As Winter Bites, Russian Missiles Threaten Ukraine’s Power Supply

By Brian Dooley

KHARKIV:  Ukraine’s winter has begun, bringing new threats to its cities already battered by eight months of rocket attacks.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city, is at the far east of Ukraine, close to the border with Russia, and relies on humanitarian aid arriving from the west of the country.

Back in August we reported from Kharkiv about fears for the coming freeze. Although November has begun relatively mildly, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, they are likely to fall to minus ten degrees Celsius and below for much of the coming months.

The cold and snow will threaten supplies coming to the city by road, and even Ukraine’s resilient train service grinds to a halt if the weather is severe enough.

At the same time, Russian missiles bombarded the city, as they have virtually every day since the invasion in late February. The UN has recorded over 6,000 Ukrainian civilians deaths in that time, including hundreds in the Kharkiv region.

Missile attacks are increasingly concentrated on Kharkiv’s power supply. Energy saving is already in place — one of the city’s hospitals, for example, has been running on reduced voltage levels to save power. There’s virtually no street lighting in the city, and people walk the dark streets using flashlights from dusk until the 10pm curfew.

Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv has also been hit by attacks on its power grids. Those of us in the city last Monday morning spent four hours in bomb shelters as cruise missiles hammered Kyiv’s energy infrastructure. Locals were forced to queue for water after the attacks, and authorities have scheduled blackouts across the city to save electricity.

 For some weeks, authorities have urged refugees not to return to Ukraine until the spring to reduce the burden on the power supplies.  Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told those living away: ”do not come back…the [energy] networks will not cope.”

Some living in the big cities plan to escape to houses in the countryside and burn wood for fuel. Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko warned this week of longer blackouts, and that residents should be prepared to evacuate the city “to family or friends outside Kyiv, where there is autonomous water supply, an oven, heating…please keep in mind the possibility of staying there for a certain amount of time.” For those who depend on internet or must be in a city for their work, that’s a tough move.

Some suggest the country’s energy grid is on the brink as the country stares into a crisis. On Sunday night President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned of “mass attacks” on the country’s infrastructure, and said over 4 million people in Ukraine are currently without electricity.

Kyiv Mayor Klitschko declared this week that the Russian aggressor’s “task is for us to die, to freeze, or to make us flee our land so that he can have it,” and announced that at least a thousand emergency heating shelters are being set up across the city for people to keep warm.

Ukrainian and Russian military experts know the weather can determine the outcomes of wars. Wind dispersed the Spanish Armada off the English coast in 1588, and a tornado saved Washington from the British in 1814. Rain was a turning point at the Battle of Passchendaele during the First World War while a short ridge of high pressure calmed the seas enough to enable the D-Day landings in World War II.

Sun Tzu’s ancient military treatise The Art of War, written in the Fifth Century BCE, declares that the weather:  “…cold and heat, times and seasons” is one of five constant factors governing wars.

Russia should know better than anyone how invasions die in the snow after Napoleon in 1812, and Hitler in 1941, tried and failed to take and hold Moscow. In Ukraine, Russia’s occupying forces have sustained significant losses and pushbacks in recent weeks, and their soldiers will struggle in the winter cold.

Meanwhile, the civilian mood in Ukraine’s two biggest cities remains one of defiance and resilience. Some in Kharkiv are finding cash to buy generators (diesel models cost around $2,000) in case the electricity grid fails, and others joke they will cope by huddling over candles and hugging. But the threat is real, and surviving in the cities is becoming a serious challenge.

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Published on November 7, 2022

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