A Power Struggle over Ukraine’s Electrical Grid

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series, which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

Since 2017, Ukraine’s national grid operator—Ukrenergo—has sought to sever ties with Russia’s electrical grid and instead synchronize networks with the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E). Coincidentally, on February 24, the very same day that Ukrenergo was conducting a practice disconnection test from Russia’s grid, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Following the invasion, Ukrenergo petitioned ENTSO-E for “emergency synchronization” with the Continental Europe power system. While ENSTO-E has not yet granted Ukraine’s request, on February 28 the organization issued a public statement acknowledging “the exceptional efforts of Ukrenergo to operate and maintain the power system in these difficult times,” and vowed to continue supporting Ukraine.

Presently, Ukraine’s electrical grid is in a precarious “isolation mode” state, explains Kadri Simson, the EU energy commissioner. This means it is not connected to an external grid. It also unfortunately means that the Ukrainian power system is vulnerable to outages and blackouts. The Wall Street Journal reports that it could take weeks for ENSTO-E to accommodate Ukrenergo’s connection request.

From a cyber threat standpoint, this is alarming for two reasons:

  • First, there is renewed speculation that Russian-linked hackers may target Ukraine’s grid for a third time.

Ukraine’s electrical grid was knocked offline by Russian hackers in December 2015—it was the first cyber operation targeting another country’s electrical grid. Not only did the attack impact more than 225,000 users in western Ukraine, but it also clogged up local customer service call centers, so that residents could not report outages. In 2016, Ukraine’s electrical grid was targeted again by Russian hackers who inserted blackout malware, Industroyer, into Ukrenergo’s power systems. The attack caused a one-hour blackout, impacting “every circuit breaker in a transmission station north of Kyiv.”

  • Second, assuming that ENSTO-E grants Ukrenergo’s request to connect to the European Union’s grid, shared by NATO members, if Russian actors then target Ukraine’s grid, would this be regarded as an “attack” against the European Union’s critical infrastructure?

Unclear. However, recall in 2021 that all UN members of the Open-Ended Working Group on responsible state behavior in cyberspace—including the Russian Federation—affirmed that states should not conduct or knowingly support activity that “intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public.” Although Russia has not publicly displayed its full array of offensive cyber tools at the time of this writing, there is heightened escalatory potential for cyber conflict between the European Union and the United States. For these reasons, the fate of Ukraine’s grid is a symbolic power struggle.

Zhanna Malekos Smith is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Strategic Technologies Program and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s) and not those of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Zhanna L. Malekos Smith
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project, and Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Strategic Technologies Program