Russian bombing destroys Ukraine's industrial base

Its towering chimneys once emitted clouds of steam. In the gigantic engine rooms, turbines turned 24 hours a day. Furnaces burned trainloads of coal.

In Soviet times, the Kurakhove heat and power plant gave rise to the surrounding city in eastern Ukraine, driving the local economy and supporting the community with wages and heating for homes.

“Our plant is the heart of our city,” said Halyna Liubchenko, a retiree whose husband worked his entire career in the nearby coal mines that powered the plant.

That heart now barely beats, partly destroyed by artillery. The plant is among the last still operational in Ukraine's Donbass region, once the center of the country's heavy industry and now the focal point of Russian ground offensives that are devastating towns and cities along the front line.

The war in eastern Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of people, reduced cities to ruins and displaced millions. It also nearly destroyed factories and plants that have been an important driver of the Ukrainian economy for years.

With the destruction this year of a major factory producing coking coal, which is burned to turn iron ore into steel in blast furnaces, the Donbas region's steel industry is now completely demolished. Other industries, such as those producing chemicals, machinery and fertilizers, have been significantly degraded.

These plants once defined the region's identity, and their decline in the post-Soviet period laid the groundwork for Russia to exploit economic discontent among miners and workers in eastern Ukraine.

In 2013, the year before the start of Russian military intervention in the east, mines and factories in the Donbas region earned $28 billion, equivalent to 15% of the country's economic output.

But two years after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the factories that Russia promised to revive in the region are in ruins. Nine of the country's 15 steel mills have been destroyed or closed behind Russian lines, according to the Employers' Federation of Ukraine, an industry group. “It is very painful for the country to lose everything,” said Dmytro Oliynyk, the group's director.

The region's coal mines, steel and chemical plants also played a strategic role in the war, prolonging urban battles for months as Ukrainian troops used them as fortresses; in three notable cases, they served as the last defense fortifications when the cities were invaded by the Russians.

In the southeastern city of Mariupol, at the start of the war in 2022, Ukrainians put up their last stand in the Azovstal steel mills and held out for more than two months. The standoff ended when the surrounded Ukrainian soldiers ran out of ammunition; more than 2,500 soldiers surrendered.

Similarly, Ukrainian troops fought among pipes and machinery at a giant ammonia factory in Sievierodonetsk before the city fell in the summer of 2022.

A breaking point for the Donbass industry came this year with the destruction of the Avdiivka coking coal plant, the largest in Europe. With mazes of tunnels, multiple bomb shelters and underground water and electricity reserves, the facility became a bastion for Ukrainian soldiers holding the city's last northern border until their final retreat in February.

Kurakhove, about six miles from the front line, is the last single-factory town where the plant has become the main target of Russian artillery. In a recent visit, there was no indication that Ukrainian troops had taken up positions at the factory, but Russian forces had attacked it in recent months, along with other electricity generation facilities, in an attempt to degrade Ukraine's energy grid .

This year the facility has been targeted 48 times by artillery and rockets, according to director Anatoly Borychevsky. Workers rush to weld burst pipes and put plywood on windows. But with the front line ever closer, repairs are starting to seem pointless.

“As soon as the smoke comes out of the pipes, they hit us again,” Borychevsky said.

The Donbas – or Donetsk Basin – takes its name from the rich underground coal basin that spurred a 19th-century industrial boom that extended into the Soviet period.

A Welsh investor, John Hughes, founded the regional centre, now called Donetsk but originally called Hughes Town, or Yuzivka in Ukrainian.

In the towns that sprang up around the mines and factories, migrant workers from western Ukraine, Russia, and other parts of Moscow's empire turned to Russian as their lingua franca, while the surrounding villages continued to speak Ukrainian. Russia justified its large-scale invasion two years ago, in part, by claiming without evidence that Ukraine was cracking down on Russian speakers in eastern cities.

In the post-Soviet period, Russia used propaganda to whip up resentment against Kiev for factory closures and falling wages in this rust belt region, blaming the Ukrainian government for the economic problems. While calling on eastern Ukrainians to rebel and join Russia, Russia promised to revive the region's industry, regardless of whether Russian single-factory towns have suffered social and economic ills similar to those of Ukraine .

“Now, no matter who controls the territory, it is impossible to imagine this industry being restored,” said Pavlo Kazarin, author of a book on Russian meddling in Ukraine, “The Wild West of Eastern Europe.”

“There is no reason to bring it back from the ashes,” he said. Of the factories, he added, “before they were destroyed, they were obsolete.”

Avdiivka, like Kurakhove, was a town with a single factory. A very high, fluffy white cloud regularly rose over the city as a batch of coking coal cooled after refining, visible to anyone approaching from the rolling agricultural fields around it.

Tetiana Nikonova, 50, who had worked at the factory since 1993, carried mail between remote offices and departments. Traversing the factory site meant walking several kilometers each day, through steam and coal dust, a testament to the vast size of the factory. Like other factories in the region, it was an example of the principle of gigantism of Soviet industrial design.

In the battle for Avdiivka, the facility became the target of glide bombs, a new weapon in the Russian arsenal. They seriously damaged the machinery. The disappearance of the factory completed the destruction of eastern Ukraine's steel industry, following the destruction of the Mariupol steelworks two years ago. The six Ukrainian steel factories still operating are located outside the Donbas region.

For Ukraine's overall economy, the loss is not an outright disaster, economists noted. The mines had been kept running with subsidies as a way to create jobs. The Russian military, said Serhiy Fursa, deputy director of Dragon Capital, an investment firm in Kiev, was “behaving like Margaret Thatcher in Britain 30 years ago” by shutting down a subsidized coal industry.

“Most of these plants were unprofitable,” he said. “Russia – sorry for the cynicism – helped Ukraine close them.”

Over the past decade, agriculture and information technology outsourcing have emerged as the most promising sectors for Ukraine.

Steel mills were making profits. The Azovstal plant, for example, had been a major exporter generating about 4 percent of all Ukrainian foreign exchange earnings before the war. The destruction worsened Ukraine's trade deficit.

However, it was an inefficient factory whose value added to the production of iron ore and coking coal was small, Fursa said.

In Kurakhove, the power plant still employs about 600 people, giving the city's last remaining residents motivation to stay there even as Russian forces advance through villages just to the east. About 4,000 residents remain, out of a prewar population of about 21,000, according to Mayor Roman Padun. Since the invasion, artillery attacks have killed 63 civilians and wounded 268 others in the city and surrounding villages, he said.

At the plant, Russian artillery had destroyed the machinery, power lines and tanks for cooling water and fuel. Water dripped from burst pipes. Downed power lines crossing roads. If Russian forces captured the factory, director Borychevsky said, it is unlikely they would repair it.

Dmytro Pashenko, a foreman at the plant who has worked there for much of his career, said heavy industry has supported communities in eastern Ukraine for years.

“Without industry,” he said, “Donbas will die.”

Oleksandr Chubko contributed to the reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *