A journeyman's guide to travel in Zaporizhzhiya oblast and its environs
2 MAY 2022
This is a practical guide to travel in the southern-central region of Ukraine in proximity to the city of Zaporizhzhiya at the current juncture in the war in Ukraine. As with all such advisories, the information contained here may change and become out of date very quickly.
Zaporizhzhiya is a fairly large city,(population 750,000) in South Central Ukraine, that sits on the northern edge of the Khakovka reservoir, an enormous expanse of water interrupting the Dniepr river between Dnipropetrovsk (just to the north of Zaporizhzhiya) and Kherson, the city on the Dniepr river delta to the southwest. In normal times the drive from Kherson to Zaporizhzhiya would be a leisurely four and a half hours along roads that mostly follow the coast of the reservoir, and Dnipropetrovsk would be another hour and a half north of Zaporizhzhiya.
By reason of its being at the foot of a massive reservoir, Zaporizhzhiya's principal business is the generation of electricity. Naturally there is a large hydroelectric power station on the west bank of the Dniepr river, in a Zaporizhzhiya suburb. The largest nuclear power station in Europe is located in a town called Enerhodar (current population unknown but before the war about 52,000) on the south bank of the Khokotva reservoir some 60km southwest of Zaporizhzhiya. This nuclear facility is a critical asset for all of Ukraine. Finally there is a predominantly coal powered thermoelectric power station, also in Enerhodar.
From Enerhodar, electricity is supplied to central and north Ukraine by the Enerhodar Dinepr Powerline Crossing, a near unique structure that crosses from the south bank of the Khakovka reservoir to the north at the reservoir's narrowest point, taking electricity to the north bank and onwards to Zaporizhzhiya, Dniepropetrovsk (just north of Zaporizhzhiya) and beyond.
In a peculiar economic-political quirk the historical origins of which are unimportant for our purposes, the same electricity is then transmitted from the west bank of Khakovka reservoir (by this point just the Dniepr River), back to the east bank to the city of Zaporizhzhiya and then to cities north, by an equally unusual structure called the Zaporizhzhiya pylon triple, on a rock on Khortytsia island in the Dniepr river, adjacent to Zaporizhzhiya city on the east bank of the Dniepr river.
The only significant part of Zaporizhzhiya oblast not under Russian military control is the city of Zaporizhzhiya itself, which is held by pro-government forces. Behind the front line is the regional capital Dnipropetrovsk, the base of one of Ukraine's oligarchs Igor Kolomoisky. The Russian armed forces are now at the gates of Zaporizhzhiya. Both sides are now digging themselves in, in a series of trenches separated by a no-man's land just south of the city. In geographical terms, the territory to the south / east of the Khakovka reservoir and the Dniepr river is held by Russian forces, including the town of Enerhodar; whereas the territory to the north and west of the water is held by Ukrainian forces.
The three power stations in the vicinity of Zaporizhzhiya are jointly responsible for some 25 per cent of Ukraine's electricity consumption. Or at least they were, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Now figures are not available.
Zaporizhzhiya's economy is based around heavy industry, due to the proximity of electrical supplies and deposits of manganese, iron ore and metallurgical coal. The city manufactures cars and aircraft engines, inter alia.
The vulnerability of all these infrastructure and economic assets is now threatened by the fact that early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the first week of March 2022, Russian armed forces occupied almost the entirety of Zaporizhzhiya oblast, including the southern city and rail hub of Melitopol, two hours' drive south of Zaporizhzhiya. Melitopol is between Kherson and Mariupol, and the road from Zaporizhzhiya to Melitopol is close to being completely blocked by the Russian armed forces and neither public buses nor trains are operating.
The only significant part of Zaporizhzhiya oblast not under current Russian military control is the city of Zaporizhzhiya itself, which is held by government forces. The Russian armed forces are almost literally at the gates of Zaporizhzhiya. Both sides are now digging themselves in, in a series of trenches separated by a no-man's land, just south of the city. In geographical terms, the territory to the south / east of the Khakovka reservoir and the Dniepr river is held by Russian forces, including the town of Enerhodar; whereas the territory to the north and west of the water is held by Ukrainian forces.
At some point soon the Russian armed forces will commence an assault on Zaporizhzhiya. This is likely to be a particularly brutal ground battle, both because Ukrainian government forces in the region (the most battle-ready and competent troops under the Ukrainian military umbrella) are so well dug-in; and because the city's industrial landscape is so straightforward a target of an extended campaign of Russian shelling. Moreover the presence of numerous refugees from Russian-occupied territories to the south and east of Zaporizhzhiya is already placing substantial tension upon the city's infrastructure and accommodation capacity; and the initiation of a Russian shelling campaign will surely drive those infrastructure services towards the point of total collapse.
The Kremlin does not want to destroy Zaporizhzhiya as it did Mariupol, by reason of the city's heavy industry capacity traditionally glorified in Soviet lore. Nevertheless Mr Putin is determined to exterminate the phenomenon of Ukraine's regional armies financed by the Ukrainian oligarchs. He has just finished exterminating Mr Akhmetov's private army, the so-called Azov Brigades; and he is determined that the regional Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhiya militias will follow suit, if necessary followed by Mr Kolomoisky himself. His palatial Dnipropetrovsk headquarters will not help him when matters come to the final GRU nerve toxin or bullet.
Moreover Russian occupation of Zaporizhzhiya and then Dnipropetrovsk closes an economic circle, of Zaporizhzhiya oblast electricity being used to catalyse the industry in Dnipropetrovsk and in Zaporizhzhiya city itself; and the use of these riparian cities as transhipment points within Russian-occupied southern Ukraine for steel, manganese, iron ore, metallurgical coal and heavy industry manufactured components.
Of course the first way to paralyse both cities under attack will be to cut the electricity supplies to them, something that Russia can do at will because (a) she controls Enerhodar and ergo can turn off the Enerhodar Dniepr Powerline Crossing; and (b) she can cut the Zaporizhzhiya Pylon Triple with a single medium-range hypersonic missile (such as the Kaliber). Cutting the Pylon Triple disables the electricity supplies not just from the two power stations at Enerhodar but also from Zaporizhzhiya hydroelectric power station, which lies on the west bank of the Dniepr opposite the city of Zaporizvzhiya. As both cities are plunged into darkness with a single Russian blow, presumably tens of thousands, or more, refugees will flee those cities, leaving them denuded of population and hence still more susceptible to Soviet revanchist idealism.
Now the Russian vision for southern Ukraine becomes transparent: total domination of the regions to the east of the Dniepr River that as a whole constitute Ukraine's economic backbone. That economic backbone was swiftly swept into the Russian orbit on Sunday 1 May, when the entirety of Kherson and Zaporizhzhiya oblasts under Russian control (that is to say, all of them save the city of Zaporizhzhiya itself) were 'rubleised': the currency of the regions was declared by Russian decree henceforth to be the Russian ruble, in substitute for the Ukrainian Gryvna; and today, a public holiday across Ukraine, an approximated three million bank accounts in the region were re-denominated in Rubles: something that will surely cause an unpredictable level of economic shock across Ukraine as people wake up tomorrow to find that all of Ukraine's banks now have balance sheets substantially populated by Russian ruble balances.
As Russian foreign policy in Ukraine creeps, in fits and starts, towards inexorable sequential strategic goals in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, one can only speculate as to her next assertive measure. Will Russia occupy the entirety of the region to the east of the Dniepr, all the way up to river banks opposite the centre of Kyiv, thereby defenestrating Ukraine in her entirety of her industrial infrastructure leaving her rump as an arable state in the north and the west? Moreover would this be an arable state dependant upon Russia for her agrarian exports, because Russia will have seized the entirety of her Black Sea riparian territories leaving her landlocked?
Or will someone step in to prevent this from happening? If so, then who, and what tools will that party use given the relentless if periodically incompetent might of the Russian army? Those are the questions, the answers to which are as of today far from clear.