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Why Armies Should Never Target This Vital Aspect of Contemporary Society

In late March, following two years of relentless assaults on Ukraine, Russia targeted Ukraine’s power supply directly. Previously, Russia’s missiles and kamikaze drones primarily aimed at Ukrainian substations responsible for distributing electricity from power plants to consumers. However, this time, the attacks struck the power plants themselves, causing severe damage to hydroelectric and fossil fuel stations, which are challenging to repair or replace.

The cessation of power brings life to a standstill. Lights extinguish, sewage treatment halts, access to clean water diminishes, and electric transportation including cars, buses, and trolleys come to a halt. Elevators stop functioning, potentially trapping elderly and disabled individuals. The loss of power disrupts essential services such as home heating, refrigeration, cooking, and laundry, affecting medical equipment like oxygen generators as well.

Despite the increasing reliance of the world on electricity for various essential functions, power grids remain legitimate military targets under both international law and military regulations. Nonetheless, there are indications of a potential shift in this perspective. Prior to Russia’s devastating attacks, the International Criminal Court in The Hague condemned the country’s assault on Ukraine’s power system as crossing a line and issued arrest warrants for two senior Russian commanders, Adm. Viktor Nikolayevich Sokolov and Lt. Gen. Sergei Ivanovich Kobylash, accused of orchestrating the missile strikes. (Russia has denied allegations of committing war crimes.)

This marked the world’s inaugural prosecution of combatants for targeting a power grid, signifying a crucial initial step towards acknowledging the increasing importance of electricity in modern life. Moving forward, the global community must establish clear boundaries for combatants in future conflicts and reinforce the position of future prosecutors by enacting specific safeguards for power grids. While the Geneva Conventions currently protect certain infrastructures like hospitals, dams, and nuclear power plants, it is imperative to extend similar protections to power grids.

Throughout history, armies have routinely attacked power grids during wartime. Examples include Germany targeting Britain’s grid from zeppelins in World War I and NATO jets attacking power plants in Serbia in 1999. The civilian repercussions of such attacks can be catastrophic, as demonstrated when the United States disrupted Baghdad’s electricity in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war, leading to disruptions in water and sewage treatment and subsequent epidemics.

International law theoretically restrains these attacks, deeming power grids as “civilian objects” to be safeguarded during conflicts. However, in practice, numerous exceptions allow militaries to justify almost any attack based on the perceived military gains outweighing projected civilian suffering.

Governments often justify attacks on power grids by highlighting electricity’s role in various sectors, including political and military communications and arms manufacturing. While some argue that the recent extensive strikes were necessary to disrupt weapon production facilities, it appears that the primary aim was to instill terror and break the spirit of the Ukrainian populace. This is evident in statements made by Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, following grid attacks in November 2022, attributing the consequences to Ukraine’s reluctance to engage in negotiations.

The United States Department of Defense, in its updated guidelines, considers power plants crucial to a state’s military functions, qualifying them as military objectives during armed conflicts. The guidelines downplay civilian casualties resulting from blackouts as too complex to accurately estimate, urging field commanders to focus only on immediate civilian impacts post-attack. Despite differing opinions among U.S. military experts on the legality of Russia’s grid attacks in Ukraine, it is evident that the civilian harm caused is significant.

The recent actions by the International Criminal Court panel targeting Russian officers for crimes against humanity due to grid attacks underscore the escalating severity of the situation. While the U.S. military has reduced its attacks on electrical grids over the past two decades, advocating against wholesale grid destruction, it is crucial for other nations to follow suit. Implementing a robust grid protection protocol that explicitly restricts power system destruction could serve as a deterrent and potentially prevent future attacks.

While accountability for plunging Ukraine into darkness may elude certain individuals like Mr. Putin, the possibility of General Kobylash and Admiral Sokolov facing trial outside Russia could lead to a reckoning for those responsible for such actions. Prosecutors pursuing war criminals demonstrate a commitment to seeking justice, even if it takes years to achieve.