Is Russia the Only Country to Bomb Electrical Grids?

According to my October 17 copy of the Washington Post, Russia has been using some hundreds of unmanned “Kamikaze” drones, among other munitions, to attack electrical grid facilities in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.  The described intent is to demoralize Ukrainians with prospects of little electrical power in the coming winter months – to say nothing of the effects of the commensurate civilian deaths when these drones, and other munitions, hit their targets and, of course, when they miss, plowing into apartment buildings and other ostensibly unplanned impact points.

As the Washington Post article states, “Intentionally directing attacks on civilian infrastructure with no military purpose is a war crime.”  I presume the Post has done a legal analysis and is correct in this assertion.  If not technically a war crime or something hard to prove based on the intention-caveat the Post pointed out, these attacks are blatantly immoral and disgusting on the part of Russia.

Below the article about the drone attacks, is another, “How Moscow and Kyiv use kamikaze drones,”  describing the Iranian-built Shahed-136s drone the Russians are using: range: over 1,000 miles; speed: 115 m.p.h. using propeller propulsion, and weight: 440 pounds, which includes a warhead payload of 88 pounds.

Other systems the Russians are using to bomb these cities are not discussed in this particular edition, but they are presumably numerous with larger warheads as we have been all too infuriated to observe for the last several months..

While it is somewhat ghoulish to make the assertion, the Russian efforts with these “kamikaze” drones are those of a piker compared to others’ attacks on an enemy’s electrical grid.

In the American campaign against Iraq in the 1991 First Gulf War, known as Operation Desert Storm, US and allied attack aircraft were assigned 12 target categories, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis that I wrote with some other colleagues at that agency.  One of the target categories in Iraq was the electrical grid.  There were 14 targets in the category.  Roughly, a total of 2,500 guided and unguided bombs were used against the 14 targets.  The total bombing weight was approximately 1,000 tons.  Each target received – on average — 178 bombs, weighing 71 tons.

The effects were devastating.  According to the Department of Defense’s analysis, the Iraqi electrical grid was “eventually collapsed.”  GAO concluded that 57 percent of the electricity targets were “fully successfully destroyed.”  Iraqi electrical generation capacity was reduced from 9,500 megawatts to 1,000, an 85 percent reduction.  The effects, even without a winter as approaches in Ukraine, can be deadly: Iraqi hospitals could not function, food and medicine perished, water could not be purified nor raw sewage processed.   Neither DOD nor GAO reported any estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties, but one British source reported between 100,000 and 200,000 from all direct and indirect effects of the war. The Iraqi government reported 2,300 civilian deaths based on the overall allied air campaign. An independent study estimated 3,500 civilian deaths directly caused by the bombing of all targets.

Importantly, as we have seen in past wars in such circumstances, even though the bombing’s effects exceeded expectations, it “did not succeed in weakening popular support for the [Iraqi] regime.”  Indeed, as appears to have been happening in Ukraine, Russian tactics steel civilian resolve and tend to unite Ukraine around its leadership.  If you think this counterintuitive, imagine the British reaction to the German “Blitz” in World War Two.

Whether the Iraqi civilian deaths resulting from American attacks on the Iraqi electrical grid constitute a war crime is best left to qualified war law lawyers. However, the Washington Post’s mention of war crimes in the context of the disgusting Russian attacks on civilian targets wields a double edged sword.  When we condemn – properly – Putin and his commanders for their excesses, we should remember, however, others have been down that same road.

Moreover, Putin’s city bashing does not shorten the war in Russia’s favor, it prolongs it, isolates Russia in the eyes of world observers and makes Ukraine’s success all the more desirable and possible.  Politicians and military leaders in Russia and elsewhere who think killing civilians is a good, even an allowable, idea are to be reviled.

Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.