Russian attacks on critical infrastructure: risks for Ukraine's resilience and implications for the EU. Analysis of Dionis Cenușa



"Ukrainian resilience needs external assistance to ensure continued flow of weapons, training of the armed forces, protection of critical infrastructure (energy, transportation), help for Ukrainian refugees abroad, and support for budget sources...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The new tactic of Russian aggression against Ukraine is to damage vital infrastructure, with an emphasis on the energy sector. Without access to uninterrupted power sources, Ukraine's resilience is severely challenged. However, if the population does not have essential public services and the economy can find itself paralyzed, the state cannot function as such, turning into a failed state. It is this scenario that was promoted by Russian officials and propaganda during September, after the Ukrainian counteroffensive proved effective and significant shortcomings emerged in Russia's partial mobilization.

Moscow justified the new wave of attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure with the need to respond to the partial destruction of the Kerchi Bridge (built in 2016-2018), which provides transportation between the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea (forcibly annexed to Russia in 2014) and the Russian region of Krasnodar. After the attack on the Russian bridge was labeled an "act of terrorism", Russian President Vladimir Putin validated the missile attack on critical infrastructure in Ukraine as an action to combat the terrorist threat. Thus, after October 10, Russia launched more than 100 missiles (and self-destructive drones) from Russian territory, occupied Crimea and from Russian military ships in the Black Sea and the Caspian basin. In just 2 days, Russian missiles hit about 30% of Ukraine's energy infrastructure (in Kyiv and more than 10 other regions of the country).

Both the components of the Ukrainian energy system and the Ukrainian social infrastructure (schools, kindergartens, living areas, etc.) are experiencing losses of billions of dollars. In addition to Russian weaponry, self-destructive drones imported from Iran were also used (NYT, October 2022). As a result of the impact of Western sanctions on domestic arms production, Russia is forced to purchase missiles, drones and artillery components from North Korea and Iran (Fateh-110, Zolfaghar, Mohajer-6, Shahed etc.). It is in Moscow's politico-military interest to use the most destructive ground-to-ground weaponry possible to make the territory of Ukraine under the control of the constitutional authorities uninhabitable. In this way, Russia avoids resorting to the “nuclear” scenario (IPN, September 2022), taking advantage of winter conditions and testing Ukraine's energy survivability capabilities to force it to capitulate. Although the prolongation of the war severely affects Ukraine's resilience, it puts pressure on Putin's regime at home and limits Russia's geopolitical value, especially in the former Soviet space.

The geopolitical implications of attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure

In contrast to previous Russian airstrikes, including against Ukraine's critical infrastructure, international organizations have hardened their positions towards Russia following the current escalation of Russian aggression. Thus, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution declaring that the political regime of Vladimir Putin is "terrorist" (October 13, 2022). Even if it does not entail any legal consequences and is limited to the western hemisphere of the world, the official comparison of the Russian authorities with "terrorists" represents a victory for Ukrainian diplomacy in the information war against the Russian side.

Consequently, Russia's involvement in the post-Soviet space is currently in decline. The results of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, together with the multiplication of war crimes committed by the Russian army against the Ukrainian population and state, are turning into a "geopolitical war of attrition" for Russia. This is manifested by the loss of relevance of the Russian factor in its traditional areas of influence. More specifically, changes are taking place at the level of security configurations in the South Caucasus, where the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Russia's individual security guarantees (for Armenia) are losing their political symbolism. Instead, the services of other providers of geopolitical influence are expanding. Thus, the EU will carry out a civilian mission (40 people with an initial mandate of 2 months) to facilitate efforts to demarcate and stabilize the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. This will become the second EU mission after the one established in Georgia (in 2008) to monitor the situation around the Georgian territories controlled by Russia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Central Asian states have also expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that Russia does not contribute to the development of the region on the basis of mutual interest and respect.

The defeats in Ukraine erode Russia's external legitimacy, casting an extremely negative light on the political regime. Until now, Putin has been projecting his power inside the country through the transfer of image from abroad: respect based on military fear and energy dependence. Currently both are strongly shaken by the events in Ukraine. Therefore, in order not to lose control over the newly annexed Ukrainian territories and not go through a new therapy of national demoralization, the Russian authorities are determined to destroy one of the engines of the Ukrainian state's resilience that is still in operation: the energy capacity.

Russian calculations, Ukrainian resilience and implications for the West

Russia's decision to target Ukrainian infrastructure stems from several important considerations. First, the Ukrainian army is advancing towards the territories occupied by the Russian side, and the partial mobilization carried out in the last three weeks denotes a state of military-moral exhaustion in Russia. For this reason, the return to some extended areas of attack inside Ukraine with Russian weapons is intended to curb the Ukrainian counteroffensive . The second consideration could be the loss of magnetism generated by the annexation of Ukrainian regions, condemned by 143 UN states in a recent resolution on Ukraine's territorial integrity (35 states abstained and 5, including Russia, opposed). This, along with the destruction of the Kerch Bridge, forced Putin to feed the increasingly frustrated and confused Russian propaganda and public some minimally favorable prospects for Russia. Finally yet importantly, Russia intends to exploit Ukraine's vulnerabilities that could be exacerbated if the infrastructure that generates electricity and provides the population with hot water, heating agent and clean water is destroyed. In this sense, the Russian missiles are aimed at the de-electrification of Ukraine, which would paralyze the economy as hard as possible and renew the waves of refugees.

Ukraine's resilience is based both on military assistance that continues to flow from the US and the EU, and on financial aid for the country's budget needs. According to World Bank estimates, the Ukrainian economy is at risk of contracting by up to 50% in 2022, and the poverty rate will increase from 2% in 2021 to 50% in 2023 (Reuters, October 2022). The continuation of the war increases the country's dependence on foreign financing. Kyiv is asking international partners for a minimum of $55 billion (loans and grants) to support the budget deficit in 2023, including $17 billion for the reconstruction of social and critical infrastructure in the energy sector. Estimates so far show that Russian aggression has caused at least $350 billion in physical damage. Costs of at least $252 billion were also recorded as a result of the paralysis of the economy during the almost 8 months of war.

Although the US is the largest donor country, it has more resources and fewer institutional constraints to increase assistance to Ukraine than the EU. The latter is affected by the secondary consequences of the sanctions against Russia, has serious problems related to access to energy resources and hosts the majority of Ukrainian refugees, who are cared for by EU states with European financial support. As of the end of September, the US had committed $8.5 billion and another $4.5 billion in financial assistance had been requested. At the same time, the European side pledged €9 billion, of which it allocated €1 billion and plans to transfer another €3 billion by the end of 2022 (FT, September 2022).

Securitization of critical infrastructure - main solution for state resilience

As with Ukraine, the main risk emanating from Russia through the end of the year and beyond to 2023 is to the security and viability of critical infrastructure. The destruction of the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines (a line of two) has raised the level of alert in the EU and NATO on the need to protect the majority elements of the critical submarine infrastructure. The focus is on gas pipelines that deliver energy resources (in the North Sea - from Norway; in the Mediterranean Sea -from Algeria to Italy). This also refers to the Internet cables on which the activity of around 94% of the European business environment is based and the operation of public services (digitized water supply systems, agriculture, etc.) depend on it.

Securing critical infrastructure is an essential element of civil preparedness. This requires comprehensive measures concerning the critical infrastructure that should be organized, verified and tested over time to prevent any act of sabotage. At the same time, Western partners must deliver anti-missile systems to protect the Ukrainian energy sector. Germany has already shipped an IRIS-T system and France will ship the Crotale system in November 2022.

A certain anti-missile umbrella could have been built to defend Ukraine's energy infrastructure a few months ago, before reaching the winter period. Rather due to faulty prioritization, this appears to have been overlooked and is now being exploited by Russia. Ukraine has a maximum of 2 weeks to 1 month to rehabilitate energy infrastructure elements destroyed by missiles and drones launched by Russia. With the help of technical teams from the EU states, the repair of the infrastructure must be completed as soon as possible, after which they must be equipped with Western anti-missile systems. In the absence of this protection, Ukraine was already forced to suspend the flow of electricity delivered to the EU (ENSTO-E), but also to Moldova (about 30% of the electricity used). The energy deficit exposes the resilience of the Ukrainian state to great challenges, which can affect the military potential and the effectiveness of the counteroffensive.

In lieu of conclusions…

Ukraine's ability to absorb the shocks of Russian aggression and adapt to the war economy depends on the help of Western partners. In this regard, Western partners must provide urgent help to protect Ukraine's energy sector before the onset of winter.

At the same time, the EU together with NATO must assess the level of protection of its own critical infrastructure against sabotage actions carried out by state actors with hostile intentions.

Finally, Ukraine's resilience needs all possible external support to ensure the strengthening of the effectiveness of the sanctions regime, the continuation of the flow of weapons, the training of the armed forces, the protection of critical infrastructure (energy, transport), the care of Ukrainian refugees abroad and replenishment of budget sources.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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