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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Dan Sabbagh at Tripilska power station, Kyiv region

Ukraine air defences overwhelmed as Russia pounds power stations

Mykhailo Podolyak
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Moscow was adopting new tactics of attacking power stations with up to 10 or 12 missiles at a time. Photograph: Anastasia Vlasova/The Guardian

Ukraine’s air defences are being overwhelmed by concentrated waves of Russian bombing aimed at its power stations, acknowledged a senior presidential adviser after the destruction of an entire plant on Thursday.

Mykhailo Podolyak said Moscow was adopting new tactics of attacking power stations with up to “10 or 12 missiles at a time”, bypassing already stretched Patriot and other missile shields.

“The system is overloaded,” Podolyak said in an interview. “Now we have to see whether we can keep the system running, whether we need more air defence systems, especially against [hypersonic] ballistic missiles, and whether we can restore the destroyed facilities.”

On Thursday, Trypilska, a coal and gas fired plant south of Kyiv, was destroyed after Russian bombing caused fire to break out in the turbine hall, according to its operator, Centrenergo.

The energy company said that while no staff were killed, it had lost 100% of its generating capacity. “The scale of destruction is terrifying,” said its chair, Andriy Gota. The attack came three weeks after the same company lost the Zmiiv power station to Russian bombing near the city of Kharkiv.

People who lived near the fossil fuel plant described the site being hit by multiple missile strikes shortly before 5am on Thursday, causing a fire that took several hours to put out, leaving the main building a charred ruin overlooking a lake near the country’s central Dnipro River.

The destruction meant nearby towns had lost their source of winter heating. In Ukraine, many homes rely on district systems for warmth during the winter.

Anatol Shevchenko, a garage worker who lives a few miles from the power plant, said he and his wife counted six explosions. It was a relief that the attack took place in early April, he said, after the end of winter and during a period of unusually warm weather, with highs in the mid twenties. But he said that if the Russians succeeded that “it would mean cutting electricity supplies in summer and the fridges won’t work, so it’s not like summer is the solution”.

Petro Olekseivch, who lives in nearby Ukrainka, said people feared the plant could not be repaired given the scale of damage, though Gota said on Friday repairs were theoretically possible but pointless unless air defence was improved.

Podolyak said Ukraine was urgently seeking help from its allies to better tackle the threat, and said that while Kyiv had not yet run out of US-made Patriot and German Iris-T air defence missiles, it was running short of the critical munitions. “They are definitely in deficit,” he said.

Ukraine said it had destroyed 57 of the 82 missiles and drones launched by Russia during a major attack overnight on Wednesday – a relatively low proportion by Kyiv’s standards. Two gas storage sites, owned by Naftogaz, and two other power plants, owned by the private generator, Dtek, were also targeted.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, told his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, during a summit late on Thursday that the attacks in Ukraine were a direct response to drone attacks on oil refineries inside his country. “Unfortunately, we observed a series of strikes on our energy sites recently and were obliged to respond,” Putin said.

“The strikes on energy are linked in part with solving one of the tasks we set for ourselves, and that is demilitarisation,” Putin said, adding that the attacks had been timed for the spring and not in winter “out of humanitarian considerations”.

Ukraine has conducted more than a dozen waves of drone strikes at Russian oil refineries and related facilities aimed at disrupting the invader’s economy. However, this week Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, publicly cautioned that such attacks could have “a knock-on effect” on global energy prices and called on Kyiv to focus on targets “that can directly influence the current fight”.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, believes that Ukraine needs 25 Patriot missile defence systems to defend the whole country; currently Kyiv has at least two, although the exact figure is not known. The foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has been asked to find seven urgently, and has identified 100 held by western nations from which he hopes to obtain donations.

Podolyak said the west needed to understand that Russia was “carrying out warfare against the civilian population” and complained of a lack of condemnation from the international community. “The Russians have completely destroyed one of the largest thermal power plants in Europe. But we don’t see any resolutions from the security council in the UN or any other proclamations like that,” he said.

Homes and businesses in and around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, have suffered repeated power cuts this spring as a result of near daily Russian bombing. On Thursday, 200,000 homes were reported to be without power in Kharkiv region after a series of rockets were aimed at the area.

Ukraine’s overall position has deteriorated markedly since the start of the year, after military aid from the US dried up and Donald Trump allied Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to put a $60bn Ukraine aid package to the vote. The frontline town of Avdiivka was lost in February, while successful missile strikes have increased in number outside the capital.

Podolyak said he was bemused by the lack of military assistance from the US, describing it as “an odd situation for us”. Funding Ukraine would demonstrate “the reputation of the US as a global leader” and that reluctant Republicans should appreciate doing so “is an investment” in that position, he said.

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