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How Congress can support Ukraine’s power grid ahead of winter

(AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko)
A man rides his hoverboard as he clears snow from a pitch ahead of a soccer game in Irpin, Kyiv region, Ukraine, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.

As the first snowflakes of the year landed on the streets of Kyiv, millions of Ukrainians around the country found themselves without lighting or heat. 

Since early October, Russia has launched waves of mass airstrikes, targeting key elements of the country’s power infrastructure. Around half of Ukraine’s power system has been damaged or left inoperable and the grid operator has warned of further blackouts. 

In the coming weeks, Congress can provide relief. President Biden’s recent support proposal includes $1.1 billion in funding for Ukraine’s energy security, an immediate priority. 

The proposed funding would enable critical repair activities of power and gas infrastructure through the provision of needed equipment and provide funds for the import of electricity and gas. Protecting the energy supply is critical both to support Ukrainian citizens through the winter and to ensure Ukraine’s war effort continues to make progress. 

As Russia’s war effort has increasingly faltered and Ukraine’s military has launched a series of counteroffensives in the south and east of the country, Putin has returned to his old tactics — attacking civilian infrastructure to divide and deprive Ukrainians of essential services. They’ve been horrifyingly effective. Russia’s military has inside knowledge of Ukraine’s power network because much of it was constructed during Soviet times. Airstrikes have targeted key transmission points including high voltage substations and transformers, preventing the flow of energy from generation facilities to consumers and making service hard to restore. 

Funding will enable Ukrainian partners, energy companies and multilateral development banks to procure needed equipment for repairing the power sector. Some of the equipment needed is highly specialized; representatives of USAID and the Department of State have been working with industry partners to procure long lead time items like autotransformers. While the U.S. and international partners have been responsive to the unfolding crisis, the scale and intensity of Putin’s war against Ukraine’s power sector mean that more aid will be required, delivering it will help to keep the lights on and essential services operational in Ukraine.  

Protecting Ukraine’s energy security is inextricably linked to the U.S.’s commitment to supporting Ukraine’s national security. But energy aid is also a matter of individual and humanitarian importance. Already, there are estimates that the energy crisis in Ukraine will lead to a new wave of refugees forced to leave their homes due to a lack of heating or access to critical services like healthcare. Investments and interventions that protect cities’ energy supply can help alleviate some of the humanitarian fallout of power outages.  

Providing generators and fuel supplies is a good first step and the U.S. and international partners have been active in doing so. Supporting efforts to increase the energy system’s resilience in the face of continued attacks can also be an effective use of funds. Cities in the U.S. have demonstrated that rolling out distributed generation and micro-grids can be an effective method of ensuring supply in the event of natural disasters as power outages in the larger grid do not impact local supply.  

Addressing the immediate crisis through power equipment provision, funding and emergency supply deliveries is the most pressing matter, but rebuilding the energy system in Ukraine will require a long-term commitment from international partners. The proposed funding includes an additional $1.5 billion for economic stabilization and early reconstruction efforts including critical infrastructure. Providing technical advisors and energy infrastructure assessment support can help to speed up Ukraine’s eventual recovery after the war.  

Ukraine’s energy recovery strategy is ambitious; the country expects to be a net-exporter supporting Europe’s green electricity ambitions by constructing solar, wind and biomass facilities. Ukraine can be an important player in supporting broader European energy security and energy transition. As the crises of the past year have shown, there is no national security without energy security.  

Putin seeks to extend his power by depriving Ukrainian cities and families of theirs. The U.S. must not allow this tactic to work; Congress can act to provide timely and targeted funding for energy security in Ukraine. Fully funding President Biden’s support plan is a good initial step to help protect the Ukrainian power system over the coming year, but more support will be needed. Ukraine’s energy security, and national security, will depend on it. 

Allegra Dawes is a research associate in the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joseph Majkut is director of the CSIS Energy Security and Climate Change Program.

Tags Biden European energy crisis Politics of the United States Russo-Ukrainian War Ukrainian refugees US aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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