If you need an illustration of how everyday life in Ukraine differs from the rest of Europe, consider the elevators.
Power cuts brought on by Russia’s attacks against the civilian energy infrastructure are now so frequent, so long and unpredictable, that people are often stuck in elevators for extended periods. Residents of apartment blocks have therefore started leaving boxes with food and hygiene items, such as baby diapers, in elevators for their neighbors in case they are trapped.
Life is difficult across Ukraine. My mom, who is in her 70s and lives in a town in Western Ukraine, now leaves her sixth-floor apartment only when it’s strictly necessary. It reminds her of Covid lockdown, she says, but it’s worse.
When we spoke recently, she said they had neither electricity, nor running water because the water pumps fail when the power fails. The Mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in Western Ukraine, has urged residents of apartment blocks to move to villages for the winter; it would be easier to survive there in case of power cuts which might last “for days”, he said.
Nine months after the start of the Russian full-scale invasion, Ukraine is bracing itself for the most difficult winter in its post-independence history as Russian missile attacks on its energy infrastructure intensify. On November 23 alone, Russia fired 70 missiles across Ukraine, plunging the capital Kyiv into an almost total blackout and forcing its residents to queue for water and to use snow melt, as the water supply failed. A week earlier, on November 15, more than 100 Russian missiles were fired: the biggest attack since the start of the full-scale invasion. On November 27, President Zelenskyy warned there were more attacks to come.
The Kremlin truthlessly intones that its missiles are aimed at military targets, but like much of its propaganda, this is transparently false. Vladimir Putin and his generals, cheered on by the propagandists who nightly demand attacks on the civilian population, aim to reduce the country to a pre-modern state, without any of the amenities of 21st century life. They hope to bomb Ukrainians into submission.
As a result of Russia’s assaults, which have been underway since early October, half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged, officials said. Entire cities are plunged into darkness from afternoon until morning. Streetlights go off, entire buildings are doused in darkness, and pedestrians use headlamps to be seen. Internet and mobile connections are spotty, and there are disruptions with heating and water supply. People in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities and villages stock up on candles, non-perishable goods and, if they are lucky and wealthy enough, portable phone batteries and generators.
Prices for these have skyrocketed and there are acute shortages. Some of my Ukrainian friends have asked me to bring them power banks as Christmas presents from abroad. Some others are planning to flee abroad themselves, joining millions of Ukrainian refugees, as life is becoming increasingly difficult.
Many Ukrainians experienced electricity cut-offs in the early 1990s, when the young country suffered a severe economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet regime. I remember how we played candlelit card and board games with my parents and sister: for a child, these were enjoyable moments, but as an adult I never wished my children to go through anything similar. Too late; the new generation of Ukrainian kids has already seen things much worse than this.
But if the Kremlin thinks that Ukrainians are weakening and that the cold and the hardship it inflicts will cause a collapse in the will to fight, they are badly mistaken.
It’s exactly the experience of hardship that helps Ukrainians to resist today, when their country faces a threat to erase its existence. Ukrainians will not surrender so much as an inch of their territory. Ukraine is winning on the battlefield and people are aware that Russian missile attacks are a sign of desperation.
Recent images from liberated Kherson, which has been under Russian occupation for eight months, make plain how Ukrainians feel: there were jubilant scenes, kisses, and flowers for the soldiers, grannies pleading with them “never to leave us alone again.” There were Ukrainian flags, hidden under the pavement tiles, dug out and reinstated on the streets.
And, inevitably, as the Russians retreated, more atrocities were discovered: the sites of torture chambers uncovered, the bodies of the executed exhumed from mass graves. Just as in Bucha, Izyum, and every other town where the Russians have set foot.
That’s why Ukrainians know they cannot surrender: they know Russia’s victory would bring greater repression, along with still more death and destruction. Seeing these atrocities makes them even more determined to defend their right to live in a free, independent, and democratic country.
The world must stand with Ukraine, despite the fatigue and the approaching winter. The democratic world has sent more and better air and missile defense systems and they are working well. But Russian and Iranian missiles are still getting through, and more help is needed to protect the surviving infrastructure.
Ukraine is asking for more military equipment, such as advanced combat aircraft, main battle tanks, and longer-range ballistic missiles like ATACMS. The mere presence on Ukraine’s territory of weapons capable of destroying Russian missile launcher sites would serve as a powerful deterrent, Ukrainian officials believe. While weapons systems have been arriving, the pace of supply makes little sense unless our Western friends are still more worried about the defeat of Russia than about the defeat of Ukraine.
Such a judgment would be flawed. Ukraine will fight on regardless. Our people have already made the choice that “It’s better to live without electricity if it means living without Russians.” This quote, from President Zelenskyy, is repeated every day, like a sermon, by millions in the darkness of Ukraine.
Olga Tokariuk is a Ukrainian journalist, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, and a non-resident fellow at CEPA – the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.