Russia switches tactics with attacks on Ukrainian power plants

A damaged Ukrainian power station after a Russian attack. (Wall Street Journal)
A damaged Ukrainian power station after a Russian attack. (Wall Street Journal)


Moscow is exploiting delays in Western aid to Kyiv, prompting Ukraine to make tough choices regarding what to protect.

Russia launched a major missile-and-drone assault on Ukrainian power stations, part of a new campaign to exploit delays in Western aid for Kyiv to press Moscow’s growing advantage in the third year of war.

The overnight strikes hit several regions across the country, destroying a power plant in the Kyiv region and inflicting fresh damage on others that had been struck in earlier attacks. Tens of thousands of homes were left without power, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for urgent additional aid from the West to combat the strikes.

“We need air defense and other defensive support—not ignoring and lengthy discussions," he said Thursday.

Zelensky recently warned that Ukraine would run out of air-defense missiles if the current pace and intensity of Russian strikes continues.

Dwindling stockpiles are leading Kyiv to make tough choices about which cities and critical infrastructure to protect, he said, adding that Ukraine would need 25 Patriot air-defense systems to fully shield its territory.

Recent attacks hit Ukraine’s biggest hydroelectric power plant and several thermal power plants, underscoring the vulnerability of the country’s energy infrastructure. In striking civilian infrastructure, Russia is seeking to lay the groundwork for future offensives by depleting Ukrainian air defenses and diverting Kyiv’s resources away from the front line, said Franz Stefan-Gady, a Vienna-based defense analyst. “Ukraine’s air-defense situation could become quite critical by the summer," he said.

White House National Security spokeswoman Adrienne Watson described Russia’s campaign as “a terrible reminder of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people and plunge them into darkness," urging Congress to unblock an aid package for Kyiv.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was retaliating for a recent spate of Ukrainian drone attacks targeting oil refineries and airfields deep inside its territory.

Russia battered Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in 2022, during the war’s first winter, but the latest attacks suggest a new approach.

“Compared to last year, the enemy has changed its tactics, and the current attacks have much more complicated consequences for us," Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said last week.

Unlike the first winter, when Russia targeted Ukraine’s electricity-distribution network, the recent attacks sought to destroy generation capacity and were more concentrated and precise.

“Now they went further: destroying not only the grid but generation itself," said Maksym Timchenko, the chief executive of DTEK, Ukraine’s biggest private energy company.

The bulk of Ukraine’s electricity is generated by three nuclear plants, and thermal and hydroelectric power are crucial for balancing the system during consumption peaks.

Even before the latest attack, Russian strikes had knocked out 80% of DTEK’s generation capacity, which supplies about one-fifth of the country’s power.

The company spent $110 million repairing damage caused by more than 100 attacks on its facilities during the war’s first year. It will cost more than twice that much to fix the most recent destruction, Timchenko said in an interview before the latest round of attacks.

Destroyed power units and transformers will take at least six months to replace. “We need to immediately place orders and they have to go into production," Timchenko said. “We can’t buy it off the shelf."

The company is in talks with Western partners to source used equipment from decommissioned power stations in Europe, which would be a quicker and cheaper solution.

Imports of electricity from Europe are helping to cover Ukraine’s power deficit because demand is low during spring, said Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, CEO of national energy company Ukrenergo. But the capacity is limited to 1,700 megawatts of imported energy—and supply isn’t guaranteed.

Without fully protecting Ukraine’s skies, decentralizing power generation is the only way to mitigate the threat of Russian attacks, said Oleksandr Kharchenko, director at the Energy Industry Research Center, a Kyiv-based think tank. Big power plants make easy targets, and Ukraine’s energy infrastructure dates to Soviet times, meaning Russia knows exactly where it is. Gas turbines dotted around Ukraine would be harder to strike—and the results less devastating.

One power plant was nearing the end of the night shift on March 22 when workers got a call alerting them that Russian missiles were heading their way.

Minutes later, multiple missiles slammed into the turbine hall, unleashing a shock wave that threw workers to the ground.

“Everything went dark," said the turbine department’s head of shift.

DTEK asked that the plant’s location and the names of the workers be withheld to prevent Russia from refining its targets.

A senior engineer was in the turbine hall at the moment of impact. “When I came to my senses, I realized I was alive," he said. It was only as he made his way back to the control room that he felt a heaviness in his leg. A sharp object had pierced his calf.

Workers used flashlights to find their way out through the smoke after management told them to evacuate.

An electrician at the plant wasn’t on shift that night but heard the blasts from his home roughly 6 miles away. As soon as the all-clear sounded, he rushed to the place where he had worked for the past two decades. It was hard to see what had happened because everything was shrouded in smoke.

When the flames subsided, the scale of the destruction came into view: Parts of the turbine hall had caved in, burying power units beneath mounds of concrete. Transformers were mangled and scorched.

“It’s not the first time," he said during a break from clearing debris. “But this time was much worse."

Workers had done their best to protect equipment from Russian attack with sandbags, concrete blocks and metal nets for catching drones. But the measures were little match for a concentrated barrage of missiles. No workers were killed despite the scale of the attack.

Two weeks on, some workers in harnesses scaled the walls of the turbine hall to clear debris. Others used sledge hammers to break down lumps of concrete for removal. At the sound of an air-raid siren, they all rushed for cover. It was a drill.

The wounded engineer plans to return to work once his leg heals, though the risk of Russian strikes persists. There is a sense of futility to restoring a plant that could be hit again, he said. “If the sky isn’t closed, there is no reason to rebuild."

Less than a week later, Russia struck the plant again.

Write to Isabel Coles at

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