Opinion: An essential part of modern life that armies should never attack again

The global community must draw bright lines for combatants in future conflicts by creating specific protections for power grids.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An extensive electrical grid powers the Facebook data center in Eagle Mountain on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

In late March, after two years of withering attacks on Ukraine, Russia knocked out half of Ukraine’s power supply. Up to that point, Russia’s missiles and kamikaze drones had mostly targeted the Ukrainian substations that push electricity from power plants to consumers. But this time they hit the plants themselves, severely damaging and destroying hydroelectric and fossil fuel stations — all of which are difficult to repair or replace.

When power stops, life grinds to a halt. Lights go out. Sewage treatment stops. Clean water stops. Electric cars, buses and trolleys stop. Elevators stop, trapping older and disabled people. For many, home heating, refrigeration, cooking and clothes washing stops, along with medical devices such as oxygen generators.

Even though the world’s dependence on electricity for all of this and more is growing, power grids are still legitimate military targets, according to both international law and our own military rule book. But there are small, promising signs that could be changing. Early last month, before Russia’s most damaging assaults, the International Criminal Court in The Hague concluded that the country’s pummeling of Ukraine’s power system had already crossed the line and issued arrest warrants for a pair of senior Russian commanders, Adm. Viktor Nikolayevich Sokolov and Lt. Gen. Sergei Ivanovich Kobylash, whose units are accused of launching the missiles. (Russia has denied committing war crimes.)

It was the world’s first prosecution of combatants for attacks on a power grid and an important first step toward recognizing electricity’s growing centrality to modern life. But the global community must now draw bright lines for combatants in future conflicts — and strengthen the hand of future prosecutors — by codifying specific protections for power grids. The international community already attempts to do that for select infrastructure, including hospitals, dams and nuclear power plants, via the Geneva Conventions. It’s time to add power grids to that privileged roster.

For decades, armies have routinely attacked power grids during war. Germany targeted Britain’s grid from zeppelins in World War I, and NATO jets targeted power plants in Serbia in 1999. The civilian fallout from these attacks can be devastating: When the United States knocked out Baghdad’s electricity in 1991 in the Persian Gulf war, water and sewage treatment were disrupted, sparking typhoid and cholera epidemics.

International law is supposed to curb these kinds of attacks; the laws set out in the Geneva Conventions consider power grids “civilian objects,” to be protected in war. But in practice, thanks to myriad exceptions, militaries can justify nearly any attack where anticipated gains outweigh the projected civilian suffering.

Governments often point to electricity’s role in everything from political and military communications to arms manufacturing. According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, the massive strikes last month were necessary because they disrupted enterprises making and repairing “weapons, equipment and ammunition.” But it would seem that the real goal was to terrorize and break the Ukrainian people. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said as much while explaining grid attacks in November 2022 that left 10 million people without power: “The unwillingness of the Ukrainian side to settle the problem, to start negotiations, its refusal to seek common ground, this is their consequence.”

In its Department of Defense Law of War Manual updated last year, the United States says that it views power plants as important enough to a state’s military functions “to qualify as military objectives during armed conflicts.” The Pentagon rule book dismisses civilian injuries and deaths caused by blackouts as too “remote” and “myriad” for field commanders to accurately calculate and encourages them to consider only the civilians affected “very soon after the attack,” such as those at a hospital directly connected to a power plant. But even in that case, the manual hews to the general rule for civilian infrastructure, advising American forces to stand down only where the harm of powering down life support will be “excessive” relative to the gains.

Unsurprisingly, even U.S. military experts on the law of armed conflict have taken divergent stands on Russia’s grid attacks in Ukraine, attacks it continued last week. “At least some” violated international law, wrote one. Another found it hard to “definitively” identify a criminal act.

The three-judge International Criminal Court panel said it had “reasonable grounds to believe” that the officers they seek to apprehend committed crimes against humanity. That charge applies to unlawful acts that are widespread or systematic, and Russia’s grid attacks keep intensifying.

Our military began scaling down its attacks on electrical grids over 20 years ago. Gregory Noone — a captain and former judge advocate in the U.S. Navy who has trained government officials in Rwanda, Afghanistan and Russia in the laws of war — told me he saw a shift in U.S. behavior between the Persian Gulf war and the Iraq war. “We, the U.S. military, took great pride in the fact that we turned all the lights off in Baghdad in the first gulf war. We wiped out their electric grid,” Dr. Noone said. But by the time of the Iraq war, “we realized that wasn’t such a good idea.”

Other countries would be wise to follow our lead and reject wholesale attacks on the grid. It would save lives and prevent needless destruction; it would also help build an unwritten (yet enforceable) body of international law constraining power grid attacks.

But the international community can and should go further. A strong grid protection protocol that explicitly limits power system destruction could be a game changer. It would ratchet up the threat of prosecution, potentially deterring bad actors who might otherwise be tempted to target power generators. The International Criminal Court said a desire to stop further attacks prompted it to unseal the warrants for General Kobylash and Admiral Sokolov. The hope is that field officers directing missiles and drones may think twice before they order these kinds of attacks in the future.

While Mr. Putin may never face consequences for plunging Ukraine into darkness, General Kobylash and Admiral Sokolov may never leave Russia, for fear of being picked up outside its borders to face trial. If they do, a reckoning could yet lie ahead for those who would thrust civilians into darkness. Prosecutors who pursue war criminals can keep hunting for decades.

Peter Fairley is a journalist who has covered power technology and policy for over 20 years. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.