As Russia bombs Ukraine’s infrastructure, its own services crumble at home


While Russia has launched relentless strikes on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, leaving millions without power, water and heat, cities across Russia have been beset by their own utility-related disasters.

A huge gas pipeline explosion outside St. Petersburg last month, major fires at two separate Moscow shopping malls believed to have been caused by dodgy welds and faulty power grids that left tens of thousands of people without heat or electricity are just some of the incidents reported since Russia’s efforts. to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure that began in October.

At the end of October, two sewer pipes burst in the southern city of Volgograd, flooding several streets with excrement and sewage, and leaving 200,000 of the 1 million inhabitants without water or heating for several days.

Ilya Kravchenko, a local lawmaker who took testimony from more than 1,000 victims of the incident and filed a lawsuit against the company that owns the sewage system, said the view was “not pretty”. .

“This is the worst year on record. The city has never had so many problems,” Kravchenko said.

A few weeks later, a similar, albeit less serious, sewage problem in the town of Pervouralsk, a small town west of Yekaterinburg, caused residents to drag buckets of fecal water to offices. from the local water board in protest, saying authorities had neglected the problem for years.

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While disasters now raise suspicions of war-related sabotage in Ukraine, poorly maintained infrastructure is a long-standing and persistent problem in Russia – the result of old Soviet-era systems in need of expensive repairs and maintenance. , decades of endemic corruption and the government’s prioritization of defense and security budgets, as well as the development of large cities over regional cities.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t hear from one region or another of Russia about an accident in the housing and public services sector,” said a recent article in a local newspaper in the city ​​of Perm.

“During the last heating season, more than 7,300 accidents occurred in the country’s housing and utilities sector, and judging by the way winter started in 2022, one should not not expect the stats to drop,” the article said.

Meanwhile, a Russian senator, Andrei Shevchenko, said last year that the infrastructure of public services in Russia had depreciated by 60% and that the cost of the necessary repairs exceeded 4,000 billion rubles, or about 58 billions of dollars. Shevchenko noted that in some areas the state of utilities was “very concerning” and in some cases the overall wear and tear had exceeded 70%.

Analysts say infrastructure disruptions could soon escalate as Western sanctions begin to bite, and ongoing pre-existing issues add to growing popular discontent over the consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine. .

Frustrations expressed by some residents over deteriorating infrastructure in many Russian cities were summed up in a recent Instagram post by Omsk Ogo, a civil society group from the Siberian city of Omsk, where winter temperatures drop to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“On TV they say Europe is freezing, but no one mentions that in Omsk 40,000 homes are not getting gas,” the post read, referring to a 2017 report that found thousands of homes in the city still use coal or firewood for heating. . “The rest of the houses have to turn off the heating regularly, because the utility infrastructure is completely exhausted.”

Daniil Chebykin, who founded the group, said that although Russia is considered a major player in oil and gas, many Russians outside Moscow still live with rudimentary heating and regularly experience utility accidents, such as boiler explosions.

Chebykin said little has changed in Vladimir Putin’s 23-year tenure as the country’s political leader and the disparity between the Russian capital and the regions has widened. “Omsk can be a very difficult place to live,” he said. “Meanwhile, in Moscow there is a good infrastructure, excellent public transport, and everyone invests a lot of money in it.”

Just before he was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in 2020, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny filmed interviews in Siberia that highlighted construction issues and dangerous living conditions in some neighborhoods. In one such interview, Daniil Markelov, a local activist from Novosibirsk, gave Navalny a tour of his house.

“Welcome to my neighborhood: endless high-rise buildings with identical panels, without any trace of developments and constructions that have been going on for years,” he said. “The biggest problem is that these new homes are literally dilapidated. It is extremely dangerous to live there. People are given keys to apartments that don’t have elevators, railings, or electricity.

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In a telephone interview, Markelov, who has since immigrated to the United States, said that although life in Novosibirsk had improved slightly in recent years, the center of the city was “a backdrop that hides poor and dangerous”.

“Money is flowing to the capital. As a result, small towns are disappearing,” he said.

Analysts said the sweeping sanctions imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine disrupted supply chains in the country and could significantly reduce Russia’s ability to solve its own infrastructure problems.

A particular obstacle is the inability to import spare parts and products due to sanctions. Russia has long relied on imported equipment and technology and does not yet have the domestic manufacturing capacity to fill this gap. Since the outbreak of the war, imports have fallen by up to 25%, according to Russia’s trading partners.

Ukrainians were shocked in the early months of the war when Russian soldiers looted basic household appliances on a large scale in occupied towns and villages – an indication of the disparity in quality of life and access to affordable goods between the two countries.

Nikolai Petrov, political scientist at UK think tank Chatham House, said the issue of limited coins could affect “everything”, including aviation and traffic lights. “Without these parts, the whole system, which currently seems more or less reliable and efficient, can collapse very quickly,” Petrov said.

Russia’s infrastructure problems alone are unlikely to lead to popular unrest. The extent of the problems varies from place to place, and larger cities tend to be better maintained.

Several Perm residents said in interviews that they had not experienced any recent problems with heating or electricity.

Kravchenko said the situation in Volgograd was not as bad as elsewhere. “You can live a normal life in Volgograd, but life could be so much better,” he said. “It is the administration’s reluctance to improve it that is killing Volgograd. The potential of the city is simply enormous.

However, the public’s patience is potentially running out, especially when the blackouts unfold against the backdrop of an unpopular military mobilization campaign and a growing death toll at the front lines.

“Russia’s cup of patience is absolutely full, and every drop can lead to protests and unrest,” Petrov said, adding that since pension changes sparked angry protests in 2018, regional discontent and the will to demonstrate has increased. “It’s important to understand that even though we don’t have intensive protests in Russia, the situation now is very different from what it was before 2018.”

Chebykin said only a few people in Omsk linked the local situation to the war, but the number was growing. “When a huge amount of money is spent on bombing Ukraine’s infrastructure, and with this money it is possible to gasify all housing in the city, of course discontent grows,” Chebykin said.

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Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister turned opposition politician, said infrastructure failures would not trigger protests but would contribute to a possible uprising against the Kremlin.

“There will be a tipping point,” Milov said. “There is a growing wave of negative impacts on different fronts: Russia’s economic isolation, sanctions and infrastructure problems. This won’t spark protests per se, but it does add to a general sense of discontent.

The Kremlin does not seem worried, however.

On Dec. 13, Putin presided over the opening of a new highway linking Moscow with major eastern cities via video link. And last week, drink in hand, Putin showed no remorse by admitting that Russia was attacking Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. “There is a lot of noise around our attacks on the energy infrastructure of a neighboring country,” he said. “Yes, we do. But who started?

Milov said Putin has “a thousand-ruble mentality,” meaning whenever discontent rumbles, the Kremlin announces small cash handouts (1,000 rubles equals about $15) to citizens to quell unrest. A similar strategy of offering financial benefits has been deployed to appease the families of soldiers killed in Ukraine.

“Putin and his government are used to thinking that the Russian population is made up of people who will continue to suffer and tolerate all this negativity,” Milov said, “as long as they govern.”

Natalia Abbakumova from Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.

As Russia bombs Ukraine’s infrastructure, its own services crumble at home – Reuters