Ukrainians fear ‘darkest winter’ as Russia targets power grid

Kyiv, Ukraine

As winter draws ever closer to Ukraine, Alla Melnychuk and her neighbors race against time to save what little they have left.

Their building in Irpin was hit in some of the heaviest fighting in March. Most of the windows are still broken, the roof is gone and the sewer wells have burned down, meaning there is no water supply or sewer outlet. Heavy rains in September caused even more damage, but Melnychuk is determined to continue the repairs. “I’m still planning to winter in Irpin,” she told CNN.

Melnychuk, her husband and their cat Murchyk are now renting a temporary flat in Kyiv, but they hope to return to Irpin, the once-quiet and leafy suburb of the capital that has become the front line in Russia’s bid to take control of Ukraine in the spring. . “We’re late, we’re slowly rebuilding, we’ve bought some lumber and we’re putting the roof up, but I’m not even considering the option of not finishing it before winter,” she said.

As the weather turns cold, millions of Ukrainians like Melnychuk are trying to prepare for what they know will be an extremely harsh winter, rushing to repair their homes and get enough fuel to stay warm. The Ukrainian government said in July that more than 800,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed since the war began in February, leaving thousands without a roof over their heads.

These problems have been compounded in recent weeks by the flurry of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s electricity and heating infrastructure.

Ukraine’s electricity demand has dropped by about 40% since the Russian invasion, according to the International Energy Agency, but even so the government is preparing people for a harsh winter ahead.

Ukraine’s energy agency said it must implement ‘severe’ and ‘unprecedented’ emergency power cuts in Kyiv to avoid a ‘blackout’ as the capital faces a electricity deficit of 30%. He urged residents to use electricity “sparingly”, especially in the morning and evening, while businesses were told to turn off lights outside offices, restaurants and shopping malls.

Outages are unpredictable, which means people need to be prepared at all times. Computers and phones are topped up whenever there is a chance. Some elevators in the city’s many high-rise residential buildings are equipped with emergency supply boxes containing water, snacks, sanitary wipes, medicine, and bags for trash cans and emergency toilets.

Driving in the city became more dangerous during power outages; road accidents are up 25%, according to police. Shops close when they lose power, and some restaurants have started advertising “excluded” menus of food and drink they can serve during blackouts. Workers take to the streets and smoke when a power outage results in an unscheduled break.

To help people heat their homes, the Ukrainian government has launched a new online firewood store that makes it easier for people to find local suppliers. Photos of people trying to heat food with candles are circulating on social media.

Earlier this week, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk advised Ukrainian refugees not to return home this winter as the country’s fragile power grid risks being completely overwhelmed.

The head of the perinatal center at a Kharkiv hospital, Iryna Kondratova, told CNN the risk of a sudden blackout was constantly on her mind. His hospital has worked hard to secure medical equipment with a stand-alone power supply because relying on generators is too risky.

“It can take about 15-20 minutes from when the electricity goes out until it appears from the generator. What should we do for 15-20 minutes if the child is not breathing? she explained.

There are other issues she needs to think about. Constant Russian attacks on the power grid mean supply is unpredictable. “The equipment we work with in neonatal and pediatric intensive care units is affected by even minor voltage fluctuations. The worst is when the voltage in the network increases critically, because then the equipment can fail. In the event of a voltage drop, the equipment can also be turned off,” she said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that winter will add “significant challenges” to already difficult life in Ukraine. “Too many people in Ukraine live in precarious conditions, moving from place to place, living in unsanitary structures or without access to heating. This can lead to frostbite, hypothermia, pneumonia, stroke and heart attack,” WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Henri Kluge said in a statement earlier this month.

Natalia Zemko, 81, talks with her daughter Lesya as they drink tea in their kitchen during a power outage in downtown Kyiv on October 22.
Civilians cook over a fire outside their homes after gas lines were destroyed in Lyman in October 2022.

At a disabled coal-fired power plant that CNN visited this week, engineers were working around the clock on repairs after Russia attacked the most sensitive part of the facility twice in the past three weeks.

The blown windows were replaced by sheets of steel and rubber. Workers hung from high-voltage cables, reconnecting vital wiring as technicians scoured the scorched wreckage for repairable parts.

Engineers work around the clock, but their efforts are constantly interrupted by the sirens of air raids. No one knows how long it will take to get the factory back up and running, but every minute spent in the factory bunker is wasted time.

One of the engineers told CNN that nothing would stop him and his teams from getting the plant back up and running. CNN cannot name it or name the powerhouse for security reasons.

“Putin’s game plan is obvious: he wants to make this the coldest and darkest winter in Ukraine’s history,” Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Council’s Eurasia Center, told CNN. Atlantic. “It will continue to strike infrastructure networks in order to cut off Ukraine’s electricity and heat. Its kamikaze drone attacks are meant to break the will of the Ukrainian people and sow panic,” she added.

While many Ukrainians dread winter, military analysts say the colder weather could present a major opportunity for the Ukrainian military.

“What is important to know about the fighting in Ukraine is that historically it has been seasonal,” George Barros, analyst and geospatial team leader at the Institute for the Study told CNN. of the war. “We would generally see an intensification of fighting during the winter and therefore we expect a general increase in the pace of fighting this winter,” he added.

Much of the ground combat takes place in eastern Ukraine, across vast farmlands, swamps and bogs. As the ground freezes, it becomes harder, making it easier to maneuver heavy military machinery and armor.

Once the spring thaw begins, the ground becomes soft, flooded and muddy. Russians call this period of time, when traveling by road becomes more difficult, “rasputitsa” or “General Mud”.

“The hour of the Ukrainian counter-offensive is underway. It’s been since August. It continues to be ongoing now. And this will probably continue and intensify in the winter. I expect that by the time we hit spring, that’s probably when we’ll see the operational pause. We get the thaw in late February before March. That’s when the mud season starts,” Barros said.

Another reason Ukraine is stepping up its counteroffensive is the state of the Russian military, which has been severely depleted over the past eight months.

“The key takeaway is that there are no pristine Russian military units that can fight in Ukraine because they’ve done it before and they’ve all been degraded,” Barros said, adding that Putin’s willingness to mobilize more fighters would not prove so helpful. .

“Bringing in all these men isn’t really going to generate effective combat power, because they’re not getting proper training and they’re not getting adequate supplies,” Haring said. “There are credible reports that the new Russian troops have no food or blankets. Imagine what happens when winter really hits,” she said.

The freezing cold conditions are of course harsh on both sides, but experts say the Ukrainians have a psychological advantage: an army of volunteers trying to help where they can, sending warm clothes, supplies, and even by making materials.

Vadym Osadchy is one such volunteer. When he and his brothers inherited a small metal workshop in Kyiv, they didn’t know what to do with it. As winter approached, they began making small stoves for the soldiers at the front using their own funds and money and materials donated by friends. “We have small volumes, it’s not a factory. If we try very hard, we can make 40 to 50 such stoves per month,” he said. “Yet those 40 to 50 stoves mean that 500 soldiers stay warm through the winter, or maybe even more,” he said.

The small, makeshift production line is constantly trying to improve its product. The latest improvement: adding special attachments to stoves so that soldiers can dry their clothes.

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