Russian Bombardment Crushes Ukraine’s Industrial Base

Its towering smokestacks once puffed out clouds of steam. In gigantic machine rooms, turbines whirled around the clock. Furnaces burned trainloads of coal.

In the Soviet era, the Kurakhove Heating and Power Plant gave rise to the town around it in Ukraine’s east, driving the local economy and sustaining 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 nearby coal mines that fed the facility.

That heart is barely beating now, partly destroyed by artillery. The plant is among the last still operating in Ukraine’s Donbas region, once the country’s center of heavy industry and now a focal point of Russian ground offensives that are ravaging towns and cities along the front line.

War in eastern Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of people, reduced cities to ruins and displaced millions of people. It has also all but destroyed the factories and plants that were for years an important driver of Ukraine’s economy.

With the destruction this year of a major factory producing coking coal, which is burned to mill iron ore into steel in blast furnaces, the Donbas region’s steel industry is now wholly demolished. Other industries — like those producing chemicals, machinery and fertilizer — 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 eastern Ukraine’s miners and factory workers.

In 2013, the year before Russia’s military intervention in the east began, mines and factories in the Donbas region earned $28 billion, accounting for 15 percent of the country’s economic output.

But two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the factories Russia had promised to revive in the region are in ruins. Nine of the country’s 15 steel mills are destroyed or shuttered behind Russian lines, according to the Employers Federation of Ukraine, an industry group. “It is very painful for the country to lose it all,” 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 prominent instances, they served as the last fortifications of defense as cities were overrun by Russians.

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

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

A breaking point for Donbas industry came this year with the destruction of the Avdiivka coking coal plant, the largest one in Europe. With warrens of tunnels, multiple bomb shelters and underground water and power supplies, the plant became a bastion for Ukrainian soldiers holding the last northern edge of the city until they finally withdrew in February.

Kurakhove, about six miles from a front line, is the latest one-factory town where the plant has become a principal target of Russian artillery. On a recent visit, there was no indication that Ukrainian troops had taken up positions in the factory, but Russian forces had attacked it in recent months, along with other electrical generating plants, as they seek to degrade Ukraine’s energy grid.

The plant has been targeted 48 times by artillery and rockets this year, according to the director, Anatoly Borychevsky. Workers scramble to weld burst pipes and put plywood over windows. But with the front line moving ever closer, repairs are starting to feel futile.

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

The Donbas — or Donetsk Basin — is named for the rich, subterranean basin of coal that spurred a 19th-century industrial boom that stretched into the Soviet period.

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

In the towns that sprang up around mines and factories, migrant laborers from western Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere in Moscow’s empire turned to Russian as a lingua franca, while surrounding villages continued to speak Ukrainian. Russia justified its full-scale invasion two years ago in part by asserting without evidence that Ukraine was repressing Russian speakers in the eastern towns.

In the post-Soviet period, Russia used propaganda to stir resentment against Kyiv for factory closures and falling salaries in this rust-belt region, blaming Ukraine’s government for the economic woes. As Russia appealed to eastern Ukrainians to revolt and join Russia, it promised to revive the region’s industry — no matter that Russia’s own one-factory towns have suffered social and economic ills similar to those in Ukraine.

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

“There’s 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 one-factory town. A soaring, fluffy white cloud regularly rose over the city as a batch of coking coal cooled after refining, visible to anyone approaching over the rolling farm fields around it.

Tetiana Nikonova, 50, who had worked at the factory since 1993, carried mail between far-flung offices and shop floors. Crossing the plant grounds meant walking several miles each day, through the steam and coal dust, in a sign of the factory’s vast scale. As with other plants in the region, it was an example of the Soviet industrial design principle of gigantism.

In the battle for Avdiivka, the plant became a target of airdropped glide bombs, a new weapon in Russia’s arsenal. They severely damaged the machinery. The factory’s demise completed the obliteration of eastern Ukraine’s steel industry, after the destruction of the Mariupol steel mills two years ago. Ukraine’s still-operating six steel factories are outside the Donbas region.

For Ukraine’s overall economy, the loss is not an unalloyed disaster, economists have noted. Mines had been kept in operation with subsidies as a way to provide jobs. The Russian Army, said Serhiy Fursa, deputy director of Dragon Capital, an investment firm in Kyiv, had “behaved like Margaret Thatcher in Britain 30 years ago” in shuttering 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 had emerged as more prospective sectors for Ukraine.

The steel plants were turning a profit. The Azovstal mill, for example, had been a major exporter that generated about 4 percent of all Ukrainian foreign currency earnings before the war. The destruction worsened Ukraine’s trade deficit.

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

In Kurakhove, the power plant still employs about 600 people, providing a rationale for the last remaining residents of the town to stay put even as Russian forces advance through villages just to the east. About 4,000 residents remain, from a prewar population of about 21,000, according to the mayor, Roman Padun. Since the invasion, artillery strikes have killed 63 civilians and wounded 268 others in the town and surrounding villages, he said.

At the plant, Russian artillery had whittled away at the machinery, power lines and tanks for cooling water and fuel. Water dripped from burst pipes. Downed electrical lines draped across roads. If Russian forces capture the factory, said Mr. Borychevsky, the director, it’s unlikely they would repair it.

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

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

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.

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