Ukrainians are dreading the ‘darkest winter’ as Russia takes aim at the power grid

Oct 29, 2022, 12:00 PM
Natalia Zemko, 81, talks with her daughter Lesya as they drink tea in their kitchen during a power ...
Natalia Zemko, 81, talks with her daughter Lesya as they drink tea in their kitchen during a power outage in downtown Kyiv on Oct. 22. Photo credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

 (CNN) — As winter edges ever closer in Ukraine, Alla Melnychuk and her neighbors are racing against the time to save what little they have left.

Their apartment building in Irpin was hit during some of the heaviest fighting in March. Most of the windows are still shattered, the roof is gone and the sewer shafts have burned down, meaning there’s no water supply and no sewage outlet. Heavy rains in September caused even more damage, but Melnychuk is determined to push ahead with the repairs. “I still plan to spend the winter in Irpin,” she told CNN.

Melnychuk, her husband and their cat Murchyk are now renting a temporary apartment in Kyiv, but they are hoping to return to Irpin, the once quiet, leafy suburb of the capital that became the frontline during Russia’s attempt to take out Ukraine’s leadership in the spring. “We are late, we are slowly rebuilding, we have bought wood and we are installing the roof, but I am not even considering the option that we won’t finish it before winter,” she said.

As the weather becomes colder, millions of Ukrainians like Melnychuk are trying to prepare for what they know will be an extremely difficult winter, rushing to repair their homes and secure enough fuel to stay warm. The Ukrainian government said in July that over 800,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed since the start of the war in February, leaving thousands of people without a roof over their head.

Those problems have been compounded in recent weeks by Russia’s barrage of attacks on Ukraine’s power and heating infrastructure.

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

The Ukrainian energy agency said that it had to implement “severe” and “unprecedented” emergency power cuts in Kyiv to avoid a “complete blackout” as the capital faces a power deficit of 30%. It has urged residents to use electricity “sparingly,” especially in the morning and at night, while businesses have been asked to turn off the lights outside offices, restaurants and shopping centers.

The blackouts are unpredictable, which means people must be ready at all times. Computers and phones get charged whenever there’s a chance. Some elevators in the city’s many high-rise residential buildings are equipped with emergency supply boxes containing water, snacks, hygienic wipes, medicine and bags for trash and toilet emergencies.

Driving around the city has become more dangerous during the blackouts; road traffic accidents are up 25%, according to police. Shops shut down when they lose power and some restaurants have begun to advertise “blackout” menus of food and beverages they can serve during cuts. Workers come out to the street and smoke when a blackout results in an unexpected 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. Pictures of people trying to heat food with candles are circulating on social media.

Earlier this week, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk advised Ukrainian refugees not to return home this winter because the country’s fragile power grid is at risk of becoming completely overwhelmed.

Life-threatening power cuts

The head of the perinatal center at a hospital in Kharkiv, Iryna Kondratova, told CNN the risk of a sudden blackout is constantly on her mind. Her hospital has been working hard to secure medical equipment with autonomous power supply because relying on generators is too risky.

“It may take approximately 15 to 20 minutes from the moment when the electricity turned off and before it appears from the generator. What shall we do during 15-20 minutes if the child is not breathing?,” she explained.

There are other issues she has to think about. The constant Russian attacks on the electricity 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 thing is when the voltage in the network increases critically, because then the equipment may fail. In case of voltage drops, the equipment may also be turned off,” she said.

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

At one disabled coal-fired power plant 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.

Blown-out windows were being replaced with steel and rubber sheeting. Workers dangled from high voltage cables, reconnecting vital wiring as technicians scoured sifted through burnt out wreckage for serviceable parts.

The engineers work around the clock, but their efforts are constantly interrupted by air raid sirens. No one knows how long it will take to bring the plant back online, but every minute spent in plant’s bunker is time wasted.

One of the engineers told CNN nothing would stop him and his teams getting the plant up and running again. CNN cannot name him or the power plant for security reasons.

“Putin’s game plan is obvious: he wants to make this winter the coldest and darkest in Ukraine’s history,” Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council told CNN. “He will continue to strike infrastructure grids so as to knock out Ukraine’s power and heat. His kamikaze drone attacks are meant to break the will of the Ukrainian people and to spark panic,” she added.

Window of opportunity

While many Ukrainians are dreading the winter, military analysts say the colder weather might present a major opportunity for the Ukrainian military.

“What’s important to know about the fighting in Ukraine is that historically, it has been seasonal,” George Barros, an analyst and the geospatial team leader at the Institute for the Study of War, told CNN. “We typically would see an intensification of the fighting during the winter and so we’re anticipating a general increase in the tempo in the fighting this winter,” he added.

Much of the ground fighting is happening in eastern Ukraine, across sprawling farm land, marshes 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. The Russians call this period of time, when travel by road becomes more difficult, “rasputitsa” or “General Mud.”

“The time for the Ukrainian counteroffensive is underway now. It has been since August. It continues to be underway now. And it’s likely going to continue and intensify in the winter. I expect that by the time we hit spring, that’s probably when we’re going to see the operational pause. We get the thaw in late February heading into March. That’s when the mud season begins,” Barros said.

Another reason for Ukraine to step 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 already done so and they’ve all been degraded,” Barros said, adding that Putin’s drive to mobilize more fighters would not prove that helpful.

“Pulling in all these men is not actually going to generate effective combat power, because they’re not receiving adequate training and they’re not receiving adequate supply,” Haring said. “There are credible reports of new Russian troops not having food or blankets. Imagine what happens when winter really strikes,” she said.

The freezing cold conditions are of course hard 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, even making equipment.

Vadym Osadchy is one such volunteer. When he and his brothers inherited a small metal working workshop in Kyiv, they didn’t have a clue what to do with it. As the winter approached, they started making small stoves for soldiers at the front lines using their own funds and money and material donated by friends. “We have small volumes, this is not a factory. If we try very hard, we can make 40 to 50 such stoves per month,” he said. “Still, these 40-50 stoves mean 500 hundred soldiers staying warm during winter, or maybe even more,” he said.

The small makeshift production line is constantly trying to better their product. The latest improvement: adding special fasteners to the stoves so that the soldiers can dry their clothes.

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Ukrainians are dreading the ‘darkest winter’ as Russia takes aim at the power grid