An Essential Part of Modern Life That Armies Should Never Attack Again

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.

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