Ukraine-Russia War: Is attacking the Ukrainian power grid a war crime?

  • Author, Ben Tobias with Oumou Kalsoum Ba
  • Role, BBC journalist
  • December 3, 2022


Russia’s recurrent attacks on Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure have plunged millions into darkness. Many Ukrainians are deprived of heating, electricity and water. Disturbances that coincide with winter. Temperatures below zero are observed.

Many Ukrainian and Western leaders have unanimously condemned the Russian strikes and consider them war crimes due to the damage caused to the civilian population.

Since the start of the war, there have been repeated attacks against Ukrainian energy networks.


So, is Russia violating international law?

Subject to certain conditions, parts of a country’s electricity grid may be considered legitimate targets in the event of war if used to power military installations.

As a reminder, Ukrainian energy infrastructure was attacked by American forces in 1991. An act that triggered a wave of criticism and indignation. NATO forces also targeted the power grid in Serbia in 1999. In both cases, the civilian population was affected by blackouts which adversely affected their daily lives.

Taking control of energy infrastructure is far preferable to direct strikes with missiles or heavy artillery.


“Would I prefer to deprive a part of the civilian population of electricity for a given period, rather than taking the risk of killing civilians by launching raids? Yes, I think so,” Michael Schmitt – professor emeritus at the US Naval War College – tells the BBC.

Why do millions of Ukrainians have no electricity as winter approaches?

What war crimes is Russia accused of in Ukraine?

Russia denies intentionally targeting civilians. She tried to justify her attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure via a statement from the Ministry of Defense dated November 18.

Even if a site is a target of legitimate military attacks, you have to keep reason.

“The state has an obligation under international humanitarian law (IHL) to choose a target or strategy for attacks that will cause less harm to civilians. You always have to try to preserve civilians and lessen the damage,” Dr Maria Varaki of King’s College War Studies tells the BBC.

Civilian deaths and injuries caused by attacks on military targets do not necessarily constitute violations of international law. But the principle of proportionality must be applied. It stipulates that the harm caused to civilians must not be excessive in relation to the military advantage obtained. The parties must also take “constant” care to spare the civilian population and civilian objects.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said after strikes in November that 10 million people had been left without power and half of the country’s electricity capacity had been destroyed. Six million people were still without power Thursday night, he added.

At some point, says Professor Schmitt, “the military must gauge the extent of the civilian damage. Yes, they are important, in this case, we should not attack.


The type of advantage gained by an attack is also a factor when determining whether it is a violation of IHL.

In times of war, “demoralizing people, terrorizing populations, is not acceptable from the army”, explains Dr. Varaki. According to her, “terrorizing the civilian population is considered a war crime. »

Russia persists in saying that it only attacks military bases. An argument refuted by the Ukrainian authorities.

“Ukraine’s refusal to negotiate with Russia, its categorical name to enter into negotiations, its refusal to find common ground are making the situation worse,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

In times of war, raiding and attacking vital infrastructure is a ruse used by the enemy. The goal is to destabilize the morale of his opponent. Only no reason would justify such acts. Even in war, everything must be done according to the rules of the art.

The scale and damage caused by Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure make it unlikely that they will not be considered a war crime.

As a former US Air Force targeting officer, Professor Schmitt doubts Russia can justify the Ukrainian sites it attacked. Because it is a requirement of international human law.

“You simply cannot conduct operations of this intensity and frequency in a country and say that you have carried out required checks,” he explains.

In view of the facts, Professor Schmitt believes that it is now “fairly clear” that Russia’s main motivation is to “terrorize the civilian population”.

For Dr Varaki, Russia is far from showing its commitment to minimizing civilian damage.

“The proof, given the extent of the damage, the Russian army does not seem to be concerned about civilian deaths,” says Dr. Varaki.


By November 28, Russia had attacked 200 targets, all energy infrastructure in Ukraine, according to the defense minister. Millions of people were without electricity and electricity consumption was restricted in more than a dozen regions.

But despite this, Professor Schmitt believes that if Russia hopes to demoralize the population, its strategy is unlikely to work.

“Historically, there is no reason to believe that Ukrainian morale will collapse… [Poutine] the opposite effect has occurred. Ukraine is determined to continue the fight. This is Russia’s strategic miscalculation. »

Has Russia violated international law? Any future legal process should first consider whether the large number of targets can be considered legitimate military objectives.

When we go to war, it’s to win it! Only civilians should be protected. They should not be deliberately attacked.

Russia and Ukraine have acceded to the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention. It remains to be seen whether Russia will have to explain all its actions in the context of the battle it is waging against Ukraine. The future will edify us.

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