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Ukraine says its energy system is teetering after Russian attack

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Russia unleashed another barrage of missiles on Ukraine's energy grid today. The strikes knocked out electricity in major cities throughout the country. And even as repair workers scrambled again to restore power, the energy system becomes more fragile every time there's a new wave of attacks. For more, we are joined by NPR's Greg Myre, who was in the capital, Kyiv, as it came under fire. He is still there now. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. So just fill us in. What do we know about today's missile strikes?

MYRE: Well, we know Russia fired dozens of missiles this afternoon. It took down the electricity and the water here in Kyiv as well as many other cities nationwide. Also, neighboring Moldova said about half the country lost power. That country, like Ukraine, was part of the Soviet Union, and their energy systems are still connected.

KELLY: Ah.

MYRE: Now, Russia was again targeting the power grid, but residential buildings were also hit. Several deaths and an even larger number of wounded have been reported. And another key point here - Ukraine intentionally disconnected three nuclear power plants from the national electricity grid. Ukraine did this as a precautionary measure. But of course, this takes even more electricity offline, at least temporarily, and makes the country's power shortage even worse.

KELLY: You said, Greg, Russia's targeting the power grid. Are they targeting one part of that system in particular?

MYRE: Yeah. If we had to put it into a word, it would be transformers. Ukraine has this national energy grid that spreads across a very large country. In fact, Russia's the only other country in Europe that has more territory. So there are these big central plants that generate electricity and send it out to a large network of substations that have these transformers. And so these are out in the open. They're easy targets. It's impossible to defend all of them. And often, these transformers are being damaged beyond repair, and they have to be replaced. Now, even in normal times, this could take a year or more to order one from a European or Asian country to the exact specifications needed here in Ukraine. The head of the big state energy company, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, offered this assessment.

VOLODYMYR KUDRYTSKYI: (Through interpreter) We lost the ability to produce electricity because every non-nuclear station has been damaged. I will not tell you the percentage, but the damage is colossal.

KELLY: So Greg, what is Ukraine doing to prepare for not just Russian strikes that continue to knock out power, but what you just raised there - that once power is knocked out, it can't be repaired quickly?

MYRE: Yeah, that's right. So President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says there are now 4,000 centers. He calls these points of invincibility or points of resilience. And they'll be in schools and government buildings. And they will provide heat and water, phone charging, internet access. So Zelenskyy is urging people to go to these stations when the power does go out for an extended period of time, and beforehand to be as frugal as possible with their electricity use. He says, quote, "all of us must be prepared for any scenario. By helping each other, we will all be able to get through this winter together."

KELLY: Well, that drives it home - the getting through the winter. It's not just about today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. We're talking months. Is this going to be enough - these measures he's calling for for an extended period and in a big city, like where you are in Kyiv?

MYRE: I'd have to say that's questionable at best because the problems during an extended blackout will cascade very rapidly. Without electricity, the heat and the water will also go. The water would then freeze in the pipes, so your problems start to compound. Right now, the daily temperatures in Kyiv are about 25 to 30 degrees, but they're going to go much lower. Now, we don't know how long Russia can sustain this pace of missiles. Ukraine says Russia is running low on missiles. But if Russia unleashes a major attack when it's bitterly cold, the need for heat and water will be all the more urgent. So the riskiest period is probably still ahead.

KELLY: All everything you're telling me is making me wonder about the possibility of another mass exodus from the country this winter, along the lines of what we saw back in February and March.

MYRE: That's certainly a possibility, Mary Louise. The Ukrainians want to stay put. And we can see they're not leaving now, as they did at the beginning of the war, when almost 8 million of them crossed the border to Poland and other countries. Now, government officials are starting to talk about this possibility in sort of limited, low-key ways. They're also telling people who left not to come back this winter. They're saying, if you have relatives in the countryside, you may want to stay with them, where wood can be burned. And the mayor of Kyiv told a German newspaper that this winter could be the toughest since the Nazis occupied the city during World War II.

KELLY: That is NPR's Greg Myre, reporting from Kyiv. Thank you, Greg. Stay safe.

MYRE: Will do. Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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