Ukraine: Russian Attacks on Energy Grid Threaten Civilians

December 6, 2022 12:01AM EST

Leveraging Civilian Harm as a Tactic of War; Millions Without Electricity, Water, Heat

(Kyiv, December 6, 2022) – Russian forces’ widespread and repeated targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure appears primarily designed to instill terror among the population in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. Numerous missile and drone attacks in October and November have deprived millions of civilians of at least temporary access to electricity, water, heat, and related vital services ahead of the cold winter months.

The attacks have also killed at least 77 civilians and injured 272. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the attacks on November 23, 2022 alone killed or injured over 30 civilians and interrupted access to power for millions throughout Ukraine. The entire population of Kyiv, estimated at around 3 million, had no access to water for the day, and parts of Kyiv, Lviv, Zaporizhzhia, and Odesa regions were completely disconnected from electricity, the UN said.

“By repeatedly targeting critical energy infrastructure knowing this will deprive civilians of access to water, heat, and health services, Russia appears to be seeking unlawfully to create terror among civilians and make life unsustainable for them,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With the coldest winter temperatures yet to come, conditions will become more life-threatening while Russia seems intent on making life untenable for as many Ukrainian civilians as possible.”

The laws of war prohibit attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and violence or threats, “the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population.”

Russian politicians, lawmakers, and other commentators on Russian state media widely applauded the prospect of Ukrainian civilians being left without heat and water in winter. One member of parliament stated that ordinary people should “rot and freeze”, another said the strikes were necessary to destroy the Ukrainian state’s capacity to survive.

Average winter temperatures in Ukraine hover around minus 3 degrees Celsius and can plunge to minus 20 degrees.

Human Rights Watch gathered data from the public domain, analyzed police and fire brigade reports and official statements, and interviewed an energy company official, two energy experts, local authorities, rescue workers, and civilians in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson, and Mykolaiv, to build a picture of the widespread and cumulative impact of the attacks on the power grid. Human Rights Watch also visited the site of at least one of the attacks that severely damaged civilian homes and killed civilians in November.

On November 16, Ukraine’s office of the prosecutor general reported that Russia had carried out 92 attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in October and November. Olexander Kharchenko, director of the Energy Industry Research Centre, an independent research and consulting company, told Human Rights Watch that power was disrupted in 10,700,000 households throughout Ukraine, roughly half of the country’s population, due to Russia’s attacks.

According to information posted by DTEK, the largest private energy company in Ukraine, as of November 15, the company’s energy facilities had been attacked 13 times over one and a half months, with significant damage. In a response to a written request from Human Rights Watch, the company also stated that because of Russian attacks on power infrastructure on October 10 alone, more than 40 percent of Ukraine’s energy system had been damaged. The company also said that October and November strikes killed 3 DTEK employees and injured 22.

On November 21, Kharchenko told Human Rights Watch that after strikes on November 15, Ukraine’s overall power-generation capacity had decreased by 50 percent. During the subsequent week, authorities were able to restore only 10 to 20 percent of what had been damaged. He said it was difficult to estimate the overall damage to any particular infrastructure facility because they are interconnected, adding that further strikes, if they happen in quick succession, could result in an uncontrolled blackout, and could take 3 to 10 days to restore the system. “The whole of Ukraine would be without electricity, water, and heating for that period,” he said.

Power infrastructure is considered dual use – military and civilian—and may lawfully be the target of attacks in an armed conflict. However, such attacks are subject to the laws of war, which prohibit indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess any concrete and direct military advantage that Russia might have anticipated in conducting the attacks on Ukraine’s electricity and heat-generating grids, nor of any actual military gains made because of these attacks. However, the civilian harm was foreseeable, as is the increasing severity of that harm with the cumulative impact of each strike wave, including on the ability of civilians to remain in Ukraine and survive the winter.

The World Health Organization’s Europe director, in a public statement, expressed grave concern that millions of Ukrainians are without power as winter temperatures drop. He underscored that “continued attacks on health and energy infrastructure mean hundreds of hospitals and health-care facilities are no longer fully operational – lacking fuel, water, and electricity to meet basic needs.” Noting that “cold weather can kill,” he added that the winter ahead “will be about survival.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with a Kyiv resident and full-time caregiver for her parents, who described how lengthy electricity blackouts affected her 75-year-old mother, who has stage 4 lung cancer and is oxygen-dependent: “We have a stationary oxygen concentrator at home that becomes useless when there is no power. Without that, her oxygen levels drop to 70 percent within minutes. If there is no electricity for over two hours, we are trapped and all I can do is watch my mother struggling to breathe.” Sustained blood oxygen levels at 70 percent could result in organ damage and death.

Her family has crowdsourced funds for a car battery which can keep the concentrator working for two hours. But it is not sufficient, she said, because power cuts can last for hours. A Ukrainian charity recently gave her mother a portable concentrator that has a charge of up to six hours, but, as she said, such concentrators are in very limited supply in Ukraine: “I understand that someone else who is oxygen-dependent might urgently need it soon,” she said. “Maybe a child with cystic fibrosis or another cancer patient. And then what are we going to do?”

According to the United Nations humanitarian agency, the attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure also affected water pumping, “adding to the previous challenges faced by millions of people to access clean water or run their heating systems at home.”

A 34-year-old Kyiv resident who lives with her 84-year-old mother said that her family was concerned about surviving the cold in their flat during the winter, when the temperature in Ukraine drops below zero, as well as about “cooking meals, especially for families who have small children or care for older people, and storing food when refrigerators don’t work for prolonged periods of time.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross Commentary on Additional Protocol 1, to which both Russia and Ukraine are parties, notes that although attacks on facilities that provide services to civilians but also direct support to military action can be legitimate, attacks and acts of destruction that are bound to have such serious effects on the civilian population that they would die or be forced to move, are not. The commentary also states that the laws of war “prohibit acts of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population without offering substantial military advantage. … This calls to mind some of the proclamations made in the past threatening the annihilation of civilian populations.”

“Russia continues to flagrantly bomb energy infrastructure all over the country, putting millions of Ukrainian civilians’ security and, in some cases, their very survival, on the line,” Gorbunova said.

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The degree to which households are without power depends on the scope of the damage and the pace of repairs. Even where power has been restored, the authorities in many cities have been instituting up to 18-hour power outages to prevent overloading the limited capacity of the country’s energy infrastructure that remains operational.

The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilian objects, but also on military targets if the attack may be expected to cause excessive civilian casualties, damage to civilian objects, or a combination, in relation to any concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Russia has an obligation to do everything feasible to assess such proportionality before conducting any attack, and intentionally launching a disproportionate attack in the knowledge that civilian casualties and damage would be clearly excessive constitutes a war crime.

The laws of war also prohibit attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and violence or threats, “the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population.”

Attacks in October

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, stated on October 21, that between October 10 and 20, Russian missiles and drones damaged dozens of energy infrastructure objects in 16 of Ukraine’s 24 regions.

The second wave of October attacks, starting from October 22, further reduced Ukraine’s energy capacity, leading to extended blackouts in Kyiv, Zhytomyr, and Chernihiv regions.

Human Rights Watch reviewed police and fire brigade reports, authorities' statements, and news reports from October, and identified at least 22 separate attacks in the month that damaged such infrastructure objects as thermal power plants and hydro power stations in Kyiv and Kyiv region, Lviv, Dnipro, Krivyi Rih, Pavlohrad, Kharkiv and Kharkiv region, Konotop, Zhytomir, and Kremenchuk. Some of these attacks were also noted in a Washington Post investigation, published on October 17, which used satellite imagery and fire-tracking data to identify energy facilities in six regions of Ukraine that had been damaged or destroyed since October 10. Human Rights Watch did not independently corroborate The Washington Post’s findings.

Ukrainska Pravda reported that on the morning of October 10, in Kyiv, drone and missile attacks severely damaged power plant number 5 and heat supply station number 1 (previously known as power plant number 3), which supplies heating and hot water to four districts of Kyiv.

Also on October 10, at around the same time, two missiles hit Trypilska cogeneration power plant in the Kyiv region, damaging the power plant’s main building and the transformer substation and resulting in a fire, which four regional fire departments were involved in extinguishing. The Trypilska plant is the only one that provides the city of Ukrainka, population 14,000, with heat and hot water. It also provides power to Kyiv, Cherkasy, and Zhytomir regions.

According to Kyiv municipal authorities, on October 31, a series of attacks destroyed 80 percent of Kyiv residents’ water supply.

On the morning of October 10, three strikes were carried out on Kharkiv’s energy infrastructure objects, cutting off water and electricity in some parts of the city.

In an October 21 interview, Ukraine’s energy minister, German Galushenko, estimated the damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure to be “at least half of thermal (power) generation capacity, even more.”

On November 4, Kyiv’s mayor, Vitalii Klychko, stated on his Telegram channel that more than 450,000 Kyiv residents had no electricity, adding that the number was 1.5 times higher than in previous days.

Attacks in November

On November 15, a wave of missile attacks hit critical infrastructure across the country. According to the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian Air Force, the strikes involved approximately 100 missiles that mostly targeted infrastructure but also damaged civilian buildings and caused civilian casualties in at least 16 regions. The attacks caused widespread power outages in Kyiv, witnessed by Human Rights Watch researchers, and hit three apartment buildings in Kyiv's Pechersky district, killing at least one civilian.

On November 16, the office of the prosecutor general reported there had been 92 attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure carried out in October and November.

On November 23, Russia launched at least 70 missiles on infrastructure targets in Ukraine, leaving millions of people without electricity and water, for hours and sometimes for days, depending on the region. For example, according to official data, nearly 80 percent of the population of Kyiv lost access to electricity and water supply immediately following the attack.

Lviv Energo said that as of November 29, most energy consumers in Lviv had daily emergency power shutdowns due to network overload. One central Lviv resident told Human Rights Watch that in the six days since the November 23 attacks, her family, including a 4-year-old child, has faced eight to 10-hour power cuts daily, and when the electricity comes on, there is not enough to heat their two-bedroom apartment. The outdoor Lviv temperature in late November hovered between 0 and minus 3 degrees Celsius.

A woman who lives in another Lviv neighborhood said that on November 28, residents in her building did not have power for 16 hours. For two weeks before that, her building had 10-to-18-hour power cuts every other day.

The November 23 attacks also led Ukraine’s four operational nuclear power plants to be disconnected from the national energy grid. Although the power was restored a day later, Kharchenko of the Energy Industry Research Centre consulting group said that this represented “a huge problem for [Ukraine’s] energy supply as a whole.”

Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi said that the November 23 attacks damaged three residential buildings and killed 10 people. One of the attacks on November 23 hit just outside a four-story residential building in Vyshgorod, Kyiv region. While Human Rights Watch is not in a position to identify the intended target, the attack may have been aimed at Kyyivsʹka Haes, a pumped-storage power station, or the Kyiv Hydroelectric Power Plant, 3.8 and 2.3 kilometers from the site, respectively.

On November 24, Human Rights Watch researchers visited the site of the attack, a residential building at Mykhaila Hrushevs'koho Street 1, and observed the extensive damage to it. The munition hit less than a meter from the building, significantly damaging the building’s roof and façade and causing a fire that further damaged the building and the cars parked outside. The two neighboring residential buildings, at Mykhaila Hrushevs'koho Street, 3 and Mykhaila Hrushevs'koho Street, 5 were also damaged by the explosion wave.

Human Rights Watch researchers examined the impact crater, approximately 1.5-2 meters wide, and saw and photographed remnants of the weapon that was still in it. Rescue workers on site provided researchers with a photo of a remnant of the weapon that included numeric markings.

Rescue workers and residents on site said that at least three of the building’s residents were killed in the attack, but that the real numbers were likely to be higher. On November 27, the Kyiv police chief stated on his Telegram channel that the attack killed seven residents of the building and injured 35, including six children.

Fyodor, a first-floor resident of Mykhaila Hrushevs'koho Street, 1 told Human Rights Watch:
“I was in my living room when I heard the explosion. It was around 2:10 or 2:15 in the afternoon. I was near the window. It [the explosion] hit so strong that it made me somersault backwards across the room.” Fyodor said that the explosion blew out all the windows in his apartment and that his children, ages 2 and 8, who were at home with him and in the same room, were covered in glass.

It was his daughter’s birthday. Fyodor grabbed the children and ran outside, where he saw the building’s entrance and cars parked nearby were on fire. He also said that his first-floor neighbor, Volodymyr K, was smoking outside when the attack occurred and was instantly killed. His sisters identified his body in the morgue, Fyodor said. A woman in her late 40s told Human Rights Watch that her mother, who lived on the second floor of the same building and was alone at home during the attack, was pinned to the floor by a wardrobe that fell on her and that she had suffered an injury to her calf.