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Ukraine braces for Russian winter assault on critical energy grid, telecom infrastructure

KYIV, December 21 ------ Temperatures have begun to drop below zero in parts of Ukraine as winter sets in. Along with the bitter cold comes renewed fears of Russian attacks on its critical infrastructure in attempts to paralyze the nation. 


Last year, Russian missiles targeted power plants and electricity transmission systems, plunging entire cities into darkness and without heat in the dead of winter. More than 40 per cent of Ukraine's vital energy infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. As the nation enters its second winter of the war, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Ukrainians to prepare for new waves of assaults. “Russia is preparing for Ukraine,” he said. “And here, in Ukraine, all attention should be focused on defense, on responding to terrorists, on everything that Ukraine can do to get through the winter and improve our soldiers' capabilities.”



The president’s appeal to his people came as Russian forces targeted telecommunication infrastructure to cut Ukrainians off from networks.


Last week, the country’s top mobile network operator Kyivstar was hit by the largest cyberattack since the war began in February 2022. Kyivstar supplies more than half of Ukraine’s population with mobile and internet services. Users were unable to get mobile signals or access the internet, with effects of the attack lasting at least 48 hours. It also disrupted air raid alert systems, putting millions of people in danger of not receiving alerts of potential Russian air strikes. Since the invasion, Ukraine has seen a repeat cycle of destruction, restoration, followed by further destruction. “We have a telecommunications base station that has been restored more than 10 times. It is situated at the border of Russia in the Kharkiv region,” said Mr Oleksandr Ananiev, Vodafone Ukraine’s head of network operations. “We keep restoring it, but the Russians keep destroying it with mortar shelling. The restoration depends on the specific object (damaged). It can take as little as one day or it might stretch to a week, even two weeks.” Vodafone Ukraine is the second largest mobile provider in the country. So far, it has spent more than US$192 million restoring damaged networks. Telecom companies said the full scale of the destruction to their systems, including those in Russian-occupied territories, is still unclear. “I cannot even estimate the losses at the moment. It will be several billion dollars for sure,” Mr Ananiev told CNA.



Before the war, Ukraine was known for its thriving technology and digital sector, with one of the largest 4G networks in Europe. However, by February this year, more than US$2 billion worth of infrastructure had been destroyed, and more than 60 per cent of the sector’s workforce were forced to relocate. On the outskirts of Kyiv, buildings and houses damaged by Russian shelling from the early days of the invasion are still waiting to be rebuilt, just like many others across Ukraine. At least 2 million homes have been damaged or destroyed, and large parts of the power grid remain hobbled by Russian attacks last winter. The World Bank said the cost of reconstruction has risen to US$411 billion, but some experts have cited numbers as high as US$1 trillion.  The figure is only set to rise, with no end in sight to the war.



Continued Russian assaults have pushed Ukraine to begin making radical reforms to its energy system. “We will become much stronger because we will develop and we will restore on the ‘build back better principle,” said Mr Oleksiy Ryabchin, Ukraine’s former deputy minister for energy and environmental protection. “The old Soviet technologies of a big, centralized country will now be transformed into a more resilient, more flexible one with decentralized systems.” This will narrow the affected areas when one facility is attacked, making the nation’s energy infrastructure less vulnerable and more secure. Questions remain over who and how to foot the bill for war-battered Ukraine’s reconstruction. The United States, European Union and other western allies have been exploring ways of tapping into Russia’s frozen assets. However, experts have warned that this would violate international law and set a dangerous precedent. For now, as winter sets in, diesel generators are the short-term solution for many of Ukraine’s businesses.  Vodafone Ukraine has linked them to its telecom towers to prepare for power cuts. The firm said their engines are ready to rumble and keep the country connected as the cold begins to bite.



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