Ukraine was invaded because it tried to break out of Russian orbit and lean west. His effort to reach out to the Western world was most visibly manifested during the Dignity Revolution of 2014, also known as Maidan after Kiev’s Independence Square, and even more so now that civilians are taking homemade weapons to fight the invaders from the east.
Escaping Russia has taken many important but less overtly heroic forms since 2014. Ukraine has complied with the European Union’s Third Energy Package and demonopolized its major Soviet state-owned energy giants, notably Naftogaz and Ukrenergo, the gas and electricity monopolies. It has taken steps to adopt EU privacy and data protection rules. It guaranteed visa-free travel to the EU for its citizens. It stopped importing Russian natural gas, buying it from Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia.
Perhaps the least glamorous but no less critical, Ukraine has also worked hard to decouple its electricity sector, its power grid, from the Russian grid so that it can interconnect with Europe. It’s easy to get too technical quickly, but Ukraine is basically struggling to break free from Russian domination over its electricity.
The invasion has shaken Ukraine’s electricity sector, of which about 52% is nuclear, 28% coal, 10% renewable energy and 8% natural gas. According to Maxim Timchenko, CEO of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private power company, the country’s power grid was still stable after four days of Russian bombardment. One of DTEK’s coal-fired power plants is offline in occupied Luhansk, and Russian forces have seized the Kyiv hydroelectric plant and apparently a hydroelectric plant at Nova Kakhovka. Russian troops surrounded the 6-gigawatt Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, although on Monday Energoatom said the plant was still online. Most renewables, wind and solar, are offline. Some damage was suffered by distribution infrastructure. Yet, somehow, the global network, despite all this, remains operational.
It may be pretty stable, but one small, untold and critically important outcome of the Russian invasion is that the Ukrainian power grid is now dangerously orphaned. Just like the country left by the world to fight for its life alone, Ukraine’s power system is currently isolated and under attack, wedged between Russia and Europe.
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The grid, a remnant of Soviet times, has been connected to the Russian grid and power systems since its construction. Russia could previously hijack Ukraine (and Moldova, among other former Soviet countries) from Moscow, literally. Today, as Anders Åslund explained to the Atlantic Council, Russia controls the Ukrainian electricity sector, because this small country can only import electricity from Russia or Belarus, their networks being interconnected. Russia also controls technical elements, such as the frequency of electricity in the network.
Ukraine has suffered from its continued electricity connection with Russia. Electricity has been one of the means of continuing its hybrid war against Ukraine since 2014. In December 2015, hackers that the United States identified as Russian took over a network control center in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast by exploiting a Microsoft Word feature to use as phishing scam targeting. employees of the electricity distribution company. Hackers cut power to Kiev and a significant part of western Ukraine. Another Russian cyberattack on the network took place in 2016. Cyberattacks against Ukraine have spread to the rest of the world, such as the NotPetya ransomware attack in 2017, which cost countries around $10 billion.
The United States and the EU poured money and technical assistance into Ukraine beginning in 2016 to build the country’s electricity resilience and develop cybersecurity systems for the power grid. The programs continue to this day. On December 2, 2021, the Council of the EU approved 31 million euros for, among other things, cyber protection. The US Agency for International Development currently has a multi-year, $38 million cyber assistance program underway in Ukraine. These and other efforts include or will include cyber defense of critical infrastructure. In fact, Ukraine received more financial and technical assistance than it could absorb. Consolidation of Ukrainian network vulnerabilities has been slow.
After Maidan, Ukraine took seriously its break with the Russian network and its connection with Europe. In 2017, the Ukrainian electricity system operator, Ukrenergo, signed an integration agreement with the European ensemble of system operators, the European Network of Transmission System Operators, known as ENTSO-E. The agreement defined a set of technical requirements necessary for Ukraine to prepare (synchronize) its electricity network in order to integrate it into the European network. Since then, Ukraine has consistently complied and is now fully compliant. But like many of his efforts to connect with the West, such as joining NATO, he was nominally welcomed but not admitted.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made this an emergency. Not only will cybersecurity remain an issue as long as the Ukrainian power grid remains connected to Russia, but Ukraine could lose power at any time.
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One of the most important conditions for ENTSO-E integration is a test to see if Ukraine can handle the actual switchover process without destabilizing its network, as this instability could negatively affect European networks. At worst, it could cause them to crash. Called isolation testing, this requirement is the actual disconnection of Ukraine’s electrical system from Russia for a few days to see how it goes. It was scheduled for February 24, 2022, the day of the Russian invasion. The disconnection took place on time. The Ukrainian network was disconnected from Russia and it survived in full working order with no signs of disruption.
Supposed to last only a few days, the isolation test has now left the Ukrainian network blocked. Ukraine is unable to connect to Europe because ENTSO-E has not yet approved integration, and Ukraine is absolutely unwilling to reconnect with Russia, the country that violently bombs its people. Ukraine is now an electric island. This means that if enough power plants are bombed or captured to cause blackouts, the country cannot import additional electricity to keep its homes lit, factories running, and troops powered. It’s unclear whether Russia’s seizure of the power plants is part of a plan to turn off Ukraine’s lights, but the risk is very real.
The actual connection of Ukraine to the European power grid was planned for 2023. The technical requirements and the remaining tests were to be carried out over the rest of 2022. Experts attribute these six long years since the signing of the integration agreement of 2017 to meticulous standards on the part of ENTSO-E and its members, but also to the hesitation of certain European governments and network operators. Some were wary of cheaper Ukrainian electricity competing with their domestic production, perhaps to include Poland, although Ukrainian electricity was more expensive than others. As with NATO membership, some have just dragged their feet, perhaps Italy and Spain among them. Complaints include that Ukraine’s overall electricity production is low, that it is not investing adequately in its systems, and that the entire electricity sector is dominated by oligarchs. . Overly restrictive or prescriptive regulation is another problem, with the Ukrainian government often interfering in electricity market mechanisms, for example through anti-competitive price caps. More problematic was the threat of Russian destabilization, which created potential vulnerabilities that European grid operators were unwilling to assume.
Now that these threats have materialized, Ukraine should be allowed to connect its network to that of Europe as quickly as possible. It has already met the technical synchronization requirements and ENTSO-E is not an exclusive club. It includes 42 network operators in 35 countries, much larger than the 27 Member States of the European Union. In fact, a small part of Ukraine’s electricity system, Burshtyn Power Island, which provides 4% of Ukraine’s electricity in the far west of the country, has been integrated into Europe since 2003. However, each member of ENTSO- E must agree to admit Ukraine.
The CEO of Ukrainian electricity transmission system operator Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytski, wrote a letter to ENTSO-E on February 27 “urgently requesting[ing] the emergency synchronization of the Ukrainian electricity system” with the European network. He said this was essential to maintain electricity in Ukraine and to ensure the security of the electricity system.
The political will to help Ukraine is mounting by the hour as Russian troops advance, tens of thousands of refugees flee and bombs rain down on residential neighborhoods. On February 27, three days after the start of the Russian assault, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson promised to try to secure Ukraine’s emergency integration with ENTSO-E. An EU energy ministerial meeting was held on February 28 where the issue was discussed. No decision is yet to come.
Electricity is only a small part of Ukraine’s struggle against Russian subjugation. It is one of many unglamorous fronts in a war that Ukraine should not have to fight. But it is an absolutely crucial question, and one that does not depend on Russia but on Europe. As Europe seeks to support Ukraine as it defends itself, one measure it should urgently include is to keep Ukraine lit during the siege.