“One time, they sent 20 drones together at a position,” said Fox, who is being identified only by call sign in keeping with Ukrainian military protocol. “But this winter will be a lot worse,” he said.
Fox appears to know what he is talking about.
Two weeks ago, Ukraine’s air force said Russia launched 43 cruise missiles at targets across the country. Seven slipped through the air defenses, and some struck “energy installations,” Ukrenergo, the state energy supplier, said — the first strikes on energy targets “in six months.”
The attacks caused temporary blackouts in parts of central and western Ukraine, including the Kyiv region. Last year, Russia did not begin a concerted assault on infrastructure until Oct. 10.
“We understand that the stage of energy terror in this heating season has already begun,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said.
For two months, Fox and two other soldiers, Bubba and Veles, have manned an air defense position 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their tally: five drones, the symbols of which are etched on the side of their Gepard — a German-made system, donated by Berlin.
Last winter, Ukraine experienced rolling blackouts and heat outages across the country.
Hospitals lost electricity or were forced to rely on their own power generators. By April, Ukraine’s power generation capacity had declined by 51 percent compared with just before Russia’s invasion, the U.N. Development Program said.
“The strategy of the adversary last winter was not only to just destroy the power grid itself, but rather to create such a horrible humanitarian catastrophe that could create a difference on the battlefield,” Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, the head of Ukrenergo, said.
Ukraine’s energy grid has mostly recovered from last year’s damage, officials said. But many systems are still not operating at full capacity, making them vulnerable.
Ukrainian and Western officials have been making preparations: reinforcing the energy grid, repairing damaged facilities, securing crucial equipment and spare parts, and preparing for the possible humanitarian fallout.
An Interior Ministry coordinating council appointed “to ensure normal living conditions of the population during possible power outages” held its first meeting Tuesday, Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko wrote on Telegram the same day.
But whether Ukraine can withstand the expected Russian barrage will depend heavily on whether the country has enough air defense systems.
Ukrainian officials said they still do not have enough, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has made securing more one of his top priorities in meetings with Western leaders, including Thursday at a European leaders summit in Granada, Spain.
“The key for us, especially before winter, is to strengthen air defense,” Zelensky wrote on social media. He said that “there is already a basis for new agreements,” but did not offer details.
Last month, while Zelensky was visiting the United States, the Biden administration announced a $325 million package that included air defense systems and munitions, plus .50-caliber machine guns to shoot down drones.
Forecasters say that this winter could be colder in Ukraine than last year, which could aid Moscow.
It is also unclear how many missiles Russia was able to produce. If stocks are low, Moscow could send swarms of self-destructing drones.
“We do not know where they will be targeting, where they will hit, what will be the success rate of our air defense systems,” Kudrytskyi said, adding there are too many “unknown elements.”
Others predict a major Russian onslaught.
“The winter will be difficult, not a simple one, given this madman who is next to our territory,” the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said last month, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If Ukraine’s critical infrastructure is disabled, Zelensky has vowed to do the same to Russia.
If Russians “cut off our power, deprive us of electricity, deprive us of water, deprive us of gasoline,” then they “need to know” that Ukrainians “have the right to do it” to them, the president said in a recent interview with U.S. news program 60 Minutes.
Some retaliation has begun. Ukrainian drones attacked Russia’s western Kursk region Thursday and twice last week, Russian officials said, temporarily cutting power to several villages and a hospital. Ukrainian officials said a “Russian military installation” was left without electricity. The claims could not be verified.
An official at the Security Service of Ukraine provided a video of one attack last week and said, “If the Russian Federation continues to fire at our infrastructure facilities, it will receive even more ‘booms’ in return.”
“Thanks to another special operation,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, the Russians “are beginning to understand that ‘blackout’ is not a foreign word” but “a reality … on their doorstep.”
Kyiv’s first priority is to protect its own energy installations and other infrastructure, such as grain storage facilities, which Moscow has targeted to destroy agricultural exports, a key sector in Ukraine’s economy. But Ukraine’s air defenses, while stronger than last winter, are not strong enough.
“We do not have protection of our power stations by air defense systems on the level so that I can say that this power station is 100 percent protected,” said Maxim Timchenko, the CEO of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private power producer.
Officials have drawn lessons from last year. Ukraine has stockpiled coal and gas, and secured guarantees from its neighbors to supply electricity if generation facilities are disabled.
Kudrytskyi said his workers are better able to reroute electrical currents when one portion of the grid is out, replace damaged equipment at a faster pace and maintain the system during an attack, “to minimize the risk of a full collapse.”
Ukrenergo has also stockpiled autotransformers, a crucial component.
UNDP said that Russian attacks last year “damaged or destroyed” 41 out of 94 “crucial high voltage transforming substations,” where autotransformers are housed.
Ukrainian officials scrambled to find any spare units on the world market. This year, Kudrytskyi said, Ukraine has already bought several and placed orders in advance.
However, DTEK CEO Timchenko says he still needs “dozens” more for this winter.
Officials once again fear that a prolonged energy crisis could set off another mass exodus of Ukrainians abroad, adding to the millions who have already fled.
Those who stay will face tough conditions. “The temperatures are expected to go lower and that the major problem is that people’s coping mechanisms have been totally depleted,” said Joanna Nahorska of the International Rescue Committee. “People are just exhausted, and they do not necessarily have the resources and the stamina that they had last winter.”
Ultimately, Ukrainian officials want to avoid a repeat of last Nov. 23, when a massive Russian assault caused a cascade of blackouts across the grid. Automatic safety systems triggered shutdowns in the country’s nuclear power plants, bringing the country to the brink of collapse.
“We saw how station by station, [the system] literally switched off and stopped producing power and sending this power to the grid,” Timchenko said, adding, “It was something you’ve never seen in your life, and I hope you never will.”
Kudrytskyi said that was “the most terrible moment.” But it was offset by a mid-February evening when he stood on a hill in Kyiv, “just shining in the streetlights and the lights of residential buildings.”
“When I saw Kyiv full of light, I realized that, yes, last winter’s battle was won, even before the winter ended,” he said. “This was probably one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Kostiantyn Khudov and Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.