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Russian air attacks continue to target Ukraine's energy infrastructure

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Around midnight on New Year's Day, Ukrainian forces struck a building in the eastern region of Donetsk, killing, they say, hundreds of Russian soldiers. Now, this is a figure that Russia disputes. But either way, it marks an escalation and a response to Russian strikes in Kyiv on New Year's Eve. For the last three months, Russian forces have targeted Ukraine's energy infrastructure, leaving millions of Ukrainians without power over the holidays and leaving Ukraine's electric grid operator struggling to repair all the damage.

NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Kyiv to discuss the latest. And, Tim, start with what other details you have managed to nail down about this Ukrainian strike.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Like you mentioned, Russia marked New Year's Eve with a wave of new strikes in Ukraine, including at least 10 major strikes - explosions that could be heard in central Kyiv. Ukraine apparently struck back shortly after, and they claim that a strike on a building with Russian troops led to approximately 400 dead and 300 injured. Russia acknowledged the strike, adding that four missiles had hit a site occupied by Russia in Makiivka, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. However, the Russian Ministry of Defense said that just 63 Russian soldiers were killed. And in recent hours, Ukraine's military actually said that the number of killed are still being verified.

KELLY: OK.

MAK: Now, it's not unusual for both sides to make conflicting claims in a situation like this. And it's also difficult for a third party, like NPR, to verify it. But nevertheless, it's a sign that the violence in eastern Ukraine, where some of the most intense fighting of the war is happening, is continuing through the holidays.

KELLY: OK. So it sounds like some details yet to emerge from what happened in Donetsk. Meanwhile, you were out interviewing the head of Ukraine's power grid today. Take me there. Tell me what you saw, what you learned.

MAK: Well, what's interesting is Ukraine's power grid operator is called Ukrenergo. And when you walk into its headquarters in Kyiv nowadays, security is tight. You have to go through a series of thick metal doors and keycard-access gates and pass numerous rounds of security. But when you get past the first checks, the reason becomes really clear. I mean, the roof to one of the buildings is caving in. Other buildings have most of their windows shattered. The headquarters has been attacked over the past few months.

So I spoke to the CEO of the organization. His name is Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, and he said the Russian military campaign against the Ukrainian power grid is a race between two things.

VOLODYMYR KUDRYTSKYI: Well, this is a race between our ability to restore and their ability to destroy. And, of course, the game is absolutely unfair. But as they are exhausting their attacking potential, we're enhancing our defense potential and our ability to restore.

MAK: So far, he said, the Russian military has launched 25 waves of missile and drone attacks on energy infrastructure, comprising of nearly 1,000 attempted strikes.

KELLY: What did he tell you, Tim, about how Ukraine is doing in this race, how the power grid is holding up?

MAK: Well, you know, I mean, you can look out the window and see, right? Kyiv is particularly dark at night. And many Ukrainians, millions across the country, are struggling to get access to power and heat. That said, there have been fewer rolling blackouts over the past couple of weeks in the capital city. And there are clear signs that the Ukrainians are adapting to this reality, not to mention that repairs are occurring. Kudrytskyi said that the Russian strategy is to try to make Ukraine's winter substantially harder.

KUDRYTSKYI: That's why they probably decided to compensate somehow for their losses on the battlefields, to destroy the power grid of Ukraine and to inflict as much damage and suffering to Ukrainian people as possible, probably to make them create a pressure on political leadership to start negotiations with Russians.

MAK: Now, Kudrytskyi said that this has not worked and that the Ukrainian public has only hardened their opinion of the Russian government. That said, the Ukrainian grid does need help as the war goes on.

KUDRYTSKYI: We need unprecedented amount of equipment to be brought into Ukraine and to replace the burned down and damaged equipment here at our substations, at power plants.

MAK: And there has been a very serious human cost for his organization. Kudrytskyi said that six employees of his company have been killed by Russian forces since the war began.

KELLY: NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak reporting there from a mostly dark Kyiv, as we just heard. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.