Russia wants to break Ukraine with the cold and dark. It hasn’t succeeded – so far
Russia wants to break Ukraine with the cold and dark. It hasn’t succeeded – so far
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Russia wants to break Ukraine with the cold and dark. It hasn’t succeeded – so far

Relentless attacks are cutting off power, heat and water. Civilians will need the west’s help to survive the winter

On 17 November, Kyiv woke to its first snow of the winter, the now familiar sound of air-raid sirens and explosions, and the news that, yet again, scores of Russian missiles were cutting through Ukraine’s skies headed for power plants and electricity substations.

The destruction of civilian infrastructure is meant to paralyse Ukrainian cities, but has led instead to a new buzz of activity as people try to adapt. Walking through the capital, you tune in to the hum of generators outside cafes that hint cooked food may be had. Other eateries have switched to cold menus and pre-brewed filter coffee, kept warm in a flask.

It’s similar elsewhere; in Lviv, basement cafes double as bomb shelters bathed in candlelight. On a larger scale, the national railway has revamped its ageing diesel fleet to replace electric locomotives, and cities are preparing thousands of generator-powered warm rooms where people can escape the cold and charge their phones.

But even as individuals and businesses find creative ways to respond, it’s impossible to escape the effects of Russia’s missiles and drones. Ukraine says attacks have disabled nearly half of the country’s energy system, increasingly cutting off heat, light, water and communications. Hospitals having to run on back-up generators means countless postponed operations. Water supplies are disrupted and blackouts curtail working hours for businesses, whose survival is vital for an economy likely to shrink by a third this year. Ukraine’s $7bn IT sector, a rare success despite the war, may go into reverse unless it gets the uninterrupted electricity and high-speed internet it needs.

In suburban Kyiv, Oleg has had no work for his theatrical stagedesign business since the invasion. But he faces soaring costs to ready his home for winter, and the worst three months of subzero temperatures begin about now. The backup generator in his garage guzzles six dollars worth of gasoline an hour. He has to buy firewood and use car batteries to keep the heat pumps running.

The closer to the fighting, the more extreme efforts to adapt have to be. Viktoria, a hotel owner who fled to western Ukraine from Sviatohirsk, recalls finding the Donbas town barely functioning when she went back to visit in October, after Ukrainian forces had regained control. Neighbours told her that after weeks without power, local authorities offered to rehouse them in the town’s hospital, the one place with stable electricity.

A humanitarian winter crisis will drain both Ukrainian and western resources.

When Russia began systematically bombing Ukraine’s infrastructure in September, after battlefield setbacks, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his people would always choose freedom over electricity or heating, and nearly three-quarters of Ukrainians agree. But even if the Kremlin cannot freeze Ukrainians into doubting their government’s capacity to protect them, a humanitarian winter crisis will drain both Ukrainian and western resources. That will be exacerbated if more people flee, adding to the 6.5 million already displaced within Ukraine and nearly eight million Ukrainian refugees in Europe.

If Russia succeeds in rendering parts of Ukraine uninhabitable, costs will grow further. Hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by the cold and dark would leave a huge gap in an already battered economy. As in the eastern Donbas war zone since 2014, the better-off people would leave first; those most vulnerable would remain in place, and – with the economy disrupted and private support networks scattered – they would increasingly depend on humanitarian aid.

Resources that help Ukrainians adapt rather than leave therefore represent money well spent. At a national level, top of the list is air defence. Ukraine’s systems have already grown more effective thanks to western support, but even a much-strengthened air defence will be stretched if Iran ships hundreds more missiles and drones to Russia, as western officials suspect. Ukrainian forces also continue to face some shortages of cold weather gear, and its western partners could continue to help fill those gaps.

In addition to war-fighting support, there are many other ways international organisations and sympathetic governments, companies, municipalities and individuals can help. Ukrainian energy providers say they are running out of equipment to restore power plants swiftly, making outages ever longer. They need spare parts, building materials and machinery – but also logistical aid in scheduling blackouts efficiently.

Civilians need blankets, boilers, ovens, heaters and generators – or, where there is a functioning market, just money they can spend on what they need most, such as expensive fuel. Those worst-hit need roofing and glazing, or at the very least plastic sheeting, to survive in damaged homes. These relatively simple and uncontroversial kinds of aid can make the difference between staying or leaving.

The onset of winter is a good time to revamp the response to Russia’s continuing invasion, with a combination of generous government aid and direct support from public and private aid providers.

Western cities and institutions can support their Ukrainian counterparts. It is also a good time to combat the fatigue in private donations and put aside political bickering over international aid that could lead to assistance arriving too late. As Russia tries to use civilian suffering to turn the tide of a losing war, mitigating that suffering should be Ukraine’s partners’ priority.

Read the full article on The Guardian's website.

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