Vladimir Putin wants to make it impossible for Ukrainians to survive winter’s wrath. It’s partly working
The western Ukrainian city of Lviv, along with much of the rest of the country, was plunged back into the darkness and the cold Wednesday after another devastating barrage of missile strikes fired by Russia.
Western Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was already in a critical state after the launch of more than 100 missiles from Russian forces the week of Nov. 15 left transmission and distribution networks severely compromised.
A crew from CBC News recently visited the region and witnessed the disruption the Russian onslaught has had on these communities and their people — and how winter itself could become a deadly force in the conflict.
The cumulative impact of the strikes means that millions of Ukrainians have lost the sanctuary provided by their homes. Instead, those who have lost heat and light are increasingly turning to communal places to find comfort and companionship, a way to counter the psychological devastation of Vladimir Putin’s war on their country.
‘Another kind of home’
In Lviv, the Pekar cafe and bakery is such a sanctuary.
With access to an industrial-sized generator from a nearby hotel, Pekar can keep the lights on and the water running when other businesses and homes are hit by frequent rolling blackouts.
“It’s comforting to have people around you that can support you during these times,” said Ira Zayats, a software developer, who told CBC News she regularly comes to the bakery on Akademika Hnatyuka Street.
“It turns a bad day into something very, very positive. It’s like coming to another kind of home.”
Lviv is only about 70 kilometres from the border with Poland and has never been at serious risk of Russian ground attack.
Nonetheless, the city’s electrical infrastructure has been among the hardest hit by Russian missile attacks.
On its recent visit, CBC News witnessed rolling blackouts. Some lasted minutes, while others went on for hours.
When the outages are planned, many businesses make preparations to close — but during sudden power cuts, others will continue operating in darkness.
People eat their meals in restaurants by candlelight; store clerks sit behind non-functioning registers in retail stores and accept cash-only payment until the power returns.
Without light from street lamps or storefronts, car headlights often provide the only eerie illumination in the blackness.
The threat of winter
A map provided by the country’s largest transmission utility shows the worst of the damage to the power grid: the capital Kyiv, eastern villages near the newly liberated city of Kherson and swaths of the country’s western region continue to suffer from blackouts.
“I worry a lot that they [Russia’s military] will do enough damage for us to go into blackout for weeks,” said Zayats. “I think that will grind the economy to a halt. I just choose to believe we will persevere.”
The World Health Organization shares those concerns, saying the winter could prove “life-threatening for millions of people in Ukraine,” in a statement earlier this week. “The devastating energy crisis, the deepening mental health emergency, constraints on humanitarian access and the risk of viral infections will make this winter a formidable test for the Ukrainian health system and the Ukrainian people.
In response to the blackouts, Ukraine’s central administration plans to establish temporary shelters, which would offer heat, internet and power, President Volodymr Zelenskyy announced Tuesday night.
He’s dubbed the shelters “invincibility centres.”
Previously, Zelenskyy had said up to 10 million Ukrainians are coping with blackouts of various durations. And the status of the country’s power grid remains critical.
Even before the latest missiles hit, Volodymyr Kudrytski, CEO of Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s national energy company, had said the country’s generating stations were no longer able to provide the entire country with around-the-clock power.
Kudrytski said during a press conference Tuesday the missile attacks have caused “colossal” damage, either destroying or damaging 15 generating stations.
The utility, he said, already had in place several backup transformers — hidden away secretly and kept apart from the main generating stations — but he noted Russia has hit some utility stations between five and eight times.
WATCH | Life without power, heat in Ukraine:
Ukraine is now urgently looking abroad for replacements. And though countries such as Spain, Belgium, India and China all have transformers that Ukraine can swap in for damaged ones, it can be a difficult process to find the right one, Kudrytski said.
“The task is not to just find the powerful transformer, it is to find the right voltage,” he said.
In Kyiv, which suffered extensive damage to its power grid, authorities said the capital had gradually rebuilt its energy capacity before Wednesday’s round of missile attacks, though there are still rolling blackouts that sometimes last for eight hours or longer.
Cold, the new enemy
But it is in Kherson where the situation is perhaps the most dire.
“There is a full blackout in Kherson,” said Alla Malchenko, 33, who stayed behind during Russia’s nine-month occupation of the city because her husband works as a medic. Before the war, she sold women’s fashion online.
While Kherson had a pre-war population of roughly 280,000 people, only a fraction of that now remains.
Malchenko says the city’s liberation by Ukrainian troops was triumphant, but with the onset of cold weather life has become a struggle.
“It’s so cold in the houses and buildings. People are getting sick, massively,” she told CBC News in an interview over Zoom.
Malachenko said she shares a small generator with her parents, and their daily routine involves waiting in line to get fuel to run it.
“In the morning, they [my parents] come to us and we give them our generator so they can heat their apartment and freeze their fridge.”
In the evening, she said she gets the generator back, allowing her and her husband to charge their phones and keep their fridge running.
Neither she nor her parents have running water in their apartments, so they must also wait in line to fill up water bottles in order to do laundry and flush toilets.
Like others coping with blackouts, Malachanko said during the day she avoids being at home because of the cold. Instead, she seeks out communal places.
“Psychologically, it’s hard,” she told CBC News. And while her preference would be to go to Kyiv where life is easier, she plans to stay with her husband.
Explosives slow rebuilding effort
Ukrainian officials say it appears retreating Russian troops damaged or destroyed much of Kherson’s water and electrical infrastructure as they left, making the recovery more difficult than in other parts of the country.
Complicating the city’s reconnection with the power grid is that the entire region is also heavily covered in explosives.
Utility crews are working in tandem with sappers who must first clear unexploded ordinance and declare an area safe before the repair work can start on the electrical grid.
“Sometimes it takes more than an hour to de-mine one square metre of territory,” said Oleksandr Khorunzhyi, press officer of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, emphasizing the enormity of the job ahead.
So far, he said more than 5,000 explosive devices left by Russian troops have been dealt with.
However, in at least two buildings in Kherson, including a police headquarters, the mines and booby traps were so abundant, the buildings had to be demolished, said Khorunzhyi, as it was impossible to rid them of all explosives.
‘People are afraid’
The stark truth on the ground is that the amount of work needed to make Kherson a functioning city again may not happen soon enough, with the height of winter descending.
In Lviv and Kyiv, people can still buy warm clothing and have access to supplies such as flashlights and candles, but that’s not the case everywhere else.
Simon Johnsen, a Norwegian aid worker with Frontline Medics, said the people he sees in Kherson have no power and are already dangerously cold.
And shops in places like Krematorsk and Mykolaiv are closed, which means those living there are dependent on humanitarian aid, he said.
“I think people are afraid of what’s coming next,” said Johnsen, who is part of a medical evacuation team that’s been working in Ukraine’s war-ravaged eastern regions. “In the worst case, people will die and will freeze to death.”