Kyiv, Ukraine – The head of Ukraine’s National Electric Utility was standing on the street outside the headquarters in central Kyiv two weeks ago when he heard a thunderbolt in the sky and witnessed a Russian drone attack for the first time. The force of the blast moments later was still visible on Friday in shattered windows and debris that littered the compound.
“Unfortunately, they hit hard,” said Volodymyr Kudretsky, CEO of Ukrenergo, in an interview in his office.
The drone that struck the Okrenigo headquarters was one of dozens of air attacks on October 10 and the days that followed destroyed 30 percent of the country’s power plants. In the weeks that followed, Ukrainian electricians were racing to make repairs, but that was a formidable challenge.
“Almost every day, they were hitting some targets that Okronigo was running,” he said. Unlike a hurricane or any other natural disaster, the October 10 strikes were not a unique event, but the start of an ongoing campaign that Russian officials said was aimed at inflicting suffering on civilians and forcing Ukraine to submit to the Kremlin’s will.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president, prime minister and current deputy head of the Russian Security Council, said in a statement on Friday that Ukraine will restore energy stability only when it recognizes the legitimacy of Russia’s demands.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the nation from the darkened streets of Kyiv late Thursday. “We are not afraid of the dark,” he said. “The darkest time for us is not without light, but without freedom.”
Speaking on Friday night, Mr. Zelensky said about four million Ukrainians now live with restrictions on energy use. People in cities across the country suffer from incessant blackouts, which is the only way the country’s power provider can prevent a “complete blackout”.
More than 5,500 electrical maintenance workers are struggling to make repairs as quickly as possible under appalling conditions, Mr. Kudrytskyi said.
“Imagine, you are an employee maintaining a substation,” Mr. Kudrytskyi said. “You know it’s a target.”
The workers never know what they will find when they come out of their hiding places.
He said the sirens and vault workers could hear the roar of the explosion, as the power of a missile or drone was exacerbated by the release of energy from electrical equipment. A peculiar smell, he likened to the smell of burning plastic, fills the air when everything is finally given freshness.
Across the power plant, which he said can feel like his small town, fires fueled by oil used in the machines blazed for hours. Alarms go off two or three times a day. And just as workers gather what is needed for repair: a barrier, another explosion. Mr. Kudrytskyi said that in one of the factories, the building in which repair equipment was kept was hit.
“Everything is gone,” he said. “It’s really hard to imagine that you’re not inside this terrible movie.”
The Russian targeting was so precise that Mr. Kudretsky and other Ukrainian energy officials said that Moscow should be helped by energy experts.
“I can’t imagine that military experts would know what set of things to hit to do the most damage,” he said.
Mr. Kudrytskyi said Ukraine has a strong energy system. Despite losing power generated from the country’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya and destroying the grid in parts of the country where fighting is intense, Ukraine was still exporting power a month ago. The missile and drone attacks – which Mr. Kudretsky said began on 9/11 after the Russians were expelled from the Kharkiv region – ended that.
If the Russian attacks stop today, he said, electricians could largely restore electricity in less than a month. But there is no indication that they will end.
Five utility workers were killed in the strikes and dozens injured. Mr Kudrytskyi said he remains amazed at the dedication of the crews working to keep the lights on.
October 29, 2022
An earlier version of the photo caption with this article erred in stating the date technicians were making repairs in Zaporozhye, Ukraine. It was two weeks ago, not last week.
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