different artillery systems, each with distinct maintenance and ammunition requirements, creating a tangle of logistics challenges. Furthermore, the accelerated crash courses provided to Ukrainian crewmen allowed them to fight effectively, but left them without the sustainment skills to look after and get the maximum operational lifespan out of artillery systems which are expensive, slow to manufacture, and difficult to replace. The result is chaotic and has yet to be resolved. Ukraine’s partners should seek to rationalise the provision of systems around four types, with pipelines to train maintainers and industrial investment to secure sustainable supplies of ammunition and barrels. As Ukraine urgently requests air defences to protect its infrastructure, it is vital that its partners do not repeat the mistakes made with artillery and from the outset plan to provide a limited number of systems with an associated industrial investment to underpin munitions.
If many Ukrainian partners were pessimistic as to whether victory was possible at the beginning of the conflict, it is essential to avoid the complacency of believing that victory is now inevitable
It is also important to build upon the basic training provided to new Ukrainian personnel to support the formation of new units of action, with junior leadership and officer training at battalion and brigade level to ensure that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have reserves prepared on the other side of winter. If many Ukrainian partners were pessimistic as to whether victory was possible at the beginning of the conflict, it is essential to avoid the complacency of believing that victory is now inevitable. Victory is possible, but it requires a strategic approach to the support provided to Ukraine.
Recognising the weakness of its own military position on the ground, the Russian government is also encouraging Ukraine’s international partners to pressure Kyiv into negotiating a ceasefire. This is being advanced through a mixture of messages, including underscoring the economic impact of the war, the likely longevity of the fighting, and the risk of nuclear escalation. The problem is that a ceasefire is tactically advantageous for Russia in stabilising its control over the occupied territories, and fails to offer the prospect of the Kremlin reducing its aim of subjugating Ukraine or halting its coercive energy diplomacy against Western Europe. Even if a compromise were made, there is no evidence that the Russians would keep to any deal struck, and they would likely use a ceasefire to consolidate control, regroup their forces, and then breach it when their mobilisation had created the opportunity for further offensive operations.
Ukraine certainly has no intention of making concessions. With massive communities like Kyivskyi District laid waste, and exponents of Ukrainian culture and identity being systematically purged in the torture chambers beneath police stations and in filtration camps across the occupied territories, the conflict remains existential.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare
Research Fellow, Land Warfare