From the outset of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he and his generals have displayed a casual indifference to the fate of civilians, for example, with attacks on housing. But only in recent weeks has he pursued a calculated and consistent nationwide policy of targeting power plants and other utilities to deny light, heat, and clean water to ordinary Ukrainians, even as the nights close in and the cold of winter beckons.
These are early days, but the response has been impressive and moving. Ukrainians have worked together to collect wood, remove lightbulbs and refire unused furnaces; they are determined not to let him break their resolve.
The Russian attacks on energy infrastructure not only left frontline and eastern cities without electricity and water, but western communities as well. In total, around 40% of the country’s power production capacity has been offline as a result of the missile strikes, and there have been rolling blackouts. Lviv, for example, had no electricity in 90% of the city on October 31. Critical services reacted immediately and the city functioned as normal the next day, but the attack served as a warning of the hardships ahead.
Such widespread destruction has obvious goals: to deprive Ukrainians of heat and communications, while disorienting them and exposing them to cold. Russia can be expected to continue this offensive, seeking to inflict damage that will have more serious consequences and provide greater problems to those repairing affected facilities.
“We will have difficult times in the near future, therefore we all need to prepare, firstly, for saving electricity, and secondly, for possible rolling blackouts if the strikes continue,” Kyryl Tymoshenko, deputy head of the President’s Office, said in a TV broadcast. “The Russians aim to intimidate the Ukrainian population, to cut off water, electricity, and heat in winter. The population should prepare.”
In Lviv, Mayor Andriy Sadovyi called for the establishment of heating points with solid-fuel stoves (burzhuika) in the basements of 10,500 apartment blocks and other residential buildings across the city, where people will be able to go if their heating fails. Lviv’s authorities have spent 20m hryvnias ($542,000) on firewood, and the company that supplies water to the city has bought generators to prevent pipes from freezing.
The city, which is keeping a register of the warm shelters, is also running an information campaign to prevent panic in case of any escalation in Russia’s attacks.
While owners and managers of condominiums follow the mayor’s instructions to ensure their neighbors will be safe, their residents are collecting firewood and buying stoves and electric generators so they can cook, keep warm and charge electronic equipment. People are also removing excess bulbs from light fittings and understand the importance of every sacrifice of convenience, however small, as it gets darker on the streets and colder in their homes.
Ivan Rudnytskyi, who has been a deputy at Lviv City Council for 27 years and works for the body responsible for its water and heating services, said that many with family and friends outside the city may be able to leave for the surrounding villages, but the city has to consider those who have no option but to stay.
A town is being built for displaced people who were forced to leave their homes and cannot return. Lviv City Hall said displaced persons will be housed in eight two-story blocks adapted for winter habitation with living quarters, bathrooms, and dining rooms in a single building. The Polish government will hand over additional modular containers to Lviv for the construction of the new town. Containers from the dismantled town will also be used.
Another important step in winter preparation has been to equip medical facilities with generators. At the city’s largest hospital, engineers are working to recommission a wood-fired boiler, which has been out of use for many years, and the council has allocated funding to ensure care can be maintained if electricity supplies fail.
As officials and ordinary citizens work around the clock to make preparations, there is an expectation in the air that this will be the hardest winter for 30 years — a feeling that is matched by a determination to withstand all the coming challenges and win.
There will be aid from the West — which is sending energy infrastructure technical assistance and advanced surface-to-air missile systems to bring down the Russian and Iranian drones targeting Ukraine’s infrastructure. But it won’t be enough.
The country has been implementing emergency and planned blackouts, and everyone knows this is only the beginning. The whole nation is uniting to provide opportunities to warm up and survive the winter, a mission that should, in time, become a catalyst for changes in future energy policy.
Kateryna Panasiuk is an author and journalist studying politics at the Ukrainian Catholic University. When war came to her home, she chose to do what she knew best and started a volunteer project to collect and share stories of Ukrainians affected by the war.
Mykyta Vorobiov is a freelance journalist studying politics at the Ukrainian Catholic University. Forced to leave Kyiv when war broke out, he has since combined work at Lviv City Council with coordinating a journalism project and editing articles.
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.